Rummaging in Their Minds
It is the custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtinesses and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.
Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
I am leafing through three piles of art work on our Deacons’ bench. These are sorted piles, placed here a few days after our children came home from their last day of school carrying armloads of art, writing, notebooks, pottery, posters, and other treasures. Nicholas, our oldest, has a relatively small pile, and his work is mostly writing, thematically linked to the long-term projects his class did during the school year. Julia’s pile, our middle child’s collection, is — well — in the middle. Taller than Nicholas’ but also less organized. A good deal of writing, but also more art work, exercises done with her teachers based on famous artists or derived from other topics they explored together. There are the lumpy items, visual aids from research projects as well as a few things that are unidentifiable. Always Julia’s art is done in the small. Often tiny carefully drawn intricate pictures will loop across a page. And then there is Elliott’s pile. Actually two piles, the second created once the first began to tip over. His piles are toppling with both impulsive and careful art; every scrap and bit of paper upon which he might have begun a drawing has been saved. Pages with large blank areas devoted to drawing first, and written narrative second, covered in large developing letters and phonetic spelling. His work is voluminous.
But mixed into Elliott’s pile of work from school, much of it work I am now seeing for the first time, are bits and pieces of unusual projects in various stages of completion. I am sorting through these familiar items now, lingering over each piece I pull out, each one evoking a sweet or not so sweet memory. This melange of strange items I know. I had a hand in each project, each cut, each item on these pages. These are projects he and I did together, during our just us hours.
I pull out a large piece of paper covered in animals of every neon hue. This one? This is one of my sweet discoveries.
Have you ever tried to work with duct tape? Its intended mission: to hold things together, quickly and securely. To bond things, contain them, despite their unusual shapes, their differing surface materials, and the forces that would push any two separate — but now adhered — items apart. This tape has one purpose: stickage. In less experienced hands, it is likely to be misplaced stickage. To use duct tape, you must be strong, because tearing the tape is difficult, and this is sometimes best done with your teeth. It requires exaggerated movements where you pull and stretch with large arm motions, unwinding it from the roll. And also, you must be careful. Because using duct tape requires keeping stickage at bay, avoiding adherence to your fingers, or to itself. Or to your hair.
But on this day, when I say work with, I am referring not to stickage but to the work of making, of creating, using this unorthodox medium. This work is about fine motor movements, not gross motor. It involves using a strange toolkit of scissors of different sizes, an old plastic cutting board, an Exacto knife. And bandaids. Lots and lots of band-aids. Along with a good deal of patience as Elliott sits next to me at the kitchen table, leaning in close over my shoulder, as I try to realize the shapes, colors, and ideas that he has envisioned for today’s art project.
How did this work begin? When I picked him up from his half day at school, as we skipped goofily, holding hands, across the schoolyard to my car, and after hearing about his day and telling him what we were having for lunch, I asked: “What do you want to do this afternoon?”
He thought between skips, because it is sometimes hard to have your best thoughts in midair, and announced: “I want to make a parade of animals. On a big piece of paper. With duct tape.”
An hour later, dirty lunch dishes still on the counter, the smell of once appetizing, now a bit sickly sweet, soup still in the air, I am hunched over, trying to figure out how to transfer the animals — increasingly smaller and smaller, more and more detailed creatures that Elliott has drawn with a pencil on paper as my patterns — into duct tape versions.
It all started out quite doable. A purple rounded, chubby-legged hippopotamus. My biggest challenge was removing the tape between the four legs without overshooting and amputating one. Or three. But then, it was as though Elliott was testing me for skill, and so began to add more small details and to make his shapes more intricate. I am now cutting orange polka dots for a neon yellow giraffe, legs and neck impossibly thin, and a quick curve between a sloping back into a small valley and then steep rise — for 2 millimeters — followed by a sudden sharp descent down to the tail. Working in duct tape makes every small curve, every change of direction, every detail a sticky gummy resistant fight away from a straight line. My blade skips over a groove in the cutting board and makes contact with my finger. I stick it in my mouth to hide the drop of blood and reach for my third bandaid.
