“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso
This morning I left the dishes in the sink longer than usual, in order to set up the painting table and let the girls loose on unsuspecting construction paper. Sitting side-by-side wearing only princess underwear, Caroline and Lexi painted at least 15 pictures each. I had them title their pieces (“Pictures don’t have names!” said Caroline), and after the girls got into it, works of art, including “Doggy, Froggy, Turtle, Duck” and “Funny Daddy” by Lexi; “Beautiful Stone Wall” and “Bamba!” by Caroline, lay drying on all available counter space. Our house is the Barnes Collection: pictures hang on walls above sofas, under tables, climbing stairwells. Caroline can now dispense scotch tape, so no place is safe from masterpieces. I could go upstairs to vacuum a hallway (hypothetical here) and come down to three new displays: two on the sliding glass door and one taped just below the stove’s front, left burner.
The girls love painting. I love watching them love painting. This morning I stood staring at them from the kitchen sink, grateful and happy.
The fact that Painting Pictures Day at home coincided with Picture Day at preschool was not a surprise to me. I was fully aware that the girls needed to be especially clean and presentable by 12:30, when I would drop them off. A bright orange post-it with “Picture Day!!!” had been stuck to my desk all week, like one of Caroline’s paintings. I had chosen outfits the night before— pink and brown jumpers in coordinating colors because I had paid 5 extra dollars to get a sibling shot—but what I had not anticipated was mutiny. Picasso’s Blue Period ran from autumn 1902 to spring 1904; Caroline’s Rainbow Period has been going full-tilt since March; her palette not confined to paper. At 11:45, both girls’ bodies were clear of paint, but the brown and pink of Caroline’s potential outfit was not speaking to her as loudly as the rainbow of colors on her long-sleeved striped shirt. I began to panic. I jogged down two flights in search of storage bins, rummaging for a solid-colored jumper that would match. The green just a notch next to “puke” on the color scale, was the only jumper she’d allow, so instead, I insisted she pick out a pair of pants (“NOOOOOOOO!) or a skirt to match the rainbow shirt, since the dark blue jumper that would have looked great, had constricted her breathing upon impact—I saw ribs. The blue jumper removal tousled Caroline’s hair dramatically; then a voice rang from the adjacent room. It was Lexi: “I want my poople (purple) dress! I don’t want go school!” Her cherub song skipped and repeated like a record turning, needle over scratched vinyl again, and again, and again. My girls were going to Picture Day, damn it, and they were going to look cute. This was Guernica.
At 12:10, when Lexi caught on that I could not find the car keys, she pretended that she’d hidden them. I asked, “Where are they keys, love?”
She answered, “Upstairs.”
I looked all around the upstairs and asked, “WHERE ARE THE KEYS, LOVE!”
She answered, “Downstairs.”
After searching the house twice, I wised up, grabbed the extra set of keys, and then found the initial set in the backseat of the car, where I’d left them all night. By the time I pulled out of the driveway, I was exhausted from having chased Lexi around the kitchen, a smidge concerned that new neighbors might have called Social Services as I stuffed my sobbing 3-year-old into her car seat, and ticked-off that we had not one tissue in the car, since both girls’ cheeks were tear-streaked. Caroline wore her striped shirt with grey skirt and tights. Lexi wore her purple dress with pink cardigan. We were so late, I had to walk them into their respective classrooms. One perk of car-line drop-off is that fewer people notice that you are jittery, your hair is unkempt, and your voice is hoarse from yelling.
Minutes later, when I went to Safeway to buy milk, I also picked up a couple of four-color ballpoint pens and two spiral notebooks—blue for Lexi and red for Caroline. They’d been writing a lot in Mommy’s notebook, so I thought this might be a nice time to give them their own, since I was feeling generous and completely debilitated by gnawing guilt. I happened to stand in line behind a parent I had seen minutes before in Lexi’s classroom. I introduced myself to her. She looked at me as if she’d never before seen me and then her eyes registered and she said: “Oh, you’re the one who asked if they clean faces before pictures.”
“Oh, ha…yeah. We had a little trouble getting there today.”
“For an afternoon class?” She slid her fingers through what looked to have been recently brushed hair, and then she turned slightly towards the checkout. The conveyor belt moved; the placed divider, a line drawn, separated her toilet paper from my retractable pens.
