Accidental Artists

(by Ann Barrett) “Mommy, are kid’s movies real?”

Dante has just finished watching The Land Before Time, a video about a dinosaur named Littlefoot who, like most of his pint-sized viewers, grapples with the big issues of growing up: friendship, family, death, love. Dante is really into this movie, watching it over and over again, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, and totally focused, as if each viewing were the first.

“Did Cece and Sebastian tell you that?” I am convinced that my two older children have already told Dante that Littlefoot isn’t real, corrupting him with . . . the truth. That’s what they’ve been doing, telling him the truth, and Dante, not sure whether to trust them, has come to me, the “authority,” to confirm what he’s heard.

“Tell me what?”

“That kids’ movies are….” I struggle for a word, trying to place myself on a child’s level. What word would they have used? That they are. . . “pretend”?

“No…are they?” Dante doesn’t miss a beat. I chew on my bottom lip, trying to decide what to do. Dante, frustrated with my silence, persists. “Are they?”

“What?”

“Mommy! Are kids’ movies real?”

I look down at my son–the baby, only four years old–and lose myself in the depth of his dark, brown eyes. I see the innocence (it’s still there), but the innocence doesn’t want to be protected. I’ve seen this look before, with Cecelia and Sebastian, and I know this question is important. Dante offers me more than his normal split-second of patience to come up with an answer. He seems to realize that he has challenged me and, sympathetic to my inner debate, he’s giving me a fair chance do the right thing. This is important. My response may forever change the way he sees the world, and perhaps the way he sees me.

Lately, Dante has caught me avoiding his questions, giving half-answers or no answers at all. But Dante’s like a pit bull: once he sinks his teeth into something, he has a hard time letting go. If my first answer doesn’t satisfy him, he just comes at it from another angle; if I don’t answer today, he asks again tomorrow. Yet he never asks me why I dance in circles around some of his inquiries. Perhaps, having already been faced with the urge to lie himself, he understands. Yet he also senses my obligation. I have never lied to him, and he trusts me, but we are walking a thin line.

“MOMMY!”

Time’s up. I shut off my brain and spit out the answer. “Well, no. They’re not.”

Dante looks at me for a minute, appearing to study the words as they roll off my lips, then his eyes drift past me. The familiar creases forming on his forehead reveal, like a rippling curtain across a stage, the exciting process taking place behind. Lights, curtain, ACTION! Something is going on, a connection is being made. Dante sits down and plunges his thumb into his mouth–a sign that he is either satisfied or overwrought. I walk over to the sink and take a deep breath. Not deep enough, I think, neither the breath nor the answer.

I start to prepare lunch when, suddenly, Dante plucks his thumb from his mouth with a loud popping sound. “Are big people’s movies real?”

This time I don’t hesitate. “No, most of them are pretend too.”

Dante thinks about this for a few minutes before getting up. “Where’s my blankie?”

Dante is an “accidental artist,” a creative genius full of wonder and insight. Bombarding me with questions and exploring his dreams, he turns over every stone, and then turns it again to see what he’ll find. He is looking for something, trying to make sense of the monumental world around him, driven by a force so primal and instinctual that it’s beyond his control. Dante’s struggle, although very much his own, is familiar to me.

As a writer, I like to think that my primary responsibility is to seek out and reveal the truth. Usually, what appears on the surface–the first Answer–is not what I’m looking for. The “truth” I’m seeking is often buried under loads of irrelevancy, and at the risk of offending or agitating, I almost always have to dig deep. I want the truth–I need the truth–so what is it that inspires me to protect my child, almost to the point of denying him the one thing that is so important to me?

I remember my daughter’s questions when my mother died. Cecelia was only four, but like Dante, she was on a mission, and her questions gave voice to the thoughts and fears invading my own consciousness.

“What d’ya mean she went away? Where’d she go?”

“I don’t know.”

Try telling that to a four-year-old who thinks you’re God. On a relative basis, Dante’s questions have been easy; I’ve usually known the answers. I might have been satisfied to leave Cecelia’s question unanswered had she not insisted on some resolution. I raised the issue with a counselor I was seeing.

“My daughter is asking me questions about death, and I don’t know what to tell her.”

“The truth.”

“The truth?”

What was the truth? I didn’t have a clue. With no formal religious training, I found myself floating in a sea of uncertainty. I had never thought much about death before my mother’s illness. The only thing I was relatively sure of was that my mother was gone and wasn’t coming back. “She’s too little.”

Trust me,” the counselor said. “Children only ask what they are ready to know.”

Sounds simple, but no matter how I try to follow my children’s lead, when reality comes sniffing around their chubby-cheeked innocence, the mother lioness within me breaks loose, snarling, roaring, and spreading her claws. I know the truth, having done battle with it time and time again. I know what a formidable and tricky opponent it can be. I’ve had my own innocence pulled out from under in moments of weak-kneed hesitation, and I have the scars to prove it–thick, callused layers of indifference and disillusion. I’ve run away from many of these battles, leaving pieces of myself behind on long, tear-stained trails. And more than once, I looked over my shoulder and wondered if it was worth it. Sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes I have been forced to go back and go deeper, into the secret vault of my heart where the last shreds of innocence are fearfully stashed.

