One Saturday morning a couple of years ago, a spectacular day by all counts: cool like a March day, but with warming sunshine--summer sun, not early spring sun--I sat on the back porch with my dad and watched the kids painting. My dad brought out a few blank “canvases” for them (pieces of flat boards you can buy from Home Depot—they’re really meant to put under vinyl flooring, but my dad buys them, cuts them to canvas size, and they are perfect for painting on) and the kids were creating abstract art masterpieces. I watched L. dab on stripes of green, blue and orange paint. He gave T. an impromptu lesson on abstract art painting as he worked and she got right down to the business of creating a painting of fireworks, with one T.-turned-grown-up-woman standing in the middle of it all.
Then she changed it. It wasn’t fireworks, but a hectic and spectacular scene of her own life—projected somewhere into the future again: a life of colors, and splashes of light, and lots of sun, of course.
“And there’s me,” she said, “standing in the middle.”
“Don’t take offense, T.” L. chimed in (he used to blurt out quite bluntly just what he thought of someone’s work and we have, through lots of coaching, taught him to preface his remarks—if he must make them—with “don’t take offense but…”)
“Don’t take offense T., but I don’t see that in your picture at all.”
“That’s what makes it abstract,” I pointed out.
Then my dad brought out a big art encyclopedia. He showed the kids some paintings by Jackson Pollock and L., who rarely likes to take a break from his pursuits for impromptu lessons of any sort, actually stopped, brush in mid-air, to listen. He looked at the paintings, soaking up the feel of the style. I thought about how impatient I’d often been, as a child, over impromptu lessons such as those given by my dad and my grandfather, too, who could talk for what seemed like hours about a topic, and yet I know I carried the wisdom of them with me, pulling it out when necessary, reflecting on it, filing it away for future use.
At dinner one night, not long before that particular Saturday morning spent painting with my dad, we got to talking about a PBS show on crows (this is what happens when you get a family of nerds together for dinner--they talk about PBS programming). Crows are very family/community oriented and the parent crows work hard to teach their young how to be successful at finding food. There is one species of crow in Japan, apparently, that has taught themselves to place nuts in the middle of the road when the traffic is stopped. The light turns green, cars pass over the nuts, crack the shells, and the crows can feast on the tasty meat inside. Young crows are shown this behavior so they can learn it themselves. Female crows rely on their sisters to help them raise their young--to teach them the tricks of the trade for survival in a human-dominated world. When entire families of crows are killed off, through pesticides or the West Nile Virus, or human intervention, the chain is broken and the young are left to grow up without these important lessons from family members—the lessons they need to survive and flourish in the world.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the crows all weekend while we visited with my parents, or about what a metaphor that story is for what we humans need—if we are to survive and flourish in our own world. Any number of people out there who know more than I do about lots of things say we live in an increasingly selfish world; a place where too many people relinquish their family ties and the time and investment they need to give to them, on self-centered pursuits. It’s become a me culture out there, and we’re raising kids who care only about themselves. They don’t have good examples to follow—examples that might teach them about family commitment, stability, and the importance of investing in legacies that transcend money and real estate and material goods. Families fragment because too many people aren’t willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work they need to do to keep them together; the divorce rate keeps exploding, people move and relocate constantly, we lose sight of our origins: where our parents came from, where we came from, and, as a result, where we need to go. It takes more than actions in the here and now to raise children. A family is built upon the hard work and sacrifice of the people who came before, and the lessons learned from them—from their triumphs and mistakes—that we weave into our own lives.
Maybe we need to be a little more like the crows.
I can’t think of anyone who ends up with exactly the vision of their lives they once imagined when they were six, painting away on a back porch one May morning. I suppose if we were all left to our own devices we could custom-craft our own lives so that they ended up exactly as we wanted them. Maybe. We'd live in tailored bubbles of our own, passing each other gently in the night, yet never quite intersecting, making those connections. But I do know that what we make of our lives is what we put into them; we build on hard work and sacrifice, love, and a community of others—grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, friends, teachers, and a real sense of commitment to place—a place to look back to so we can see where we began, and where we just might end, too.