“Sorry”, he says. Looking a bit embarrassed.
“It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt at all. I just don’t want to get any blood on your art.”
Compared to the dangers the last time we were crafting together, these little nicks are barely worth noticing. For that project, Elliott had announced that he wanted to make googly eyed pompom beavers. And then make cages for them. To keep them safe. He prefers to use bonding agents such as hot glue and duct tape instead of thread or regular glue or nails because of the immediacy of the stickage these more efficient options provide. But the real trick of that project? One I did not appreciate or think through as I agreed to work with the pile of scavenged art materials he put together while I made lunch that day. He wanted to use Wikki Stix, sort of a cross between a pipe cleaner and a very thin candle, their stiff inside encased in a sheath of colorful wax, to make the cage. And he wanted to hold the pieces together with hot glue. Heat, wax, glue, small pieces, bare fingers.
The question occurs to me: why do I do this? Why don’t I just say no, or require that he find another less sharp, resistant, sticky, or flammable material? Honestly, part of the reason is that I am having fun. This together time, the quiet hours we spend at a table creating something. Yes, something unusable and often not played with, something that will eventually end up being recycled. But that something is an object which represents the unstructured and free and silly time we have just us together. With a bit of a time limit, knowing that we must finish each project before his brother and sister come home from school because this focused singular task is unlikely to be able to be continued once they return. I love this and I have made sure I had it with all three children, tucked into moments that I protected for us while the others were napping or at school or while we were sitting in a hallway outside the door of someone else’s music lesson.
Elliott and I will always have our hours spent leaning over a project, our hair brushing up against each other’s, lying on our bellies on the floor recreating the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day parade using a peculiar combination of Schleich animals, Lego figures, and Playmobil accessories. We will always have the afternoon we spent giggling as we madly tore his room apart on a hunt for the pill bug who had escaped the clay cage Elliott had made for it. Of course he had been too eager to put the insect in it to wait to bake the clay until it was actually hard and able to effectively contain.
Just as Julia and I will always have our unfinished embroidered scraps of fabric and our sad and very short loopy knitted scarves. Her creating seemed to take on less of a creature theme and more of a materials and textures and bits and scraps and wildly chaotic, but admittedly beautiful, blend of patterns and objects and mosaics.
In retrospect, I don’t think most of my alone time with Nicholas was quite this strange. Before Elliott. And before Julia. Back then, with only Nicholas’ needs to meet, I structured his days carefully. Breakfast, and then an outing with friends or a music class or a trip to the playground, then home for lunch, and then a militantly enforced nap. Because I needed his nap even more than he did. And then quiet play time together in the afternoon. And during those afternoons we could lie outside on chairs and look at the clouds passing by and tell each other what we thought each one looked like. Wandering inside hand in hand to make dinner, eating it together with Daddy when he got home from work.
I remember it as being rather idyllic and quite quiet. It was not until dinner preparations involved a certain angry, fiery pink, and loud sibling in a sling or a bouncer or a Bumbo chair that things became chaotic. That’s when I think I let go some of the structuring and containing I did for Nicholas, and then I let even more go by the time Elliott arrived.
As I think, more of those alone moments with Nicholas are coming back to me: his fear of things that scratched and pulled, the terror of automatic toilets flushing, the anxiety in loud and dark places. Oh yes, there were things about Nicholas too that left me sweaty and undone. Beginning with being completely overwhelmed by just how in love and devoted I was to him when he was a newborn. But also, shopping for perfect pants that felt right, the ones without fasteners, and searching for some sort of undercap to wear beneath a helmet to prevent even the slightest possibility of his hair being snagged. And allowing him to maintain the mental disconnect between the churkey on his sandwich and the wild turkeys roaming the backyard, birds he loved to observe.