So when my child asks for answers, not realizing what he is up against, it’s only natural that I should want to protect him, especially when I can see that the truth is a cruel and hungry predator bent on devouring his innocence. But there is no protecting Dante. Like a true Romantic, he pursues the truth with reckless passion. What I carelessly overlook or have learned to ignore, my four-year-old embraces. Dante sees reality, not as something limited by experience, but as something enhanced by the infinite. His eyes, like those of the great masters, discern a world full of beauty, but also see the imperfections–Nature’s gorgeous compositions flawed by distorted light, anger, and pain. His senses, not dulled by experience and caution, perceive the world as it really is, full of ambiguity and contradiction. Dante is not tired or bored. He just wants to resolve the contradictions, or at least come to terms with them.

“Why?” he asks.

I used to view this repetitive monosyllable as a child’s way of demanding attention, similar to what my kids do when I’m on the phone–whine or fight or anything else to distract me–but now I know that it means much more. Why, why, why?

“Why are you angry?”

This single and simplistic word demonstrates Dante’s knowledge and acceptance of a truth–of a piece of reality–and his effort to take it one step further. For example, the sensual experience of my anger–my unhappy face and the distressed sound of my voice–scares him when he does not understand the cause. Knowing presents no threat to Dante; not knowing is what troubles him. He may not always like the answer to his “why,” but he accepts it as part of the learning process, as moving one step closer to the truth.

We are at a restaurant and Dante is studying our waitress as she moves around the dining room. “How come she has hair like a man?”

I cringe. “Dante, shhh! Don’t say that!”

“Why?”

“Well, because it’s not nice. I mean, she does have short hair, but ladies can have short hair, too.”

Dante picks up his piece of pizza and mulls this over while he chews, oblivious to his brother’s and sister’s barely stifled giggles. It seems that Dante has accepted my answer, so I spare them my “you-better-not-encourage-him-if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you” look.

“Can I get y’all anything else?” The waitress smiles down at us, holding out our check.

“How come you look like a man?” Dante blurts out.

“Dante!” Cecelia gasps, suddenly sensitive to the waitress’s feelings.

“Oh, it’s all right,” the woman soothes. “He’s just being honest. I was very sick, and I had to take some medicine that made my hair fall out.” Dante frowns, and the waitress recognizes his concern. “I’m better now, and my hair is growing back. It’s so soft, like a little baby’s.” She sits down next to Dante. “Do you want to feel it?” She bends toward him, and Dante reaches out his hand and strokes the top of her head.

“Mommy, it is soft! Feel it!”

“I’m sorry… I….”

“Shoot, never you mind.” She waves away my lame attempt at an apology. “He’s just being a kid. Well, I gotta go back to work.” She places our check on the table and smiles at Dante. “Can I have a kiss?”

Oh no, I think. Dante is not big on strangers. I sense another unintended insult about to be hurled at this kind and understanding woman. I open my mouth, preparing to offer an embarrassed excuse, but before I can utter a word, Dante flings his wiry arms around the waitress’s neck and bestows a loud and enthusiastic kiss on her cheek.

Dante is brutally honest and has an acute sense of justice: Dante wants the truth, Dante tells the truth. So why am I disturbed by my child’s ability to tell the truth without a moment’s concern for the consequences? Maybe it’s because my offspring are a reflection of me; if they don’t possess any social grace, then somehow I have failed. Or perhaps it is a recognition of my own hypocrisy–for don’t I tell lies in the presence of my children all the time? I avoid engagements, saying I already have plans; I avoid the phone, telling my kids to say I’m not home; I smile and say I’m fine minutes after an argument with my husband.

Perhaps “social grace” is just a weariness of the truth that develops as we grow older, an awkwardness that renders us unable to express ourselves or to communicate meaningfully with others, an awkwardness that ultimately leaves us unable to trust. “Social grace” is talking about the weather or a new recipe, keeping our feelings bottled-up inside where they are sure to become malignant.

I am locked inside my office trying to revise a poem, with little success. It has been raining for weeks. Depressed by the colorless monotony outside my windows, I turn down all the blinds. My kids, overcome with cabin fever, are in the next room rolling and tumbling across the floor. Every now and then, their playful laughter is interrupted by a loud, crashing sound or the frustrated cries of Dante as he suffers defeat at the hands of his older siblings.

“Mommy!” Dante calls through the door.

“I’m busy!” I snap.

This is my time, I think. Let them work it out. I go back to my writing, resisting the urge to put an end to their roughhousing. Although I’m getting next to nothing done, I feel strangely reassured by the steady noise of arguing voices and pounding feet outside the door.

