I came in from my 10-foot commute once and my 3-year-old looked up from his snack and said, “What did you make today, papa?”
It took me by surprise, as I had always assumed that when I was out of sight I was out of mind. (I now know that children seem to be most interested in you when you’re not around. When you’re actually around, they love to ignore you.) “No, he asks about you all the time,” my wife said. “He always wants to know what you’re doing. I tell him, ‘Papa’s out in his studio making things.’”
I can’t remember if that day I’d actually made anything. Some days I don’t, you know. Some days, the sad, pathetic days, it’s just answering e-mail and thinking about all the things I should be making and how I’m not making them.
But rarely does a day go by when my son doesn’t make something. I envy his setup and his habits. His mom has placed all the supplies within easy reach. He doesn’t torture himself. The goal is simple: There is a car-carrier truck that doesn’t exist that needs to exist. He sets to work with clear purpose and utter concentration. There is frustration, occasionally, but it usually passes. And when he’s done, he’s done, and it’s off to something else.
I try my best to copy the approach. First, I try to be my own mother: leave the workspace tidy, pens and notebooks at hand. Then, I try to be him: I try to go at it with his intensity, but also his indifference to the results. I fail more often than not.
“I learned so much about art from watching a kid draw,” said John Baldessari, former grade-school teacher. “Kids don’t call it art when they’re throwing things around, drawing—they’re just doing stuff.”
Almost every parenting cliché I’ve ever heard has turned out to be true. This makes it hard to add anything original. (Originality is yet another thing my son has never worried about.) Kay Ryan says a poet’s job is to rehabilitate clichés, but I sure don’t envy those who write parenting memoirs. All I feel I can offer is corroboration of the cliché: Sunday will be my fourth father’s day and I’m still learning and I still feel like he’s teaching me more than I’m teaching him. He’s asking me all the questions I should be asking myself.
“What did you make today, papa?”