A client of mine best engages in therapy while sitting at the table making layered paper cutout scenes or ink and watercolor pictures – hands flying freely, with what appears to be no concentration or plan, creating intricate and delightful images while delving into the realms of identity, purpose, values, attachment patterns, and childhood adverse conditions. In the course of a recent session, I became curious about their childhood artistic expression and wondered aloud if they remembered their first piece of art, or any special creations they made as a child. They didn’t recall anything in particular, and returned the question to me. I replied, “yes, actually”, and resumed focus on their present experience of art related to the treatment areas.
There are infinite prompts for exploring personal narratives, a simple query about some past aspect of one’s relationship to the world around them (pets, people, play, places, things, losses, traditions, etc.), can yield a story that yearns to be heard. These stories are the puzzle pieces of experience that come together, connecting into that larger image of who a person is.
For this month’s blog post, I’m pulling out an essay that answers fully my client’s question back to me, “do you remember your first piece of art?”. I wrote about it a few years back while taking a Women Writing for a Change course.
The Bird’s Nest
San Francisco, more specifically “The Haight”, circa 1972. In the kindergarten program I attended, we got to work with clay. I remember vividly carrying home my finished creation; it’s the first memory I have of joyful pride. My creation was a bird’s nest crafted of those classic ropes of clay wound around and around continuously, attached to a flat bottom, roughly 2 inches high and 5 inches in diameter. In the middle were three small eggs and a mother bird sitting on them. The entire thing a monochromatic dried clay gray. It was a gift for my mother and I knew she would love it. Walking home, I stopped at the small corner store just down the hill from our flat to buy a red, white and blue rocket pop – vintage ice cream confection stored in those freezers with pictures of the various choices colorfully depicted on the sides, with a top of sliding glass doors that allow you to see what is there before reaching in to make your selection.
Standing in line, I don’t think a kid could have been happier. In one hand my creation, in the other my treat. The lack of hands became a problem when it was time to pay. I settled the nest onto the crook of my arm, resting it on the triangle of my elbow, forearm and bicep held steadily parallel to the floor. I gingerly reached into my pocket to get the money. Immediately the nest fell from its perch and shattered onto the floor. Even now my stomach lurches thinking about it. I see it from a distance in slow motion and feel the child’s reeling reaction from the shock.
The screen goes blank.
Sometime a few years later, now in Indiana and in maybe the 3rdgrade, I decided to re-create the bird’s nest and fulfill my desire to give it to my mother. Even through the years, and across the distance, it was still my most precious creation, and I carried a deep sadness that my mother never saw it.
The nest was much more than a child’s art piece, it symbolized a time and place that was, up to then, my happiest.
The second nest was dark gray, made of the kind of clay that does not dry hard, but stays supple. If it falls it splats and misshapes, but does not crumble. I’m not sure where I got it. Rolling the clay back and forth between my hands, I set about making the long rope that would coil into the proper nest shape. Painstakingly I shaped the little eggs and the mama bird to sit on them, just as my five- year- old self had done. When it was finished, I once again swelled with joyous pride and excited anticipation to finally bestow the gift to my mother.
Her response was as devastating as the sound of the first one shattering on the corner store floor.
Rather than a heartfelt appreciation of my exacting effort in recreating a precious thing from the past, she commented on the inaccuracy of the proportions. She critiqued it as if it were indeed a bird’s nest scientific replica, informing me that mother birds nestle into nests, using the sides to help keep the eggs warm, and other such irrelevant facts. In the midst of her response she was, however, pleased to finally receive my beloved nest. She placed it in the north facing widow between her antique iron bed and the small desk, in the room that was both bedroom and living room of our small apartment.
In the opening of The Little Prince, the pilot describes the childhood experience of having his art criticized and misunderstood. It’s the passage I read at the beginning of my ‘Introduction to Play Therapy’ workshops and classes.
“That is why at the age of six, I gave up what might have been a magnificent career as a painter. I had been disheartened… Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them…”
He further relates setting aside the artistic self for more practical matters and “living alone, without anyone I could really talk to.” In these words of Antoine De Saint-Exupery, I’ve found companionship. I’ve always been a constricted artist; perfectionism limits the ability to express fully. Perhaps more significant is the existential despair that always lingers around the edges.
My mother didn’t understand my bird’s nest.