Category: Parenting

On the Power of Art and Eight-Year-Olds

Admittedly, I tried to talk Julia out of her mission. Day and night. For three weeks. But as any parent can tell you, talking an eight-year-old out of what they consider to be their mission is a hard lift.

“But mommy, I really want to sell my artwork outside of our building!”

“I’m not sure that’s possible,” I said and kept saying. “I’m sure I’ll have to get permission.”

(New York City condos and co-ops are funny that way.)

But the greater truth was this: I didn’t want to go out in the world and sale anything.

To be clear, it wasn’t that I thought my daughter’s artwork was lousy.  I just didn’t want to sit in front of my building beside a child with a hungry look in her eyes, pimping paintings. Granted Julia’s plan could yield her vital confidence building skills.  Still.

But then came a bright beautiful Sunday. We head to church, for the first time since June when Sunday school classes went on summer hiatus. I heard a nice, motivational talk. We had a nice brunch with Aunt Carmen, and another church friend, at Regional, our favorite eatery. Mommy had a mimosa or three. The golden sunlight was lovely against the cobalt blue day, perhaps last warm Sunday of September if my memory holds. So, after Julia said our goodbyes and we headed home. As a warm breeze whirled around us, and Julia’s braids bounced in the wind, I turned to her and said,  “Let’s go to the park and sell your art work…”

“Yippee!” Julia yodeled and ran into down the block and into our building.

“Where is she going so fast?” the doorman said.

“To get her artwork.”

Carlos’ brows arched.

While Julia retrieved her portfolio, I headed to the sideboard and pulled out a colorful tablecloth to use as a backdrop for her work, my second halfway decent idea. Then I grabbed my tote bag, a glass jar, bottles of water and my courage.

“How about we set up at the entrance of Central Park? Where there’s lots of foot traffic…”

I fluttered the bold patterned tablecloth over an emerald-green bench. Julia placed her work in two neat rows. IMG_0536.JPGI sat down and said a prayer in hope things would land on the plus side: “Please God please let her sale at least one drawing and keep people from being mean to my kid.”

Within a minute or two an older man behind a sturdy walker came to a stop in front of the display and asked, “What are you raising money for?

“Myself,” Julia announced.

IMG_0541.JPG
Julia’s first buyer, of sorts

Oh shit. 

“The homeless… we’re giving part of our proceeds to the homeless.”

“Well, I don’t want a drawing but I’ll make a donation,” he said.

And with that he flipped open his wallet, pealed out two-dollar bills and placed them into her tiny hands.

Julia’s eyes widen. A stranger had just handed her cold hard cash, “Thank you!” Julia said then stuffed the bills into a glass mason jar that we’d brought for the occasion.

Well, maybe this won’t be so bad.

As soon as I released that thought, like a ball player who acknowledges a hitting streak, we fell into a dry spell. A long parade of dog walkers hustling their four-foot-footed chargers, and stroller’ moms who cast down disparaging looks that read thusly, “Why would I buy the same crap from your kid that’s on my fridge!”

Julia was crestfallen. “Mommy, nobody’s stopping,” she moaned.
“But I told you not everybody is into art, some people walk with headphones on, and some people are in a hurry.”

“Mama, let’s get up and walk around with the park with the pictures…”

“Nooooooo.” I said and started yodeling, “Artwork for sale!”

Julia joined in, “Get some art work!”
A pale guy, with neat-cropped hair, slowed his roll down the path, and pointed to a flower drawing. “How much is this one?”

“The sunflower?  IMG_0516.JPG
“Yes…”
“A dollar…” Julia said.
“A bargain!” he said, his hand dove into his pocket, pulled out a buck, and placed it into Julia’s palm.
“My fiancé loves sunflowers.  And she’s on tour right now…this’ll be a nice welcome home present.”
Julia beamed.

IMG_0517.JPGAn older woman came out of nowhere, picked up a blue painting and said, “I’ll take this one …and I’ll make you my princess of water. I love what you’re doing.”

Julia was back in business.  About this time, I noticed the extended sound of water coming from a nearby fountain. There stood a woman, slim and brown- skinned, holding an object that she ran an under the low, arched stream. She rinsed and swished the water over the cloth. Then she twisted the water out, and tucked the cloth into her pocket.
Maybe she got ice cream or something on her clothes, I thought.

IMG_0521-2.JPG

But she welded an urgency in her movements, focused and tight.  I didn’t think much about the piece of cloth, until she pulled another item out of her pocket, until she started running it under the water.

