Maybe She’s Born With It

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On my first Christmas, my father presented me with a beautiful, hand carved cradle for my dolls. He drew out the plans based on colonial cradle designs, cut a large piece of maple into complementary shapes and angles, working extra hard to make sure the pieces fit together well. He then carved in a daisy motif, which was a signature of many of his woodworking projects in those days, not to mention the flower of the times. He meticulously hand-painted the daisies, sanded and stained the wood to a smooth, shiny finish, and placed it under the Christmas tree that year with a bow and my name on it. Toddling over to admire the gift, I was almost small enough to fit in it myself, but I enjoyed endless happy years of carefully wrapping my baby dolls in blankets and rocking them to sleep in that cradle with a gentle mother’s touch. As I grew into a teenager, the cradle sat quiet, more a decoration and reminder of my early childhood until one day I moved out on my own, and it was time to pack things up.

As an Air Force brat, and then later as an adult, I’ve moved many times, always carrying this heirloom with me. From time to time I’ve wondered where I could put it on display, how I could release it from its cocoon in the basement and appreciate it out in the open. Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about pieces of my father’s woodwork. They are absolutely priceless to me. If he has built it, refinished it, painted it, or bought it at auction for 75 cents forty years ago, it is a priceless treasure to me – one I refuse to part with, once in my possession.

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Until now. Having only ever been a boy-mom, I will have a daughter of my own in less than a month. I’m nervous. I’m sure things will be quite different this time around. We will connect differently, she and me, and that’s both beautiful and terrifying to imagine. I am wonder-filled, thinking about her. Will she have my hair? My eyes? Will she look more like her father’s side or like me? What else will I pass down to her? Some of my worst traits and tendencies, some of my talents and aspirations? I know that in so many ways she’ll be a completely different person – and in other ways she’ll find someday, hopefully not lamenting, that she’s “just like her mother.”

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This weekend, I finally found occasion to rip the paper and bubble-wrap shroud from my beloved cradle (with the enthusiastic volunteer help of my youngest son) in preparation to give it away to the daughter I already love and have not yet met. After polishing each angle, curve, and sunflower to a brilliant maple glow, I set it in the sunny grass to admire it. I wonder if Elise will love the smell of fresh cut grass like I do? I hope she likes to play with dolls. And I hope she knows just how loved she is. For now, who she will be is still wrapped up in one magnificent little mystery.

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How do you spell love?

Last week, my mom-group at church responded to a challenge to connect with our children in different ways than we had the previous week. The study suggested four areas; making

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“dates” (intentional plans for fun) with the kids, establishing meaningful routines, loving ‘as you go’, and just doing nothing – letting your child choose an activity to do with you for, say, one hour. Our table group discussed our individual areas of strength and identified the areas on which we’d like to concentrate, then promised to share results the following week. This would be a fantastic challenge for a creative type!

The first evening, my commitment to the challenge was fresh in my mind. I told Joe about it, and after dinner we asked Luke what he would like to do. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he knew, immediately and exactly, what that would be; the whole family should dress up like cowboys! The boys have a small chest of costumes, but nothing that would dress our whole family. We raided Joe’s office and found sheriff’s badges for the boys and a piece of lace for my pathetic makeshift lady’s hat (really a foam top hat from the boys‘ costume chest). After dressing up and snapping a couple of pictures, Joe and Luke ran around the house playing cowboys while I sat down with a disinterested-in-cowboys Seth and played with blocks.

This first night of the challenge was a smashing success! It had been my primary goal area to spend this kind of do-nothing time with the boys. I’m pretty good at planning outings, walks, play dates and, with Joe’s help, some great family excursions. I also work extra hard to keep our apartment tidy with no dishwasher and the laundry three flights down and three buildings away. Everything seems to take twice as long! I try every day to steal moments – sitting on the couch to cuddle and watch a cartoon, or sitting on the floor to play or read books. But then I wrestle with the feeling I should be doing something productive. As if connecting with my sons isn’t. But I was inspired to add to the repertoire asking each boy what he would like to do, and then joining in the plan and the play.

Over the next few days I had the opportunity to start – or restart – a couple of meaningful routines with the boys. First, although we do have a good night time routine going, I decided to make more of a routine of Seth’s naptime. I started sitting with him and singing songs, reading books and talking with him one on one before tucking him in. His beaming smile (he still doesn’t talk much) tells me that he is pleasantly surprised with the extra mommy time. Then, remembering that the collection of preschool work and activity books I’d bought to teach Luke had gone largely untouched since well before Christmas, I began to work with him each afternoon while Seth napped. It’s been so great to celebrate what he’s learning and marvel at what he’s already learned, and I felt like a teacher again! These have been great bonding moments for the two of us.

As I glance down at my workbook, anticipating tomorrow’s sharing of our group’s new ventures and adventures, these words jump from the page: “Love is spelled T-I-M-E.” Time spent creating, playing, learning, discovering, cuddling, talking and just being. Together. Nothing in the whole world says “I love you” like sitting down to meaningfully connect with someone else while you tune out the screeching, grasping demands of the rest of the world.

Afterthoughts can be the best kind!