I’ve swum in the Atlantic and dipped my toes into the Pacific on the same day. I’ve sat in a movie theater, seen a two-hour film, and as credits rolled, I’ve had to think about it: “Where am I? What state am I in—Pennsylvania? Virginia? Florida?” Just this morning, soft sun slowly gathered around the colors in our kitchen. I sat in pjs squeezing light and dark blue, purple, and orange into empty egg containers. The girls and I were fresh and blending. But in the earliest turn of the afternoon, I was suddenly rabid and sweaty, dumping folded turtlenecks from storage containers onto our basement floor. What state was I in and how did I get there on that very same day?
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once she grows up.” Pablo Picasso
“Caroline, do you want strawberry or blueberry yogurt?”
“I would like strawberry yogurt and blueberry yogurt, please.”
My pediatrician suggested that I give my kids choices. Ask them if they want to leave the playground in two minutes or five—they’ll feel empowered, and I can take off whenever I like because they really don’t understand the concept of time. When someone wants to dress herself, give her options I can tolerate, and then let her make the call. She is wearing polka-dot leggings with a striped shirt, but at least she’s not naked and I can get to the gymnastics class once this session without missing the introductory bubble song. I have gotten out of a few jams by giving my girls choices, but sometimes, when I am at the supermarket negotiating for five more minutes of solid behavior, promising fruit snacks, I think with dismay that I am that mom, the one in the supermarket promising fruit snacks. Sure, my parents gave us choices, but the list was limited: You hurl a basketball through a pane of glass as your brother stands on the other side, pressing his face against the window–Belt or bare hand? You curse–Irish Spring or Cashmere Bouquet? Clean your room or get locked up in it for a week and half?
Choices. I once went on a research-vacation-adventure to British Columbia. I was teaching at a school where the administration encouraged us to spend summers broadening ourselves, in or out of our subject matter, so I played scientist, studying the migrating patterns of the grey whales. I was in a gorgeous part of the world and saw numerous whales, but I desperately wanted to see one breaching. One day out of the ten I was there, I was below the deck helping chef-up some chicken quesadillas when “Kate Moss,” one of the thinner whales, jumped high out of the water (this is second-hand storytelling), falling back on a beautiful angle, covering the observers with a wondrous wave. I heard the splash and gasps from below. It was one moment, one decision to sprinkle shredded cheddar on a sizzling tortilla. Talk about road less traveled: I was a three hour boat ride from a one hour puddle jump to Vancouver. I’d been living in a temperate rain forest: wearing knee-high rubber boots, forgoing showers, peeing from a makeshift toilet seat into a deep and narrow hole, sleeping solo in a tent, waking to the sound of sputtering whales idling by the shore. But I’d missed the breach, the big show.
Mary Anne Evans wrote, “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” I read Adam Bede in college, and it just about killed me, but it’s likely I wouldn’t have read a thing by Mary Anne Evans if she hadn’t chosen the pen name George Eliot. She changed her name in order to be taken more seriously as a writer, among other reasons, and she did well by it. We choose, and often we grow. Ask Adam (friend-of-Eve…not Bede)—it is what sets us apart from the rest of Wild Kingdom. We can make bad decisions: James Cameron probably shouldn’t have worn his hair like that at the Oscars. But also we can make what we see to be our best decisions: switching from Sony to Canon, going on an Australian lifestyle retreat, buying a 2007Volkswagen Eos, placing a child in the Education Center in Little Elm Texas; adopting a vegan diet; surrendering to Christ; retiring to Mexico. Some of us are remembered for a particular decision. Chris Webber in the 1993 NCAA match-up against North Carolina, with seconds left on the clock, University of Michigan trailing by 2, called a time-out his team didn’t have. North Carolina hit two free throws. Webber’s team lost the game, and basketball fans remember his mistake—not the 23 points and 11 rebounds he had in that same game—like political junkies remember Harold Dean’s scream in the 2004 Iowa Caucus. Most of us, though, do what we do, making decisions, living the consequences, without the world remembering, and often, without even remembering ourselves. I have no earthly idea what I made for dinner last Tuesday.