 

I read once that objects under a microscope when observed moved differently. A testament to the energy of observation. Once she noticed me noticing her, the energy around us shifted. Like her moves, the air became tight. She turned her head towards me but kept her hands moving and scrubbing and twisting, and said flatly and clearly, “I’m sorry I have to do this here.”

Do this? Do what? 

Then all the details like a paint by number canvass filled in.

She’s washing her clothes in the water fountain

A blinked at the sight, almost unbearable to take it in. Like a super nova, it hurt my eyes.
Maybe I should pack up and move… I don’t want Julia to see. 

Then a new thought dawned, as bright and opulent as the day, and just as undeniable.
Well, we said we were going to give money to the homeless.  And there’s a homeless person. Our giving just became easier. 

“Let me see that jar, Julia.IMG_0542.JPG

It held, maybe eight dollars. I pulled out four.

“Go give this to that lady, Julia.”

She tepidly walked over to her…and announced “Here….”

The woman extended a wet, soggy hand,
took the cash and tucked it under her shirt, into what I could assumed was her bra. “Thank you,” she whispered.

I watched the scene, the girl giver, the receiver lady, in a matter-of-fact-stunned silence. This day was going its own way.

“You’re lucky that your mom and supports your art,” I heard a male voice say. I turned and saw a tall, lanky dreaded guy with warm brown eyes standing over the assortment. “My mom didn’t support me and I’m still an artist.”

IMG_0532.JPGHe was a man but I could still see the little boy hurt in his eyes. The cute girl beside him angled her head up towards him and smiled. I hadn’t seen a woman look at a man with such love in her eyes in a long while.

Until that moment I didn’t realize how much trying to give your child their hopes and dreams, really served as an on ramp to solving the mysteries of your childhood. I thought of how my mom managed my regular excursions to the Detroit Institute of Arts from our Westside home, once I fell in love with the mural by Diego Rivera in the 3rd grade. In my freshman year of art college school, when I invited her to go to the museum to see a show did I learn something new about my mom. “No, thanks,” she said. “I hate the museum”

“Then why did we go so often?” I asked shocked at her omission.

“Because you wanted to go.”

*

“You’ve got a great mom,” the girl with the loving eyes said, cradling a drawing.

I have a great mom, too. I thought. She exposed me to the act of art that freed me art but as a child selling goods had crushed me. As a kid, I was petrified of selling Girl Scout cookies. Annually, my troop called upon every girl during the cold hard months of February to meet a specific dollar amount by selling sweets. That way every girl could attend camp regardless of her family’s economic status. My stomach started knotting up in January.

After selling cookies to my neighbors, and my immediate family, my proceeds of 30 or so dollars still fell far short of the goal. Still, no matter how much my parents hounded me, I refused to pimp anymore cookies.  Just couldn’t do it. The humiliation. The hawking. Aggh. In the end, every year around March, my father wrote a check and gave it to the Troop leader. My family and I ate from the cases that lined the walls of the dining room for until it became shorts weather again.
So, as Julia plotted to sell her work, my childhood traumas blazed back. Fear that people would be mean to my kid. Or even worse, fear that they would dismiss her efforts. Dismiss her. I hadn’t known it until I sat on the faded green bench just how much I feared having Julia out in the world, feared her laying it all out there.

As a creative person, I do it all the time. But frequently a cocktail comes at the end of a particuluar bad mission. In grad school, during one tough season, if I received notes back on my writing in the morning, I’d hold off my review until the end of the day. So, I could crack open a Cabernet, and read with a glass of comfort.

As Julia expanded the territory of her sense of self through her creative efforts and shared them with the world, I had to sit there and bear witness to it, a sort of reverse art therapy that left me in a stunned-silence. In that moment, the realization hit of all the beauty I would’ve missed by refusing to let go of the past.

“I’ll take that colorful one,” a man with crown of curly hair said, “You’re quite the artist. It matches my tattoo.” IMG_0528.JPG

“Look how much money I have Mommy!”

The mason jar was fully a vibrant green.

“That’s great Julia, let’s go give some more money to that homeless lady.”

We looked towards the fountain. And then down the path that led deeper into the park. She’d vanished.

“I see her down the street!” Julia said.

We gathered the remaining drawings, the tablecloth, glass jar and ran out of the park then down the street.

We thundered up to her. She jumped back on the bench, a little startled.

“Hey, I bought lunch meat and cupcakes with the money you gave me…” she said, almost as if she felt she had to report to us what was purchased with the cash we’d given her.

“That’s great, here’s some more,” I said, pressing dollars into her hands.

She smiled at us, her thin face seemed to fill in a bit, maybe it was the light of being seen, fully seen by another human being, not stepped over, ignored. Then she pointed that gleam at Julia.  “Would you like a cupcake?” she said.