Then, suddenly, all is quiet. I sit motionless for a moment, listening hopefully for more sounds of conflict, but the house is silent. What are they doing, I wonder. “Are you guys all right?”

“Yes!” Three voices answer in unison, followed by a succession of giggles.

Trouble–the sound of feigned innocence. Just as I am getting up, Dante is back at my door. “Mommy!” he calls again, this time with much greater urgency.

Images of tumbled furniture and broken glass flash through my mind. In a panic, I move toward the door, prepared for disaster. But as I burst from my office, I’m caught in a blinding flood of sunlight.

“Look, Mommy!” Dante squeals with delight. “The sun’s come out of its cage!” He grabs the bottom of my shirt and drags me toward the window, extending his hand like a tour guide. “See?”

I do see, and it’s like I have never seen the sun before. Cecelia and Sebastian smile at me bashfully from across the room, and my frustration melts away. Standing amidst the litter of couch cushions, game pieces, and bits of broken crayon, my children and I gaze out the window and admire the bright, golden glow as it spreads luxuriously across the front lawn.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, “To combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with appearances, which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar . . . this is the character and privilege of genius.” When I named my son Dante, I had no intention of imposing a poetic legacy on him; I simply liked the name. Nevertheless, my son is a natural artist. Not only does he pursue the truth at all costs, but he is a master of direct and simple expression. Unwittingly, Dante employs a bevy of literary devices to put into words the complex and awe-inspiring discoveries he makes on a daily basis. My four-year-old speaks in metaphor.

“Mommy, when I eat chips and salsa, the sun comes out in my tummy.”

I too love chips and salsa, yet I could never have expressed it so well. And I certainly know the warm, delicious feeling of the sun as it peeks from behind a cloud after a chilly and shadowed absence, but when was the last time I paid attention? All too often I forget–forget to savor the wonderful taste of salsa, forget to rejoice at the sun’s happy appearance in the wake of gray skies, forget to sit back and admire the miracles that are my children. Dante, on the other hand, takes nothing for granted. A simple snack is much more than a way to fill his belly; it is an exciting and beautiful experience, satisfying not only his physical hunger but his appetite for life.

As a result of my awkward fumblings with the truth, my son begins to suspect that I’m not a deity. Yet despite my numerous flaws, Dante trusts me. When his own investigations fail, and life, in its usual fashion, pulls the wool over his eyes, Dante comes to me for the truth. I may not always have the answer–but this, in and of itself, is a very important realization, and reminds us both about how much more there is to know. Dante will learn the limits himself one day, whether I am the teacher or not.

“Dante, it’s time to get out of the bath.”

“First dry off Littlefoot.” Dante tosses the plastic dinosaur out of the tub. I pick it up and polish it with the towel.

“Okay, your turn.” I hold out the towel for him. Dante steps onto the mat and stretches his arms out so I can dry him. “Go put on your pajamas and pick a book. I’ll be right there.”

I hand him Littlefoot, and he starts to leave the bathroom, but he stops short of the door and turns around. “Mommy?”

“Yes?”

He keeps his head down, twisting the head of the smiling dinosaur nervously in his hands. I watch him as he stands naked in the doorway and shifts back and forth from one foot to the other. I can see that he is struggling with something. Whatever it is, I can tell that it’s big. I hold still, overwhelmed by this image of innocence, waiting patiently as he finds the words or the courage he needs to continue. Finally, he looks up. I quickly swipe my forearm across my eyes, trying to catch the tears before they roll down my cheeks.

“Mommy?”

“Yes?”

He takes a deep breath and presses his lips tightly together, as if trying to hold back the question against its will. The concern on his face is so intense it actually scares me. I can see he needs help, so I ask gently, “What is it, Dante?”

He takes one more breath, looks me in the eye and asks, “Am I real?”

Ann Barrett
Reprinted from culturefront magazine, published by the New York Council for the Humanities.

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Once upon a time, environmentalists lived in the forests, while the many of the rest of us moved the suburbs to be near the forests. Today we’re on our way back. Living near nature is an attractive notion, but many who tried it found nature soon vanished and they were left isolated. For both environmental and social reasons, living in the suburbs or the forest is not sustainable. Today we know cities are good for people and for forests. We know that the less land each of us occupies, the more space there will be for nature. In a city, we have a smaller footprint. Living in a city isn’t only good for the planet, it’s good for all of us. When home, work, shopping end entertainment are close, it encourages walking and promotes the active lifestyle that keeps us healthy. The New Colonist is about moving in from the suburbs, moving into and reclaiming towns and cities that have been depopulated, and building more housing in healthy cities. It’s about building smarter and closer-in new developments; building transit-oriented, mixed-use developments in new communities, and bringing more transportation options to communities where a car is presently the only option. Sustainable city living–chronicling the return from the suburban diaspora–is the focus of Newcolonist.com. …Move In. City Life is good for you. It’s good for the your health. It’s good for the planet. Eric Miller Richard Risemberg