the trouble with imaginary belly buttons

Garfield, Blythe, age 5, crayons and ink pen

“Mom!” Blythe’s running at me, distraughtly waving a piece of paper. “Mom! I’m throwing away my Garfield drawing!” “Your what?” “My Garfield drawing.” I’m baffled (and oddly enough not by her dramatic panache). Merely an hour before, she had pulled out this exact piece of paper, boasting in her deep orange creation. And now, well, now something’s quite different. So I ask again, “I heard what you said, but why? You loved this drawing. I love this drawing.” “BECAUSE!” she blurts, “Liam’s Garfield is BETTER!” The tears are uncontrolled now, tumbling off of her cheeks onto the floor, chased out of her by something I can’t see. “I made the claws too long, and look!” She bawls and points to a black dot right at the center of her cat’s tangerine-colored belly. “Garfield shouldn’t have a belly button; he’s a CAT!” The wailing ensues. I hold her tightly, hoping somehow my arms can squelch her grievous defeat and magically transfer confidence in her own work, but she really doesn’t want my consolation. In that moment, she can’t stomach my words of encouragement, my assurance of her worth as a creator, or the value of her creation. All she hears is that thief Comparison murmuring doubt and failure to her, and she believes it.

I recognize this thief myself, remembering as I hold my daughter, the way he steals the beauty of my days by diverting my thoughts to who I’m not. What I don’t have. Where I can’t be. He pilfers my carefree moments like the Grinch in his cave, always hoarding my time/preoccupation for himself. No, Comparison can never be content (or allow me to be); it’s just not his nature. But how can I explain this to the five-year old in my arms, clutching Garfield, now crumpled and tear-stained, between her palms? I’m silent but wanting. I want to impart courage, to speak to the doubt and feelings of failure luring her to shrink back, to open my chest and reveal those same anxieties of never being enough — always trumped by “better.” In this moment, I want for Blythe to be able to return to her younger self, creating wildly and unaware the world is watching or judging. But now, even at five, she knows the world is measuring her (and her creations) on its own terms, and Comparison complicity stands by, whispering “better.” Hugs hardly seem enough right now, but I squeeze a little tighter craving to distinguish those things myself. I remind her of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky we studied this week. When he performed the Rite of Spring for the first time in France, half of the crowd rioted claiming he was trying to destroy music; Stravinsky barely escaped (The Story of the Orchestra). Finally, Blythe quiets. Then, I speak softly to her ear, what I long to roar to her spirit, “You are enough. Be patient and keep creating the details that are important to you, even if they’re imaginary belly buttons.”

So, as a tribute to you, Blythe, and the artistry forming in you, here’s a few of my favorite pieces of art you created in the last year or so. And yes, you are just as impassioned and vibrant as your color choice. I love you, dear one. (For any of readers interested, you can read her titles, age and medium if you scroll over the image.)