For Julia, there was her collection of incredibly small objects and bits left in tiny piles around the house, organized in seemingly random clusters, but in fact carefully divided into perfectly rational categories in her own head. And her insistence on unusual combinations of clothing whose only prerequisite — besides multiple patterns always being worn together — was that somewhere in the fabric there must be a bit of pink. And her request, when we drove to pick up Nicholas from preschool, that we have the sunroof open so she could wear her tall, pointy princess hat without crushing it against the car’s roof. But to please drive slowly so the wind would not blow it off.
With each child I have breathed deeply, taken a moment, reminded myself of the rationales for the strange, bizarre and unusual activities I undertook to maintain their feelings of security during times of change, transition and development, reminded myself of the meaning I could then make of their internal worlds by engaging in these moments with them. Then I would step forward and enter into these impossible missions with them. Maybe what has changed for me with each child is not the bizarre nature of these activities, but rather my patience for them. Now I sometimes need to remind myself of their importance, force myself to be focused and to protect this time, rather than being naturally drawn into these moments — willing, fresh, and better rested as I was with my first. I loved these activities then and I love them now. I love the response I get when I say yes to the most inconceivably imprudent suggestions Elliott generates. I may just need to remind myself of the joy a bit more frequently now.
And with a mother who lets more seep in to each day, who can’t always plan a day around a nap, who sometimes puts strange meals on the table too late at night. Elliott’s wanting to contain things in small boxes and dream up projects that are so intense, so demanding, so huge and unlikely to work that I, who so love him and want to have these special moments together would have to do nothing but that task, all other diversions falling to the background. It makes sense to me. Elliott may have needed to start to control things even more than Julia and Nicholas did, in ways that emerge that are so uniquely him, so wonderfully him, so revelatory of who he is. Which, in its own way, is such a gift, these bits and pieces of his internal world revealed to me.
On the night following the duct tape zoo, while I breathlessly whirled about the kitchen, Nicholas was sitting at the counter across from me, a large and organized binder, with a zipper to hold all of his middle school requirements and homework sheets and notices inside it, between us. In the course of minutes he asked me how to spell “occasionally” and “fertilization” and “dispersement” and then turned to the next section of his binder and asked me about the order of operations for algebraic calculations, and then turned to the next section and asked me if I knew if we have any plastic gallon jugs in the recycling.
Really, what in the world is happening in this place they call middle school? And why does it seem to create so many needs? I, not so successfully masking my annoyance, flusterment, and fatigue as I attempted to make an already tardy meal and answer all the questions flying at me from Nicholas, was stirring the risotto pot, swiping my iPhone with buttery fingertips to Google difficult words because apparently poor spelling is genetic. Meanwhile I was holding Julia’s Spanish homework in my armpit, trying as best I could to remove it when I had a free hand in order to use the English pronunciations that her teacher — bless you Señor Dan — provided so that linguistic ignoramuses like myself could at least try to help their children with their language homework.
Amidst this melee, Elliott walked up to me, at my hip as I stood in a cloud of busy at the stove. Using a voice that was tentative and a bit apologetic, he asked me, “Can I make a homemade tea bag?”
I remembered to take a deep breath as I looked down into his eyes, which I noticed looked a bit wide and perhaps a bit lonely. In his hands were two tissues and a bunch of snipped herbs. “How are you going to hold it together?”
“With staples around the edges,” he answered me, his timidity gone now that he had been met with an encouraging question rather than a dismissal. He hopped off without waiting for my answer. He was creating. Containing. Making something a bit difficult and for only questionably useful purposes. It’s what we do, he and I. We make that which others might not even attempt. I admit to wondering sometimes why we undertake the seemingly impossible. But I think I know.
The world is a very crazy and unpredictable place. Children begin to have an awareness of this naturally, opening their eyes and minds to it only when they are ready to handle it. Taking in only what they are able to tolerate. As parents, part of our work is to try to follow their lead, filtering as best we can until they are ready. There is a level of chaos run amok that parallels the minor chaos of our kitchen in our yard, our city, and our world. I find metaphors for this lunacy everywhere. In our hives, for example, our honeybees are behaving badly, or wildly, doing things like swarming, and robbing each other, superseding inadequate queens, and buzzing about our city collecting pollen from likely questionable sources.