Just had a quick one to share today. Joe came home from school and was showing the rest of us some of the work he’s been doing in his watercolor class. It was so neat to see the steps he had gone through to practice the technique. I absolutely love watercolor, and I understand it is pretty difficult to master. We have one acrylic painting in our house that Joe did years ago. It is a perfect, simple red flower that we ended up scanning as a screen for one of our Ransom Paid women’s t-shirts. We also once took rough pen sketches Joe had drawn and cut them to fit tiny gilded frames on our mantle. But I would love to have the whole home filled with his art, not these lame Target elephant and giraffe prints from about seven years back – do you know the ones?

Luke, of late, has taken to taping up every pencil drawing, coloring page, or painting of his on the walls and halls throughout our home. We are proud to celebrate his work this way. But when Joe showed Luke and me one of his watercolor exercises from class, and Luke heard me begging Joe to let me frame it, he caught on to the idea that very special works are sometimes kept in frames. He immediately wanted his artwork displayed that way, too. I found an empty frame in the closet that just fit Joe’s work, and we put it up on the mantle this afternoon. It catches my eye every time I come in the room and I can’t help but admire the depth and light in it. (The photo doesn’t catch the detail of richness, unfortunately). By happy coincidence, while Joe returned some things from his show at Target later, I took the boys over to the $1 section where we discovered these kid’s frames designed to look like a baseball, football, soccer ball…oh I forget the fourth one. We picked out two, brought them home, and Joe found a painting Luke had done in December, sitting next to his Grandma Cheryl while she crocheted and we all chatted. A great memory and beautiful work all around. So now we have two new pieces of framed art in our house, and only one day after visiting the art museum. Fancy that!

Art is a Place.

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This thought struck me about three quarters of the way through our family visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). At the time, of course, art was quite literally a physical place. An inspiring place. A place, perhaps, that could conjure the creative spirit in just about anybody. The boys were spinning and dancing with wild abandon to raucous music booming from the stage set up on the patio breezeway. They had recently finished painting in the children’s art room, where Seth giggled with genuine surprise every time his brush hit the paper with a new splash of color and Luke worked hard to copy the elaborate painting of a dragon on the art room wall. Luke had already sat down three or four times during the day to pencil-sketch the art he saw in the many exhibit rooms or outside. He’d begun the day by grabbing my camera, as we know he is prone to do, and framing up great shots of the antique clothing his Daddy was studying. I so appreciated the museum for its inclusion of children, from the exhibit planning to the patient and considerate staff to the stunning parks and grounds where kids could take a break (and we were smart enough to take several of those with a two and four year old.) But it wasn’t just that – the physical place.

I believe art is a spiritual place, too – the specific frame of mind we employ when appraising or creating art. I heard a pod cast several months ago that stuck with me. In it, one of my favorite pastors contended that no human artist is actually creating anything unique. This was a jarring thought, initially, especially for a “creative type.” Most of us are familiar with Solomon’s wise words; “there is nothing new under the sun.“ In acknowledging God as The Creator of the universe and all its inhabitants, and humans as “made in his image,” the understanding follows that we not only are given our ability and desire to creatively express by God, but that since he himself actually created everything that ever was created, we are really only rearranging the elements of his creation. I found seventy-one million definitions for art in my internet search. This one stood out; “Art – creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature.” Plants and animals don’t make art. Not on purpose, anyway. It makes sense that humans have a universal desire to be known for something they’ve created, in light of all of this. God put it in our DNA. Of course it must be noted, too, that we have the (God-given) choice whether or not to honor him through our expressions.

Anyway, being there at the museum, taking in the many outstanding creations of humankind, I realized that art, for me, has also been a place – in time. When I took art appreciation in college I viewed a heck of a lot of slides on a projector before visiting The Art Institute of Chicago with my class. I darted through that place dead-set on my mission – to identify which artist I thought made the most beautiful paintings. Desperate to declare a winner, I was all but incapable of appreciating anything but beauty then. I quickly became a fan of impressionist painters because they expressed beauty through those many complex little strokes that are just multicolored blobs of paint up close. The work is barely short of miraculous. I also remember seeing some work by Picasso and not only dismissing it as “ugly,” but feeling almost offended that an artist would paint something so unrealistic and garish. Now, many years later, I again marveled over the workmanship of the impressionists and realists, still appreciating an artist’s ability to communicate what is beautiful with such grace and undeniable talent. And then – I turned the corner into his room. Before I was fully in the room my heart leapt up in my throat. I felt an incredible stirring well up in me, honestly almost inspiring tears. I shook off a shudder and glanced around to see if others had noticed my physical reaction. Yes, these people in the paintings were ugly. Distorted. Difficult to comprehend – no, incomprehensible. It seemed to me then that Picasso was speaking to – or about – a place in the human soul that is very complex. And even though I can’t begin to wrap my head around what that might have entailed, for him, I appreciated what it did in me. When Joe entered the room and caught my reaction, he said “I never knew you were a fan of Picasso!“ I am in a different place than I was at 19, to be sure. My two sons are at equally different places; one now sets out to develop the skill of copying the detail he sees in an object while the other belly-chuckles at his ability to smear a blob of red paint on a clean sheet of paper. It made me think that no matter what place we find ourselves, art is there.

