Last week, I introduced my little girl to paints. So far, she’d experimented with extra-chunky crayons and coloured pencils and washable markers and even paint-pencils – but never paint. I was building up to paint. I knew it would be messy.
I’m naturally a rather ordered and tidy person. Or perhaps I should say that I’m a messy person who has taught herself how to be more structured.
As a child I was spectacularly messy and disorganised. I was the child who was always losing her gloves or hat or scarf, who left her pocket money purse on the park bench and her teddy at Grandma’s house. I was the child with her nose in a book and her head in the clouds. Over time, my parents lovingly taught me how to bring a little structure to my imaginative worlds, how to organise my thoughts a little better. They believed it was an essential life skill and today I’m enormously grateful to them for this.
One memory in particular has stayed with me. I remember that my dad once stuck his head around my bedroom door and saw me hunched over a small corner of the desk that he’d built for me, trying to do my homework, my books and papers strewn across the rest of the surface. He patiently showed me how important it was to clear a space for myself, how much easier it could feel to approach a task with some freedom of movement. I’ve never forgotten that.
But I digress. Suffice to say, I have learned to be tidy. Now I have a sixteen-month-old toddler. Hm. It is a daily challenge. I’d like to help her to be organised too – but without stifling any of her obvious innate creativity.
So I get out the paints, pour gloopy colours into the special paint palettes I’ve bought, take the little brushes and stamps that were a gift from my sister out of their box where they’ve been waiting all these months. We’re ready. It’s 8.30am. It’s just her and me – and an enormous piece of white paper.
She tentatively dips a finger into the blue paint.
‘That’s right,’ I say. ‘Look, you can put it on the paper like this.’
She makes a cursory mark and then puts a finger in her mouth. Then she plunges her whole hand into the pink paint and starts to lick her palm.
‘No,’ I hear myself saying. ‘On the paper. Like this. And this… ‘ I reach out to guide her hand. I show her how to use the brush.
Again and again, she laughs and returns to stirring the paint with her fingers, enjoying how it feels on her skin, smearing paint on her cheeks, sniffing it, tasting it.
‘No,’ I say again. ‘We don’t eat paint. We put it on the paper… like this…’
Then I stop myself. What am I doing?
I realise that she and I do not have the same goal in mind right now. In fact, she has no goal. She simply wants to immerse herself in the experience of paint, feel what she feels, taste what she tastes. On the other hand, I have an image of her first painting in my mind, a white piece of paper daubed with her first bold marks, all messy and sticky and beautiful.
For a moment, I feel frustrated. And then I catch myself. It’s this, this that is happening right now before my eyes that is beautiful. This is the painting.
Because isn’t this my own practice? Isn’t this how I teach writing? Let go of the product, immerse yourself in the process, enjoy the feel of the words themselves, let things unfold in their own way, without necessarily knowing where you’re going, write to discover, to touch, to taste, to feel?
Shaping, editing, crafting, finding form for the words – that all comes later. For now, let your hand move over the keyboard or the page. Or your face, or someone else’s face for that matter…
My daughter smiles at me. She loves this new thing called painting. And she’s brilliant at it. Look at this pink, this blue!
Her eyes are wide. She throws her head back and laughs again. Her entire body is bursting with happiness.
As I’ve written here before, every day she reminds me of what is truly important.