And though Elliott does not know this, the world is an irrational, uncontrollable, unsettled place, and people sometimes behave badly. We keep this information from him, mostly, but my awareness of it impacts him in ways that neither of us can identify but are clearly there as I guide him away from the newspaper covers, close my laptop screen, and shoo conversations with his siblings into the other room to make sure we answer the questions from their more mature minds but maintain Elliott’s age appropriate world. Who knows what he has learned from listening to hushed conversations between the kids and I and between Jonathan and I about world events. But he certainly knows that there are things about the world that we feel he should not hear. And just the knowledge of an existence of such things is like knowing that there actually exists a Big Bad Wolf and that it is not just a creation for the purposes of a good story.
I think, perhaps, Elliott’s impractical creations, his work, his making, are his efforts to contain worries and wonderings, developments and transitions, expressed as unusual projects with sweet oversized googly eyes and cheerfully colorful hues, to contain them into things, into packages, into tea bags and cages and duct tape zoos. In the swirl of this kitchen, Elliott’s needs are just as important as the homework demands and the risotto pot and the Spanish pronunciation.
In a few years, when it is Elliott who is sitting across the kitchen island from me asking for help with his homework while I whip up that night’s meal and Nicholas is, gasp, off at college, and Julia is in the other room listening to music with her earbuds on, will it take me a few minutes to remember his just us projects since it took me a few minutes to recall them for Nicholas? Because, right now, it seems absolutely impossible that I will ever forget the duct tape parade. Yet I wonder.
And despite the fact that I find myself less and less frequently searching or attempting to create or find the impossible for Nicholas and Julia, despite their anti hair-pulling caps and princess hat obsessions, they are still those children who had those needs, and made those demands of me. I am still the mother who did those things for them. Having performed these Mission Impossibles when they were younger, has this changed our relationship with each other now? Was it worth it? At least they know I am the person in their life who will take on these tasks, lay out one pair of pants after another, search for the pair that feels just right and has no fasteners, drive slowly to allow a hat to stay erect, make dinner while speaking in poorly articulated Spanish syllables while trying to remember the differences between Greek and Roman civilizations.
I think I helped them contain their fears and worries, shored them up, showed them I was committed, was going to sit with them while terrifying toilets flushed and while wildly chaotic fabrics were chosen to help navigate an unpredictable world. Was going to dig in while things that were a little bit scary were put in admittedly ineffectual boxes. I am still doing this now, when I listen and reassure and try to create an easier world for them each evening in the kitchen. Where zippered binders contain homework fears, and where learning a list of words helps one speak in public. Where everyone would just move a little slower and more quietly if we were all sipping a warm cup of tea. Hopefully, I have helped them fold the scary up small and place these bits at the bottom of their minds and laid out the prettier thoughts to try on instead.
So, yes, I can push the pot off the burner for a few minutes and go search for a stapler. To make a tea bag that will likely sit on the counter after they all go to bed not quite sealed up and spilling its contents, unsteeped. But definitely not unused.
Sometimes, in a world gone crazy, with growing up on the horizon, everyone just needs the idea of a cup of tea. We are all trying to make ourselves something that we desire. Are all trying to make meaning of our world. During these moments, I get to make meaning of what they are motivated to create. The materials, the fasteners, the bonding agent may be flawed, it may come apart and release what was supposed to stay inside. But that is not really the point after all. It is the making that matters, making the projects, making them together, and making meaning of what we create. Heads leaned toward each other, holding, cutting, shaping, and gluing. Knowing it is not going to hold forever, but knowing we tried.
These two artifacts, the floppy tea bag and the rolled up, albeit slightly crumpled parade of animals, are now tidied and on top of his piles. I will bring down a bin from the attic later to stow them away. But for now, for the next few hours, I am going to lay them out, and give these prettier thoughts some air.