Of girls, and creation, and the truth revealed in the depths of our shadows.
Dear Thomas Alan:
First, we should talk about girls. I think it should now be universally acknowledged that you, my boy, are much admired. Without us even realizing it, you’ve become the idée fixe of an increasing line of young women, several of whom have expressed an enthusiastic interest in becoming your betrothed.
And in your earnest defense, your reliable reaction to this news, which I share in this triennial birthday letter to you with only a hint of jealousy, is a dramatic, committed eye-roll. Which is to say, you’ve at least determined at this point in your life not to let such flattery define you. That’s worth something.
Last night I carried you in from the car after you’d fallen asleep on the way back from supper at your grandparents’ house. You were running a fever, and even though we worked to make sure you would blow out your candles and open presents in spite of not feeling well, it was clear you were spent. Your eyes were uncharacteristically weak; the bright flame of your curiosity had retreated. It wasn’t long before you’d nodded off.
Circumstances notwithstanding, it was a treat to hold you in my arms, to feel your heft, to balance you carefully through doors and down halls. Had you been awake, you probably would have insisted upon walking in–one of your common refrains recently has been a reminder that you are not your two-and-a-half year-old sister. You are determined to be treated as a more grown-up kid, and you’ve done a lot to earn as much.
One of your foremost traits lends well to others’ habit of estimating you to be more than the sum of your years. You’ve developed a keen interest in how things are crafted, and you possess what I can only guess is a more than advanced cognition of determining the structural parts of a whole.
At Christmas you received, among several toys of such nature, a giant erector set, the kind from which you can build any number of complicated gizmos. It was probably the one gift that required a skillset just outside your capabilities, and yet you gravitated toward it with committed interest. So we cleared a space together in the playroom, and you organized the hundreds of parts and pieces, and you leafed through the instruction booklet, searching for which project to complete first. You chose a helicopter.
We spent hours putting it together, sitting in the floor, reading the schematics, searching for the right sized screw or nut. You portrayed a patience uncommon for most boys your age, even if your enthusiasm betrayed you now and then, forcing us to take a break to blow off pent up energy.
At first, I thought you would be most helpful in providing a smaller set of hands and the ability to work in the tight spaces the project created. That’s not entirely untrue, but I was somewhat shocked to see how strong and how broad your hands have become. The boy who was once a wrecking-ball toddler shows signs of becoming an oak of a man–and yet your dexterity was never in question. Two days of starting and stopping later, we had a remarkable, motorized helicopter whirling in front of us. In truth, we couldn’t have completed it without each other.
I was–and am–so grateful to have had the time to spend with you. We talked, father to son and vice versa, more than I expected. As often as your deepening intellect puts on its confident countenance, I am still surprised to see the ways in which you doubt yourself. Parents of children your age are probably apt to take such things quickly to heart, fearing it’s some kind of deficiency on our part–something we’re not giving enough of to you. I’m one of them, worried of somehow falling short in these formative years.
Because it’s a different bond we share, Thomas, than what your sisters and I have crafted. There’s no sense imagining it should or shouldn’t be. It is. Never before have I suddenly felt so self-aware in the model I am portraying to you. When you hurt, for one example, and you hide your tears, wiping them away before anyone notices, I see a startling portrayal of my own stolidity. Somehow I see my own faults magnified in any tiny reflection you might offer.
But here I go, again, with my regular sin of writing about myself when I aim to think only of you. This weekend in church, the priest’s homily centered on God’s peculiar decision to inhabit human flesh as his ultimate expression of love–itself a reminder of the remarkable nature of humanity. She urged us to recognize the hidden talents every being possesses as signs of wondrous, divine inspiration.
The message served as a booster shot for me to gather my own inherent talents, and it reminded me that it was time to set down another letter to you. And it was good grist in considering how important it is for me to see the natural talents springing forth from you as an extension of your Creator.
I was reminded of John Ruskin, who lived a long time ago and was a writer and critic of art and architecture. I read a lot of Ruskin in college. He wrote more than once about the importance of finding an occupation that was rooted in something one enjoyed–he connected soul and work and underscored it. His writing is best considered in its context, but I found a lot of it at the time to have a transcendent power. Consider this line:
I do not believe that ever any building was truly great, unless it had mighty masses, vigorous and deep, of shadow mingled with its surface.John ruskin, from the seven lamps of architecture
Ruskin’s point here is that architects should learn to think “in shadow,” to see buildings not just as they appear on paper, but as they will look when the rising or setting sun bathes them in dewy light. To do so ties the design of the building to the truth that we humans are full of cavernous recesses, each casting mysterious, scary, somber, angry, annoying, or uncanny shadows.
I have ventured long down this path to return to this point, my dear boy: while I might fear your imperfections and worry that they are borne from my own shortcoming, they are in fact beautiful in their own right, evidence of the fathoms of your heart and mind. The mighty masses, vigorous and deep, of shadow that fall upon you are merely signs of the remarkable creation you are.
Don’t rest on this praise, Thomas. Your two brilliant sisters need you to keep up. Happy birthday, T-Man. You’ve yet to waste a second of your six beloved years of life. Keep going.