Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Category

A category is a safe bet. It is the obvious, tangible, concrete, reliable. It proclaims our security with clear demarcation, a definition, a purpose, objectives and conclusion. Substance, people, trees, rocks, metals, light, water have a place, a definition, a group, a belonging. A category is absolute. We surround ourselves in categories. A map draws lines around landscapes, fills each country in pink, purple, brown. It labels them, spells them correctly, and protects each boundary with a bold black line. We tell ourselves stories about those shapes, about the people, their color, language, food, belongings, houses, bodies, art. The people in that shape are like this not that. We do not argue with the category, it is unconditional. A category is contracted. A frame draws a rectangle around a painting, manipulating the eye to view the colors, lines, value, composition. It focuses the viewer and demands attention. It entices one to see and utilize only vision to experience it. But there is emotion, process, love, conversation, history, woven among hues and shapes. It can be seen if one does not use the eyes. A category is limiting. We sort our children. Arrange them in order from smart to dumb, pretty to ugly, athletic to academic, light to dark, good to bad. Children are measured, lined up, compared, contrasted, analyzed and finally put in a grid and told what the future will hold for them. It is easy. It is logical. But it is diminishing and devastating. A category is cowardly.

The scene: The playroom. A box lies on the ground, half the marble game inside, the other half gone. The rest is upstairs, split between the living room and Dana's bedroom. I'm annoyed. Why can't Dana keep one toy in the same room? It seems a small thing to ask.

Then I remember, yesterday she sat by the window in the living room, the pieces of the game formed a long spear with a spinning mill on top. Dana talked to it. It was a wand. A talking wand. A great towering city. A princess. A noble companion watching out the window for her friend to arrive. A brave soldier keeping her safe. It did not occur to her that it was, in fact, a marble game.

To Dana, in every item there is endless potential. When we sit at a restaurant the condiments on the table become animals. They march across the table cloth, tell stories, sing, dance and commune. They play hide and seek, cook her a meal and quickly become best friends. She transforms herself into a suitcase. She is carried to the airplane, dropped off at baggage claim to land safely in my hands where I find my shampoo and bathing suit inside. Now she is a cleaner and endeavors to pick up all the garbage on land and sea. We pick up plastic bottles, wet newspaper and old straws. We search for garbage cans and dumpsters for our findings. She has multiple identities; girl, bird, princess, sandwich, chef, cookie, snake, monster, cleaner, storyteller. They layer her with meaning and boundlessness. She has multiple companions made up of flesh, plastic, Styrofoam, metal, petals, grass, wood. Her world is never lonely. Her world is rich with possibility, complex in its ability to make connections, wise in its capacity to see meaning. There are no categories.

The marble game sits next to a stuffed baby gorilla on the window sill. I leave it there. The box in the playroom is still half empty. It doesn't annoy me anymore. I only hope that I don't limit her with my own short comings, stunted expectations and unconscious arrangements. I'm excited to see what new connection or transformation she will imagine. And I can't help but wonder how we collectively forgot the astonishing freedom of a world without categories.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Yell Jar

On their own, words lie. Singularly, actions betray them. Tone adds nuance. Inflection adds poetry and song. The body has its own language full or idiosyncrasies, acronyms, jargon. Eyes plead when our words command. Fingers dance as the lips whisper. A racing heart held captive by silence. The rhythm and comfort of routine lull one into incomplete sentences, thoughts trapped inside themselves, words never spoken or only whispered in half beats. It is not that language is inadequate. It is that humans are poor operators of language. We grow lazy in its day to day use. We do not think about what we are really saying in the context of history, audience, relationship, or the geography of land, heart, spirit or mind. We do not teach our young to be intentional with words. We do not teach our young to be intentional.

My mother yells at me. I feel the force of her anger and pain. She has called me names, told me I am selfish, angry and attacking. I feel small under the force of it. I am left questioning my character. Am I a bad person?

A mother can mold the inner life of a child through words. A mother can ride at the helm of language, throwing words into the air, punctuating them with fists or hugs, a caress or rough pat and a child will absorb the layered meaning of every word, every gesture. Words are the last umbilical cord connecting child and mother. A mother gives and a child drinks them for nourishment even if they are poison. If those words are lies or imprecise, they will damage the child's interior. A mother needs to be intentional to avoid this. It is hardly human nature to be so. It is a daily failure.

My confession: I betray my own intentions. I am my own obstacle to an authentic life. One of my largest fears is that I will become the immutable obstacle to an authentic relationship with my children. I see how I fail language in my interactions with them and I grow frustrated with my imperfection. I grow fearful. I yell at Dana.

I feel guilty. I apologize. I walk away. I struggle. I punish myself. Then I yell again. I remember how my mother yelled. I hurt. I defend myself. I feel guilty. I try to talk to Dana but her world is only 31/2 years old and full of emotions, colors, stories, shapes, animals, actions, possibilities. Not full of limitations. She does not yet know that I am imperfect.

Now we have a Yell Jar. Every time, I yell at Dana I put a jelly bean in the jar. She will get to eat them when we reach ten. I tell Dana I would like not to yell at her but I'm still learning how. I do not want to hurt her feelings with imperfect words accentuated by angry emotions. The Yell Jar will help me. I hope it will help her understand, if not now, then in her memories of me and the Yell Jar when she is older. Maybe it will help her see that it is ok to struggle with ones intentions as long as one stays true to the journey towards them.

And maybe someday I will learn the proper use of language.