how my toddler taught me to be a better artist

I was elated as my toddler Luca bent down and scooped sand from his tiny shovel into his finally overflowing little purple plastic bucket. He’d been stopping every 3-4 feet on our beach walk to shovel one, VERY small scoop of sand into his bucket. I couldn’t wait until it was full so we could go more than a few seconds without stopping. 

I was just about to shout “YES!” when Luca looked at his full bucket, dumped it out, walked three steps, and put one small scoop into the bucket. 

“UGHHH! Here we go again,” I thought laughing at my foolishness thinking that Luca filling his bucket with sand was about the goal of having a full bucket of sand. 

That’s adult thinking: you do something to GET something. The way you get there is just a means to the end.
Toddler thinking is: you do something to DO something.

Sure, Luca’s smile is wide with pride when he finishes a puzzle but he’s just as happy to break it apart and start again whereas I have this urge to grab my mod podge and shellac the puzzle masterpiece I
made to prove to myself and the world that my time was well spent and here’s proof.

This is one of the many lessons I’ve learned as a middle-aged first-time mom (you don’t have to be a mom to learn this stuff FYI, official and unofficial aunties and uncles, you probably get it). The lesson is as cliche as #blessed and like #blessed, some version of it like “It’s not the destination, It’s the journey,” is screen printed on everything from wall art to pillows at discount retail chains like TJ Maxx and HomeGoods.

Yet, cliches are cliches because they’re SO true.

Focusing on the end, destination, outcome or whatever you call that thing you have on your TO-DO or bucket list is very “adult”. Isn’t that what adulting is all about? Accomplishing things, even if they’re little like folding your laundry right when it comes out of the dryer.

While that line of thinking, the one that glosses over the process and focuses only on the product, is essential to be a goal-getting adult who pays bills on time, it also misses so much good stuff.

As a creative person who spent many years paying my rent with my art & craft, I had to train myself to be present during the process of making. Once what I made stopped being just for me (thankfully, few people saw my awful junior high art class sketches and no one [I hope] read my childhood diary entries) and became not just something that I shared with the world but that I relied on the pay my rent, eat and keep my lights on, it became harder to be present during the process without thinking about how what I made would be seen and judged.

That has never gone away. As I write this now, I tap delete and reword things as I question what I write. But, after two decades of trading my creativity for my livelihood, I’ve learned to keep going even with that doubtful voice sitting next to me.

That voice is part of the process and standing up to it year after year taught me to stand up to voices outside of my head. The ones saying, “don’t you want to choose a more stable career?” or “how’s your little art thing going?”.

Good or bad, the process is yours and yours alone.

It’s the place where you’ll question every brushstroke, word or stitch. It’s the place where you’ll justify cleaning out your closet instead of taking on a blank canvas or page. It’s the place where one minute you’ll feel like a genius and the next you’ll feel like a fraud. It’s the holy place where you transform who you are and the way you experience life into something. That thing could be a crocheted shawl or beaded earrings or a painting or a million other things. Whatever it is, when it’s done, the process of making…. ends.

If you’re like me, you look at what you made, grant yourself a moment of pride, take a deep breath as that hit of goal-completion dopamine comes and then you start thinking… “what if this isn’t as good as I think?” or “what will I do next?”.

Giving in to this line of thinking is how I deprived myself of the actual joy of being creative for years. It was all about that end. I was living hand-to-mouth and if what I made wasn’t good enough for people to buy, I might not have enough money to eat. It was a lot of pressure to put on myself and my art but if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Eventually I learned to be present for the uncomfortable parts of the process. I figured out how to feel like an impostor and keep typing, painting, and making. I learned how to stop fighting my inner critic but instead to comfort her since she was only trying to protect me.

This move toward presence in the process didn’t just change my life as a creative, it changed my life as a human. When I felt my hangry self getting impatient waiting for food at a restaurant or sitting in traffic or waiting for lab test results, I’d try to find something to ground me in the moment rather than make it all about the outcome. It wasn’t easy and I failed at it as many (ahem… more) times as I succeeded… hence me waiting for Luca’s bucket of sand to be full instead of seeing the stops he forced on our beach walk every few steps as a sign to slow down, a reminder to be present for the process.

That’s why I couldn’t help but laugh when Luca deflated my triumphant moment by dumping out that full bucket of sand and starting all over again. After all my self exploration, therapy, and devouring self-growth books, it took my three-year-old son to drive home the point of presence in the process. To remind me that as important as it is to celebrate finishing that painting or skirt you sewed or even that basket of laundry you folded before you jump into the next thing, it’s equally important to be present for every brushstroke, stitch, fold or sand scoop that went into whatever your goal is. OK, maybe not every single one, I mean that’s a bit much, even for Luca. But, putting a little extra attention on how you get to where you’re going, we all have a spare few seconds for that.

One Comment

  1. Thank you 💌
    I needed to be gently and beautifully reminded …
    thank you for sharing your gifts with all of us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.