I’m nearing the end of a weeklong stay in California with my dad, stepmom, and 9-year-old brother. My brother has his first swim meet this Saturday. Even though he can swim 50m in around 30s (if he’s rested, he says), he was reluctant to sign up–he says he likes to swim “just for fun.” I was taken aback.
I think it’s because I’ve lived in Boston for 5 years, hung out in some Harvard circles, etc. that I can’t understand not wanting to “win.”
“Don’t you love the thrill of defeating others?!” I teased him. He shrugged.
Fun with Colored Pencils
Then this afternoon when he had used up his screen time for the day, we sat down to draw. At first I just did some hand lettering, but then I got out his jumbo box of colored pencils and started to sketch a Rainier cherry out of sheer happiness–I’m usually too cheap to buy them in Boston, but they cost less here and my stepmom always stocks the fridge with them when she knows I’m coming.
“Whoa,” he said after watching me draw for a while. “Now that I see what you’re drawing, I’m pretty much just wasting my time.”
I didn’t think so at all, and I felt sad that he felt that way. He had just completed a red and blue shaded cube that looked like it could be the logo of some Silicon Valley startup.
And meanwhile my cherry was pretty unremarkable. But before I could say so he ran from the table and returned with his fidget spinner.
“Draw this!” he said, plonking it in front of me and busily rummaging his box for green and purple and blue colored pencils.
Rainier Cherry to Fidget Spinner
He reminded me of when I was his age, how my mom’s drawing ability dumbfounded me, and I always wanted her to draw one thing or another. In hindsight she was probably just above average, but compared to what I was capable of, at the time she seemed incredible.
So I obliged him and penciled out the fidget spinner as best as I could. He didn’t choose an easy subject for me. With hard-leaded pencils, drawing a multicolored and scratched manmade object proved time-consuming and difficult, and at first I fixated on the mediocrity of my drawing. I missed every highlight, misplaced every shadow, blended colors clumsily.
But I found I was enjoying myself, slipping comfortably back to a time of life when not everything was measured, given “feedback,” compared with the work of peers, when the pleasure of pencil and paper and color were enough.
On being THE BEST
As I drew, I thought something a dear friend of mine said once. I consider her to be one of the most talented artists I know, but she is generally reluctant to share her work.
“If you’re going to share something here,” she’d say when we were both living in Boston, “it has to be THE BEST.”
I knew what she meant. Among our classmates, somehow in addition to being academic rockstars, people were not just piano players or dancers or soldiers–they’d gotten a masters in piano performance from NEC, back-up danced for the Black-Eyed Peas, been a Navy SEAL… etc.
This emphasis on excellence has been a gift and a curse. On the one hand, I’ve learned to really give my all in my work for the glory of God. I’ve learned to “feel his pleasure when I run,” as the often quoted phrase from Chariots of Fire goes. When I lived in the suburbs of Ohio, I would sometimes hide both my intellectual passions and abilities for fear of being judged or being too out of place. I have loved that while at Harvard, I could let my gifts and geekiness fly because hey–at most I’d only be slightly above average.
But at a gathering of leaders at my church recently, many of us shared about how that drive to excel makes it feel very impermissible to fail, to be a mess, to be the struggling sinners we actually are. At our church especially, that pressure is heavy. While it makes for very put-together services, it also makes us look a little too much like the broken City around us, a little too enslaved to the very same idols. We are working to let go of those facades.
So I decided to post my very mediocre fidget spinner drawing. While a part of me wants my brother to see all the ways it’s not good so that he can have a better eye for aesthetics, I’m also grateful for these dwindling days when he’s not being measured or trying to measure up. I know that for a kid who once declared that he wants to go to “CIT,” (he means Caltech…) those days are numbered.
As an aside, I did take some group drawing lessons as a child, but unfortunately my parents’ money was not very well spent. At one point our teacher would set out some fruit for our little class to sketch, and as we worked she’d head to her room. A few minutes later, she’d emerge in clubbing attire, make some comments on our progress, and leave us in the charge of her elderly mother. So I learned a little bit about highlights and shadows, but only enough to raise my standards and make me a much tougher critic.