Sierra gets out of school 45 minutes before her older siblings. Sometimes we wait at the school and play; sometimes she comes back to my office and draws, reads, or does math problems. Yesterday, I had decided that we would wait at the school since I had work that could be done on my laptop and the weather was fairly nice. The kid who frequently gripes that “there’s nothing to do at your work” was predictably disappointed that we were staying at the school.
“I wanted to work on my picture!” She waved a large piece of white paper partially decorated with bands of green and blue (presumably grass and sky.)
We stayed at the school, but instead of going to the playground, sat at the wide benches in the breezeway so that she could use one as a table. Sierra unrolled her crayon case, pointing out the new “graphite pencils” and a couple of colored pencils that I may not have seen last time. Sierra may be a butterfly most of the time, but art is serious business, and she treats her supplies with professional gravity.
On the first side of the paper, she filled in a house and a row of tulips standing sentinel. “Are there clouds in Christmas,” she asked me as she pulled her black block crayon from its slot.
“If you want,” I answered, not bothering to point out that there aren’t generally tulips in Christmas. “The weather can be however you want.”
She decided that it was snowing, and that some of the snow was melting – the melting snowflakes were depicted by larger and partially open circles. Once she’d finished the main picture, Sierra flipped the page over to practice writing.
“HIY” she drew in full-page, yellow block letters. She looked up at me. “H-I-Y, does that spell ‘hi’?”
“Well,” I paused. I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker. I hate disappointing my kids when they’re proud of something they’ve done. But, we’ve never been fans of unearned praise or of letting mistakes slide by. “Hi doesn’t have a Y at the end.”
“Oh. I thought it did.” Sierra giggled and pursed her lips, pulling out a blue crayon.
I tried not to cringe as she began to cross out the Y with broad strokes. I hated seeing her “wreck” her work. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything, I thought. She was doing so well on the picture. Sierra kept coloring, and slowly I noticed that the blue was keeping the inverted triangle shape of the Y.
“I’m making a blueberry ice cream cone,” she said, pulling out a brown crayon. Carefully, she outlined a cone around the bottom of the triangle, cross-hatching the cone over the ice cream. “With cherries because they’re yummy,” she added, drawing small red circles, each with a gracefully curving stem, one after the other, on the mound of blue.
“Do you like my picture, Mommy?” Sierra asked me as we walked toward the upper grades’ classrooms.
“I do. I especially liked how you turned the Y into an ice cream cone instead of just crossing it out when you messed up.”
“Teacher told us that we can turn mess-ups into something beautiful.”
Sometimes it feels as though one mess-up has ruined the entire picture. We want to crumple the page, throw it in the trash, and start over. We want to obliterate the memory of the wrong letter, wrong word, wrong choice. We’re embarrassed and ashamed that we “made a mistake.”
But, when we shred our mistakes, scribble them out, and turn away, we lose not only the opportunity to create something beautiful, but we eliminate the whole other side of the picture. When we crumple our “mess-up” and throw it into the trash, we also lose the house and tulips, the gently falling snow with the beauty of the improbable blue sky and sun.
Sometimes when things go awry, we want to forget, to “move on,” to “get over it” as quickly as we can. We call this healthy, this jettisoning of the “bad.” But, it doesn’t work. Our experiences, like our pictures, are too complex; they are mixtures of beauty and pain, light and shadow, triumph and failure. When we ditch the part that hurts or shames us, we risk losing the lessons we have gained.
In When Things Fall Apart, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes of “the four maras,” saying “What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. What may be an arrow or a sword, we can actually experience as a flower.”
She goes on to talk about obstacles at “the outer level and at the inner level.” You know the outer level – we all do. It’s that sense of blame. Who was wrong. Who has hurt us. Who gets in our way. But, of the inner level, she says:
…perhaps nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. Perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. Maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. But, what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.
Wait. So, pain, loneliness, loss, disappointment – those won’t go away until I’ve learned what I need from them? Crap. I can’t just crumple up the picture, throw it away, and start a new one?
Think about it. Think of a recent loss, argument, accident. Would you really jettison everything that led up to that point? Do you really want to throw out the ‘good’ to get rid of the ‘bad?’ Can you even tell which parts are good and which are bad?
Maybe all of it has the potential to become something beautiful – even the ugly mess-ups. Even the endings. Even the failures. Maybe we just need to choose a different crayon.