Julia’s eyes met mine.

“Don’t you dare,”  ny glare read.

“Well, can I have a treat at home?”

“You bet.”

*

The writer Paolo Bacigalupi once said, “I’m particularly interested in black swan events: unprecedented surprises that destroy the conventional wisdom about how the world works.”

Through Julia I’d experienced my first black swan in a long while. All the beauty and kindness of the day, I nearly missed, delivered by the bravery of an eight-year-old. And as Julia put her hand in mine, and we headed home, I felt the burn of salt across my eyes, a wash that threatened to appear, but I kept at bay, at least until we reached home.

 

 

 

 

 

On Losing Aretha and Finding Myself

For me, music has always resonated deeper than just a collection of notes and tones. As the daughter of a Detroit record shop owner during the age of Motown, it would seem destiny. What I couldn’t count on was the rite of passage that would mark the alteration of that relationship.

Aretha Franklin was the Frida Kahlo of music. ARTHEA_headshotLike the great Mexican painter, she put her blood into her work.  In a 1998
PBS American Masters documentary, a studio musician that worked with Ms. Franklin revealed that, as she recorded tracks, sometimes, Aretha wept. But as a brown-skin girl, growing up in my Westside Detroit home, Aretha Franklin was just a lady I, on occasion, saw in church, in the first pew, a fairly common sight.

In fact, “I’m the lady next door,” is how Ms. Franklin described herself to Gwen Ifill during a 2015 PBS interview. Ifill scoffed and smiled. I chuckled and nodded. During my growing up years, she was Clarence and Edward’s mom, the two suited-up boys my brothers and I sat beside in Sunday School at New Bethel Baptist church. By the early 1970s Aretha Franklin’s musical star had super nova-ed. Still, I remained a clueless kid and she remained the enviable Preacher’s daughter. Her father, Rev. C. L Franklin was the bigger draw. He pastored with a booming voice that welded so much bass, my family and I could hear his sermons from our West Philadelphia home, across the street. In fact, my dad typically slipped out of donning a Sunday suit and joining us by informing my mom, “Annie, I can hear the talk from the sofa.”

I don’t recall of Ms. Franklin ever joined the choir. I do recall liking the choir. One Sunday morning, parked in the pew beside my mom, my crinolines scratched against my thighs I deflected the itch my bouncing my leg to the beat.

“This isn’t music to dance by,” she chided and pressed my leg still with the flat of her palm.

I finally understood what my mom meant, in 1972. Throngs of fans gathered at outside the brick walled church to soak in the secular songs Aretha practiced before recording her gospel album, Amazing Grace. Screen Shot 2018-09-07 at 3.09.45 PMMy mom, dad and two brothers perched of the gray concrete steps of our home, held to the hymns. As the organ music and her alto voice throbbed in my chest, the thought dawned that Ms. Franklin was more than Clarence and Edward’s mom, she belonged to something greater, she was something greater.

When I reached my teens, I had begun to hold up in my bedroom, studying life at the altar of Prince, Earth Wind and Fire, of course, Aretha. My mom made sure her music was on steady rotation in our home. But as I managed the stress of attending Cass Tech, a competitive college preparatory school, the world of dating and terminal acne, I heard the song Think, and its powerful refrain R-E-S-P-E-C-T, anew.

During college I moved to New York City to study art from Kahlo to Kandinsky, at Parsons School of Design. I took Aretha with me, first on cassette tape, and later on CDs. I held church, far from home, with a recording of Amazing Grace, the very music I first experienced from my parent’s porch.

By the age of 25, I figured out what Aretha meant when she sang, You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. Later, her track Ain’t No waycounseled me in how to handle the break-up. The energy behind vowels and consonants seemed to slip around me and explain the mysteries and limits of relationships.

Around that time, I flew back to Detroit for a family event. Before I returned to Manhattan I headed to church. By some miracle, in the first pew, once more sat Ms. Franklin. Halfway through the sermon, the call to the altar came. “Would those in need of an additional blessing please step forward.”

I stood up, slipped out of the pew, and headed down the red carpet. As I closed in on the end of the cue, as the parishioners headed to the left, up the steps to the altar, I tucked in close to the edge of the first pew. There was The Queen, clad in a beaded dress, classic church hat and cleavage.

“Excuse me, Ms. Franklin just want to thank you for all your work. My mom played your music to me as a child. But, as a woman, I finally understand what you’re singing about.”

She smiled and nodded her head, once.

I floated back to my place in the pew.

