Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Art Lesson

In an earlier post I talked about one of my seven-year-old son’s drawings, a picture of his father, which his teacher had criticized, saying “Does my torso look like that?” The drawing was an in-class assignment to illustrate a homework project called “the personal timeline.” For every year of my son’s life, he wrote one sentence describing something important that happened.

My son’s drawing is on a small white paper, about two inches square. Back in January, when he first showed it to me, he unfolded it from a tiny tight little bundle, as if he had tried to make it as small as possible. After I’d reassured him I thought it was a very good drawing, I asked if I could keep it. When he agreed, I tucked it among my credit cards.

A week or so ago, I pulled it from my purse to show a friend who directs an arts education program, while telling her the story of his teacher’s reaction. She shook her head, murmuring, “but art is about creating meaning…” She looked at the drawing intently, noting the simple figure, the flower-like hands, the black shoes, a long neck, a round head. A sun in the corner had been erased and then enlarged to take up about a quarter of the paper. “Did you ask him what it is?” My friend inquired.
“It’s his father.” I said.

“But what does it mean?” she said. “Look, the clothes are colored green. Do you think it’s a military uniform?”

I leaned over to look at the drawing with her, an uneasy feeling growing within me. It had been weeks since my son came home, eyes downcast, and handed me this picture, “do you think this is any good?” Weeks since we lay together at bedtime and talked about his feelings of anxiety in his classroom.

Why had I never thought to ask him what the picture meant?

I didn’t think to pursue it further. Why? I guess because… I thought I understood enough to know what action I needed to take. My son had drawn a loving, innocent portrait of his father. I saw my own seven-year-old self drawing and being criticized. My son was vulnerable and I needed to protect him. I thought that’s what was important, that I protect my son.

“Maybe it’s his father coming home,” my friend suggested.

I realized another reason I didn’t ask. I didn’t like to think about the fifteen months my husband was gone, the days of anxiety, the pretending I was okay, the occasional vortex of panic – the day my two-year-old turned off my cellphone ringer, and I ended up with six voicemail messages, the first only a jumble of voices screaming “call 9-1-1! call 9-1-1!” I didn’t know it, but my son had punched his hand through a window, and was bleeding profusely. The next message was my mother telling me she was riding in the ambulance with him to Children’s Hospital. Another time when our car battery died during a snowstorm in Tahoe and the car couldn’t be jumped because my keyless remote battery was also dead, and after hitching a ride with the tow truck, they closed the highway back and I thought I’d be separated from my children. Or the day I saw a newspaper headline, through the vending machine glass, a headline that yet another police station in Iraq had been bombed, prompting me to call my doctor’s office sobbing, “I need valium! I need valium!”

Later, after my friend had left and my three-year-old daughter was down for the night, I asked him. “Sweetie, what’s that drawing about? Is it for Daddy coming home?”

“No, it’s for 2003.” My son had had trouble coming up with an event for that year, and I remembered that I mentioned that was the year the Iraq war started. So that’s what he’d used, “2003: The United States invades Iraq.”

“See Mom,” he explained, happy to be asked. “Daddy’s in the desert all alone, and this is the sun blazing down on him.”

I remember when my son read us all the elements of his personal timeline, 2003 upset him. “Stupid Iraq,” he fumed, his face screwing up in an effort not to cry, “Why did Daddy have to go?” A reasonable question, and one his father answered soberly, “Because I am a soldier.”

For many of the families whose loved ones died, or whose loved ones came home physically or mentally disabled, and even for the lucky families, like mine, who merely suffered from the deployment’s separation, we ask this question:
Why did he have to go?

What does the war in Iraq mean?

It’s hard to listen to someone struggle with a question like this. It may be a lot easier to comment on how the proportions in their drawing aren’t accurate. Or to supply our own answer. But each and every search for meaning should be honored. And each and every answer, no matter how different, should be heard.

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  3. My father was in Vietnam off and on pretty much from when I was born til I was about 8 years old. The anxiety about him maybe being killed, I can still remember very well. But something I remember just as well was the confusion I felt about the whole war. But perhaps what was the most difficult thing to understand was why so many people were so against it. They were saying my father wasn't a hero. Yeah, that was a very tough thing to hear. It was like the whole world was saying somehow he was bad. When he finally came home for good at the very end of the war, I felt most of all relieved he came home alive and secretly I felt proud of him and thought of him as a hero anyway. And I still do.

  4. I have a lot of problems separating my feelings of despair and hate about this war (and yes, I think of it as one war) and the feelings I am supposed to have that these people who fight it are heroes. Poor kids who enlist because it is their only opportunity and they don't know what they are getting into. Gungho kids who think it will be a great fun experience, and don't know what they are getting into. And kids who think it is their duty, and don't know what hey are getting into. And myriad more. Very few go in with the intention of being able to hurt another people.But they all come home with different attitudes also. And hurts and problems and some measure of pride, I hope. I won't blame those who come home with no pride. But, how should I feel? Support the troops! Ok, I'll try, but I don't support what they were doing. I don't support the war or it's purposes.How can I reconcile this? I want these kids and adults to come home healthy, or at least alive.I want to support them. I will support, and never blame them. I will fight for their rights to health and follow up. But I hate what they were sent to do.I do not hate them. I am amazed at the courage it took to go there. How do I reconcile this?


Hi - Thanks for commenting on my blog! I want this site to be a place to gather stories and experiences and to share ideas on how we can overcome differences in all of our important relationships. In that spirit, civil discourse only please.
A note: Please don't use my husband's or children's real names in your comment. I try to afford them a modicum of privacy. Their pseudonyms are Barrett, Niko, and Gabriella. THANK YOU!