Portrait of a four-year-old

It was an ordinary day. Joe’s brother Ben was visiting, which always means a perfect mixture of some great adventures, laughs and down-time for us grown-ups along with fun times for the boys with their uncle. Uncle Ben sat in the front passenger’s seat, Joe sat in the back with the boys, I handed him the digital camera I bring everywhere, especially when we have out-of-town visitors, and I drove. We stopped at Albertson’s for the elder brothers to hop out and pick something up. Unbeknownst to me, Luke had already started snapping away. He loves to snag my camera.

I have often wondered at his subject matter; the inside of his mouth, a messy bedroom floor, a building block on the dining room table, the patio railing. Sometimes his pictures inspire me; portraits of the beauty found in the ordinary. Sometimes they startle me, reflecting images I find ugly or un-photogenic. These latter images are, of course, more provocative than the first because they force me to consider how staged every photo I take is – how staged, then, is the life I chronicle? Home photographers a decade or two ago couldn’t afford to document and store the everydayness we do now. So when I find the camera after Luke has had it – again- I’ve come to realize that I have the unique opportunity to study what catches his eye, at three, now four year’s of age, and that is both enlightening and refreshing, if not bewildering at times (eg “he took seventeen snapshots of the cat‘s tail? Really?”)

Anyway, the snapshots I later pulled from the camera that day with Ben in town, tell a story; baby brother in a car seat. Two shots. Daddy’s “butt” as he climbs back in-between his two sons, one shot. One shot at condominiums through a kid-smeared-with-what?-window. Luke’s own legs dangling from a booster seat alongside his Dad‘s cramped knees. Three shots. And then there they were; eight self portraits.

With each photo, I marveled at Luke’s ability to turn the camera on himself to begin with, even centering himself quite well. (Frankly, I still can’t get the darn thing to aim steady after years of “self-portraits.”) Then I noticed what has captured my imagination ever since; a different expression in every single photo. Each shot, taken seconds apart, caught a completely different emotion than the last, totaling eight separate emotional states.

The first picture is a close-up of his smiling eyes and the bridge of his nose. I can even see the tiny hairs and lines on his face that are unrecognizable to the naked eye at a normal distance. This picture is on par with his usual “still life” shots or studies of the extraordinarily-ordinary. Most adults would not want a camera focused so closely on their faces, and it’s equally understandable that a child would not mind. Noting that, it is refreshing and beautiful. He has captured every God-given detail. He’s not mugging. Not hiding. Just himself, like kids are if you take time to know them.

In the next seven shots he ranges from pensive or unsure to delighted, destroyed, hopeful to genuinely happy to bewildered or distraught, until the last shot, where he once again shoots up close, smiling, happy. Everything he needs- to be what he will be – is contained in the tiny frame I hope very much not to underestimate. No person should be summed-up at only a first glance, I have known that for years. But the layers of that truth, itself, are as deep as the heavens of stars.

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“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.”
Psalm 139:14 (New Living Translation)

 

 
 
 

 

Educated Out of Creativity?

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

Joe and I were first introduced to TED talks almost three years ago, through this very presentation by a fellow educator and creative thinker. It had a profound affect on us then and has sparked many thoughtful conversations between us and with others about the kind of educational experiences we hope to offer our own children. I’ve also had time to reflect on my own years as a public school teacher; both the opportunities I took to spark creativity in my students and the impact of the system as a whole, including my role in it.  Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation is funny and thoughtful; well worth your time to watch him illustrate his contention that “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it – or rather, we are educated out of it.” As a creative thinker myself, I experienced both moments of profound joy in seeing my students take the risk to be innovative as well as moments of profound frustration when I saw evidence of how the system seems to work against students who are “different” in comparison with the goals and values of the system itself.  I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, so please feel free to comment.

We’re Halfway Where?

Livin’ on a prayer. Doesn’t exactly sound like shooting for the stars. But probably many a grad student, freelance or free-time artist shares what we have. Dreams. Big ones. Plan “A” (Amy makes six figures on a screenplay and Joe builds a career as a freelance costume designer) is on the back burner, still kindled by Plan “B” (we both throw all-in, whole hog – even reinventing the hog if not decorating it with some new clothes – and balance hope with a tight budget). No frills. No clock-in jobs, for now. No appliances in grad housing. Just the limits of our creative minds. And prayer.

We’re halfway through grad school, that’s where. And it’s scary. The choice for both of us to throw all-in draws every response from a sympathetic frown to an all-out intervention, even from ourselves. But if the dream of supporting a family on the merits  of our respective crafts is ever to be realized, we have to combine our efforts, multiply our use of talents and exponentiate results; and neither of us is a math person.

We’re the Kucharskis. Creative types. We laugh and play and paint and write with our boys, and that on a slow day. We’re halfway through the surreal life of grad school living. Halfway between the real world we left behind and the dream we’ve imagined. And what we’ve realized is that halfway is, for us, past the point of no return.