When my son was 3, he slipped a penny into the space between a hallway nightlight and the outlet. The coin melted onto the metal prongs, blew a fuse, shot a cloud of black smoke up the wall, and set off the hardwired fire alarm system.
I, of course, was just getting out of the shower.
Even at 8 years old, he sometimes can't fall asleep because he worries about his Lego pieces melting together if the house catches on fire. He knows my dad's house burned to the ground when he was a boy, that there are strict rules in our house about running through the kitchen when the stove is on ("No helium balloons! No silky banners! No uncombed hair!"), he knows the story of a good friend who landed hands-first into a campfire as a toddler ... and I wonder if I've shared too much, if the fear he has is healthy or if I've imposed it.
After the penny-in-the-night-light incident, The Question came: "Mama, what in this house can catch on fire?" I answered, "The curtains, the carpets, paper, wood." Then he asked again a few days later, and I answered. Then he asked again, and I answered. And so it went, and went, and went.
I tried to be patient. I tried that sort of reassuring gentleness that Maria VonTrapp would offer through song and dance and bouncing on her knees on the bed, but frankly, I was nursing a new baby, I was exhausted and was getting really frustrated because this had gone on for weeks now. I told him I needed "a question break" (I still need these). And then he asked again.
Let me just say that it's very difficult to be attentive all day long. If you ever hear anyone say they love this aspect of caregiving, they are lying. Or more likely, just not really being attentive. Or you are speaking with Mother Teresa and that would be awesome ... on many levels. But, when you do pay attention, when you do get down on your knees, look a child in the eye and really listen and try to understand, then the Muse will sometimes alight on your shoulder. The Question was not, "What can catch on fire?" The Question was, "What in this house can just -- clap! -- catch on fire, all by itself, you know Mama, just suddenly have a big fire inside it and we can't put it out?"
What in this house can Spontaneously Combust?
Yes. I do know.
When you have been a professional, a creative, a motivated, educated woman and then you are handed your first inconsolable infant whom you assumed you'd just stick in a backpack and keep right on painting/writing/insert well-thought-out career plan here and Whoa, that didn't work out AT ALL, then, something that-you-thought-was-sturdy-but-surprise-is-actually-fragile starts unraveling inside. And you can mourn the loss of who you were (which I did) and you can be bitter (which I was) and disappointed with the way things turned out (yup), and then after 20 minutes you need to get over all that because someone small inevitably needs help on the potty. And not only this, but it's self-indulgent. And at some point you need to start piecing all those bits together and figure out what it means to be who you are right now.
I spent a lot of time (more than 20 minutes) convinced I couldn't pursue my art because of my children, that they were keeping me from something important. And alternatively, I couldn't be the mother I wanted to be because I was distracted in a way that felt completely unfair to everyone involved. I was being attentive but not paying attention. When The Question was answered that day, something became clear: I can't create the art I need to right now, without my children.
And from The Question arose an answer. I drew a grid, did some math, cut out and glued letters by hand, repeating the design, making it fit. You are thinking: "Why didn't this pressed-for-time woman just do this on the computer?" Right. It is very hard to be attentive to small people when there is computer involved (right now, for example, my children are asleep). However, when everyone at the table has a pair of scissors, some paper and a "job," some projects are more manageable. Besides, wobbly, imperfect letters on paper gave me a sense of what a hand appliquéd end result would be. The cutting and pasting forced me to slow the pace of the day, consider the next steps, the materials. I think if I'd had a computer-generated pattern to work from, there would have always been that sense of disappointment that the handwork wasn't perfect.
Did I mention that other than hand stitching miles of lace onto wedding gowns in a former, former life, I hadn't done much hand appliqué at the beginning of this project? That's in part 2.
You've got the history, the first part anyway.