Young girls need role models. And as the mother of a young girl that goal is mine every day. But Aretha Franklin was much more. She was therapist. Confessor. Healer. My parents guided me down the road of adulthood. But Aretha Franklin translated all the bumps, pot holes and dead ends. Aretha told me what my mother couldn’t. That sometimes men fall short. Sometimes they take the women they love with them. Sometimes it was up to you to find your way back on to the road, wheels straight and drive on.

Aretha Franklin showed women how to be brave. I, for one, sweated it out when the announcement came that she would fill in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti singing the classical aria, Nessun Dorma, at the 1998 Grammy telecast. I feared Black Girl Magic wouldn’t stretch quite that far. Two bars in, I decided that was the last time I’d doubted the magic. Or Aretha.

“I’ve been crying like a baby,” the text from my friend Julie read, “Got the news about Aretha.” It was the first of many from my black female friends. As the world mourned the Queen of Soul, women and in particular African-American women, mourned the loss of something greater. Aretha helped us as much as the poetry of Maya Angelou, the afro of Angela Davis, and the sight of Michelle Obama’s image in the National Portrait Gallery. She taught us how to stand proud in our own skin when no one else seemed to care. Because we knew, no matter where Aretha was, she was with us on what mattered. Now she’s gone. And I still have to figure out how to do it for Julia.

More than a week ago, on August 31st, I mourned and celebrated the life of Aretha Franklin with the world. It’s a rite of passage to bury your elders. But even as a mother who manages a mortgage, I don’t feel ready for this adulthood. But I know it’s come. I suppose that’s when you know the baton has been passed to you. When you’re no longer afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. When you stop looking to songs for those answers. I still enjoy the richness of music. But I look more now to the lives of women rather than just the songs they sang to guide me. Remembering that Aretha was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and that sometimes the wheels move slow, but our accolades, in time, come. That with her amazing career she still managed to have a family. That Aretha Franklin left the world with 80 million dollars banked, without the IRS on her heels like many, many artists, are great fact to start telling Julia now.

#Aretha Franklin

# The Queen of Soul

Writer at Work: Meanwhile, Meet K J Dell Antonia!

Hello All.

While I get back into my blogging seat check out K Js work. She has a wonderful blog that you can register for at the end of this shared post. Enjoy this wonderful insight to the joy of moving the ball down the family field, everyday.

Sometimes it helps to celebrate the very little things.

Last night, as I closed the dishwasher, knowing that the last kitchen straightening was done, that I’d taken the final things off the counter and wiped the sink (the one thing the kids never manage to do when they clean up after dinner), I set its fancy timer and shut its door and happily said “Yay!”

My daughter happened to be standing there, and she looked at me in shock. “Yay what?”

Um, yay everything is done? Yay another pretty good day? Yay bedtime and more summer tomorrow? I don’t know. Just, yay.

I like to celebrate these little things, and apparently I don’t even try to do it in my head any more.

I’ve been talking a lot about How to Be a Happier Parent lately. I’m lucky–I get interviewed, get to be on some podcasts. I get to tell people about it. And they often ask, what’s one big thing you do differently? And I haven’t exactly said, well, I say “yay” when I load the dishwasher, but that is kind of it. It seems to be the side effect of Mantra #10: Soak up the good. I’ve been working to notice when things are going well, and it’s paying off, at least if you don’t mind becoming someone who says “yay” without thinking.

I don’t mind. Because I have a dishwasher, and healthy kids who mostly load it, and pretty much everything material that I need. Of course, there are little things that are less great, but as I learned while talking to a couple of pretty brilliant experts last year, they aren’t tigers. Most of the stuff that plagues me on a day-to-day basis just doesn’t meet tiger level. No bankruptcy, no death, no illness.

At least not right now. Because of course, bad stuff happens. Nobody gets to go through life without some extremely lousy miserable tiger-level stuff. But I’m not there as I write this.

So, yay. Yay for an ordinary night loading a dishwasher. I’ve had other nights where that was all I wanted to get back, so I’ll take this.

If that’s you too, say yay.

###

Hey–I HAVE A BOOK COMING! How to Be a Happier Parent lands August 21, and you can absolutely pre-order it right this minute on IndieboundAmazon or Barnes and Noble.

If you feel like sharing this week’s e-mail, you can click HERE for a fun, customizable tweet about this post, or HERE for one about the 10 Mantras for Happier Parents. Also, Facebook for the POST, and Facebook for the MANTRAS. I’m always thrilled by the generous shares–you all are the best.

That’s it from me this week. If you’ve got a friend who’d love to get a vaguely sort of semi-weekly note about How to Be a Happier Parent (even when I’m not), please forward this, and if someone forwarded it to you, sign up here for more like this one.

KJ

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