Wednesday, May 1, 2024

How We Become

back cover illustration from Emily and Arthur, 1975
This morning I got up as I have almost every May morning for as long as I can remember, and went barefoot out of the house to wash my face in the dew and pick flowers for my mother. I don't know why I do it, and I don't know that my mother even knows I get that dew all over my face and feel so at peace in the world this way. Something inside me just feels this is right, so I do. I used to take my own children out to do it when they were little, but I don't think the practice has stuck with them in adulthood. Why do I do this? What makes it so important to my identity?

I came back home after visiting my mother to find this old book on my table. Emily and Arthur, by Domitille de Préssensé. It was there because my daughter and I were recently going through the children's books, reminiscing, and I'd pulled out a few of my old favourites. 

In these old books from the 70's, I saw how I became me, and some of how my children became, as well. The girl in the image above is Emily. She's wearing red--always--and holding her beloved hedgehog Arthur among the flowers. She has interesting things in her house like a "long stocking" that I always thought must have been a wonderful thing to have. And because my name is Emily, I grew up thinking this little red-clothed Emily represented me. Is she the reason I love to wear red? Maybe! Red just feels like it belongs with me! I remember feeling a lot like the way this Emily looks, as a child. I remember the feeling I had one May morning when I went out to find my mother some flowers and got distracted looking at woodbugs on the log where I eventually broke off a beautiful Turkey Tail fungus to bring in for her. I remember when I handed her that beautiful Turkey Tail with a couple of flowers how it couldn't encapsulate all the beauty of the woodbugs on the log, or the special curve of the broken wood, or the smell of the bark or the happiness of my heart. But I hoped she knew it meant I loved her. I became that girl on the back of the book--the one who is delighted by small found things--and am now a mother and artist who is also just still Emily. Still wearing red and going into the flowers to be me. How many Emilys have been somehow defined by this book?

As a parent, and former educator, and as an artist I know how much our childhood experiences mean to our identities. I sat wondering this morning how the idea of washing my face in the dew came about. I feel like I've been doing it all my life, but I can't ever remember doing it with my mother. Then I saw another of the treasured childhood books, and I remembered: The fairies drink the dew! When I turned four, my father gave me a book called In Fairyland, Pictures from the Elf-World, by Richard Doyle. In this book the fairies dance and fly and race snails... and drink the dew! I remember trying to drink the dew off the plants as a child, imagining I was one of the fairies. I guess somehow this became part of my personal May Day celebration. This is how traditions are born, how they grow and change and define us. And... this is the power of art!

page 13 of Richard Doyle's "In Fairyland, Pictures from the Elf-World", 1870

I always knew these and other images were drawings made by artists. Even the text of Emily and Arthur is a hand-drawn piece of art. Now I can see its influence in my own birthday-card making, and I can see how Eric Carle's rainbow of fruits for the Hungry Caterpillar informed the way I set up any painting, now. Nothing is complete for me without a whole rainbow.

So what have I given my children through the books I chose for them? Some I'm not so proud of, I confess, and some I can see in their life-choices, now. Obviously they were also more drawn to the books that suited their personalities--this isn't a one-way system of influence. And I chose things that suited them. We know that every move we make as parents will have effects on our children's psyches, that every mistake we make will cost them in self-doubt and therapy dollars, one day, and we hope they'll carry our triumphs forward as courage and happiness into their adulthoods. Our children become themselves in the environment they're given. 

But our sphere of influence doesn't end with our children. It grows from each of us into the world around us, whether we're artists or teachers or foresters, diplomats or farmers. We're all creating and influencing each other every day. The choices we make in the language we use, in every bit of media we consume, and in the products we bring into our lives all influence everyone we come into contact with. And through our contact we become ourselves, in community. Living with this in mind is self-determination. This is how we become, as a species, or perhaps even as a planetary ecology. It's good to remember that in everything we do, we have a choice.