These people I know make real, tangible things, and I am almost always impressed by their abilities. The person who makes things in this world that impresses me the most is my wife. She makes coin pouches, sock monkeys, handbags, tote-bags, twirly-skirts, appliqued neckties, children's games, therapy toys, shrinky-dink barettes, and an endless supply of tchotchkies for people that never fail to bring a smile to their faces.
I do not make things. I lack any ability to conceptualize a final, organized object from a pile of other, smaller, haphazard objects. Give my wife some pipe-cleaners, a little modge-podge, some Twizzlers, a glue-gun, Alexander Henry fabric and a stapler and she'll make you a rad Eiffel Tower. I would make you the Eiffel Tower after the Tazmanian Devil had a seizure inside of it.
I wasn't always this way, though. I used to make things. Granted, it was in a highly facilitated environment, but, still, I made things. You know-- macaroni and Elmer's things.
When I was in pre-school, or whenever it was, I made a gift for my Mommy.
Here it is:
Any dreams my parents may have had that I would become an artist or a carpenter were no doubt assuredly and efficiently dashed. But I don't think they ever wanted me to be either.
I won't even comment about the wisdom behind giving 4-year-old children hammers, blocks of wood, and little nails. I'll let you comment about it, you little snarky-snark.
I remember that we were given a list of words that we could select-- each word obviously had to have an "O" in it so we could insert our charming little headshots. I chose "HOPE." I don't know why, but I'm glad I did.
It's kind of funny that this little gift resides in my house and not my parents. After all, it was a gift for my Mommy, wasn't it? My first name is written in all capital letters on the underside of the woodblock, I just noticed. Hmpf. How about that?
HOPE stayed at my parent's house for a long time, until it was time for me to go off to college. I remember going into my parent's room and, seeing it on my mother's bedside table, I pointed to it.
"I think I need that," I said.
"Okay," she said. She was never one to put up a solid fight, especially when it mattered.
I don't know why I needed it, or why I thought I needed it but, at eighteen years of age, I was pretty sure I needed that piece of wood and nails and photograph as I was about to go off to college. Maybe, looking back on it, it had something to do with Ron Powers.
Ron Powers is a writer and he appears as a talking head in the Ken Burns documentary on Mark Twain that I love fiercely, far more than any Mark Twain book itself. As Jacqueline Schwab's beautiful piano rendition of "Sweet Betsy from Pike" plays laconically in the background, Ron Powers quietly says this:
"When you become... unsure of who you are now, you go to... who you were when you knew who you were, and... try to.... read back... out of that."
I had never been more unsure of who I was than when I was about to enter college. I was a terrifically insecure, socially-petrified virgin who had never tasted a drop of alcohol, knobby-kneed, Jew-fro'd, bespectacled, awkward with dubiously-aligned teeth and a sabre-sharp sense-of-humor that had gotten him punched in the chest and thwacked with a hockey-stick on the late bus.
But, the little boy in that photograph?
Decidedly less complicated.
Scared of death and life, sure, but a nice, sweet boy. Yes, the dark circles were definitely forming beneath his eyes, for he did not sleep for weeks on end, fretting and worrying about this and that, and he would let no one cut his impossibly soft, chestnut hair because, well, I don't really remember why. When I was fifteen, my barber accidentally stabbed me in the back of the neck with his scissors and I briefly thought to myself, "Ah, maybe that was why." But it was probably a lot less rational than that.
If I tried now to read back out of who I was when I was four, I don't know quite how successful I'd be, and I don't know if there would be much of a point. I know who I am-- I think-- certainly more than I did when I was a freshman in college. On my first day on campus, by the way, I hid HOPE. One of my hallmates made fun of it, calling me a faggot or a girl or something, I don't really remember what he said, but I remember he was wearing a black wife-beater, black track shorts and no shoes, and he was standing in the doorway of my room, laughing at me. Later on, when I was alone, I put HOPE into a duffel bag in my closet and it did not come out again until sophomore year, when I was more comfortable with my room and my roommate and my hallmates and my skin and my hopes.
I love the kid in that picture. That kid who hadn't yet discovered sarcasm or the stage or heartbreak or violence or sex or Gilbert & Sullivan or mediocrity or college or much of anything, really. He'd discovered anxiety kind of early, but we can forgive him for that. For he'd also discovered HOPE.