The most difficult thing for me to witness as a parent is my Em taking a tumble, let alone tumbling down playground equipment. Yep, happened on Sunday. Yep, happened as soon as I gave her some breathing room and stopped hovering at the “Gitta” (her name for the playground). She was climbing up the ladder apparatus in the photo and, for perspective, the highest rung goes to my chest (I am 5′ 8″). On her third attempt down, she didn’t grab on with one hand as she stepped down, and she slid thunking her chin, lip and under her nose on the way down. I walked to her, quickly and calmly, though my heart was in my throat. I knelt down and hugged her as she began to cry, first in shock then pain. She asked me, “Band-aid. New Band-Aid?” I reassured her, “No Band-Aid. It’s okay”, as I checked her teeth and lip for splits and bruising. She said, “Hurts. Hurts.” I said, “I know; I’m sorry, my lady. What do you want to do now?”
Half a second later, what does she do? Does she go play on a safer piece of equipment? No, she immediately stops crying and climbs right back up that ladder. Ten times. With gusto. With determination. At each summit attempt, she held this I-am-Em-Conquerer-of-Playgrounds-and-All-That-I-Survey pose, climbed back down, then repeated the process. She almost slipped once, but caught herself and didn’t make that mistake again and hasn’t since.
I read recently that children do not feel self-pity. And, to the child, courage is a natural state. Unless an adult suggests (rather recklessly) to the contrary. Em is fearless; I am the one who carries fear for her (of her running into traffic, a dog lunging out and biting, of her falling, etc.).
In contrast, I am also a better whiner and complainer than writer. I know how to really put my back into both and then feel justified in the reward of a stiff drink or slice of cake afterwards. What if I get rejected, what if I’m lazy, what if I really don’t have talent or luck, what if I am irrelevant? Why do I have to deal with so-and-so when they are in my way? I don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done. I’m bored. I have to do research. I have to stay up late, again? Do I have to do yet another revision?
So, what would it be like to practice my art; to live with a day job while practicing my craft; to work with people who annoy me, I mean really set my teeth on edge; to have an injury; to be sick; to feel like I don’t have enough time, talent or resources? What would it look like to do any of these things, and all the many things with which I can take issue, but without self-pity, complaining and the excuse to wait for things to be better. I suspect it would look like gratitude. It would look like the present. The now. The doing-my-best-in-the-moment-with-what-I-do-have because my choices in the present (in action and attitude) are the foundation for my future.
I have learned this lesson the hard way: my choice to leave my first job out of college (in the arts) because it didn’t pay well is one I regret. I had daily personal access to poets, opera singers, ballet or contemporary dancers, thespians, and composers. Leonard Bernstein was one of our benefactors and artists. I naively chose money and went into retail (retail over the arts!!!!!) and so began my wilderness years of job hopping, all in the vain attempt to find myself where I am today. Would I be a published author/produced screenwriter by now? Who is to say? Perhaps, because it would have been difficult not to create under the gravitational pull of that constellation of working artists. After making that decision for a bit more money I didn’t create very much during those years of wandering because of all the self-pity and self-doubt that followed.
Now that I am an artist, I have choices to make every day when confronted with schedules and attitude. Is practicing my art work or play time (or even spiritual devotion)? If I fail to connect through my art or receive a note of criticism intended to make me a better artist, do I take a long period off to wallow in self-pity or wither up in excuses to not practice?
Ah, I want to be like Em. There really was no emotion or second guessing in her decision after she fell learning how to climb the big kids’ ladder. She got right back up and practiced over and over again and with joy until she conquered that mountain, bruised lip and all. She proves her greatness just from that act of trust in herself and commitment to mastering her play.