I do remember going to the gym last Friday. It was one of the best decisions I could have made because it had been a long week. I swam. I lounged in the steam room, then the hot tub. I was on that Australian retreat, minus the Gold Coast and the cattle stations. It was an hour just for me, and by the end of the hour, I missed the girls and was ready to retrieve them from the childcare room. They were both leaning on primary-colored cushions watching a show when I arrived, and right after I called their names, Caroline came towards me with arms open, a big smile. Lexi stayed put. Perhaps she hadn’t heard me? I called her sweet little nickname in my sweet mommy voice, but again, no response. Not even a head turn. Maybe we should get her hearing checked? Or maybe, just maybe, this bundle of love was completely ignoring her mother?
She was, in fact. It was the Backyardigans or me, and she had made her choice. She would not budge. She, the most obstinate of all creatures, would not allow me to put on her socks or boots without battling back with kicks and shrill, brash, guttural yawls. Her face turned flame-red; her eyes rolled to show only white. I picked her up—me Tarzan, she Jane—and tossed her over my shoulder, bracing Caroline for what was to come: “Get ready to run!” and we took off down the long hallway, past the basketball court, the bench press, the manager’s office, the water fountains, the lockers, and finally the front desk, where Denise, who usually provides a fresh towel and mildly-approving comments about the girls’ cherub faces or their matching Hello Kitty boots, looked at me in complete horror. I was sweating more at that moment than I’d ever sweat on a treadmill. I’d left the Australian retreat for the cattle station where feral pigs were devouring dead cows and man-eating ants were nibbling away at my toes. I put my screaming mass of a child down between soundproof doors and somehow talked her into putting boots on feet. We made our way home.
Lexi had made a decision and stuck to it. She does this often. Caroline calls it “independent” while her dad and I call it something altogether different. I will put Lexi in a pair of pants, and she will take them off just to put them on again. I will take her out of the car when it is pouring rain, in order to hurry the process along, and she will cry and squiggle in protest until I let her stand, and then she will crawl back into the car—those awkward Hello Kitty boots just in the way—so she can turn around and drop, dribble, or tumble out alone. My little Eve, willing and able to take the Fall all on her own.
I saw a documentary called This Emotional Life a few months back, and the segment that stuck with me had to do with making choices as it relates to happiness. There were two groups of people. One group sat in a room, looking at artwork lined on a wall. These people were told that they could each choose one poster and take it home. Members of the second group were also told they could take a poster home, but if they changed their minds, they could exchange one poster for another. The researchers found that the individuals who had only one choice—to take a poster home—were far happier with their decisions as compared to the members of the second group. A no-brainer, really. (Maybe I should be a scientist?) With choosing can come insecurity, worry, and doubt, but if you go to all of that trouble to pick one thing over another, just to turn around and trade it in, then you’re not going anywhere. I sometimes fantasize about shopping at the only supermarket in town, buying the only available brand of toothpaste. Life could be easier. But there are strip malls and walls of toothpaste. Yes, with choosing comes angst, but with a firm decision and a step in the slightest direction, comes potential growth and maybe even happiness—a brand new poster, whiter teeth, fresher breath.
I want my girls to have it all, but when I’m real, and when they are at the age when we can talk about these things, I will tell them to make a decision, as best they can, and stick with it. Lexi, do it with a yawl if you have to. Caroline, do it with manners, I don’t care. But once you make your choice, don’t waste time wondering what other life you might have led. What if you had gone to that school? Taken that job? Boarded that plane? I cannot lead you down a particular road, and as best I can, I will honor your decision-making. But whatever you do—after you have thought it through, after it’s done—I hope you choose happiness. I hope the only looking back brings you what is good about remembering.
I didn’t see the breach, but I tasted fresh salmon caught and cooked on a fire by a native fisherman. Each night a gathering of luminescent little organisms shimmered in the water as I brushed my teeth at its edge, while stars showered behind shadows of trees. Heavy morning fog sometimes broke into bright blue, sometimes not. I didn’t see the breach, but I stood on a sailboat, head-to-toe soaked with rain and sea, squinting to see what I could of the two humpback whales racing beside me. And I spent time in a kayak, waiting quietly for a grey whale to surface, holding my breath, looking around at the smooth water beneath me until—there—an echoing pop! and thundering show of water through a blow hole. Up that whale rose just inches away; I could nearly touch the scars and barnacles with my hand. My very own grey whale, slowly diving, just to resurface again and again and again.