There is little more that can change the trajectory of an afternoon than a dozen tubs of fresh modeling clay.
My girlfriend always jokes that only two kinds of parents exist: those who let their kids mix the clay’s colors into an inconceivable muddy brown, and those who don’t.
Because I fall in the latter camp – Team Brown, if you will – I keep just one unofficial rule:
Embrace the colors, then embrace the brown.
Make sticks, mudpies, poop even. Play, play, play with the brown, and when the clay becomes too dry to sculpt with, only then do we replace it with a new set of colors.
And so, as you can imagine, today is a very important day.
Bee bounds in from the store, bag of new clay in hand, as I maneuver Scout’s car seat through the kitchen door, kick off my boots in the garage. I unbuckle Scout and heat water for a bottle while Bee opens each color. She wants to make a zoo, she says, and could I help her search for animals on the Acer Switch?
We’ve been working on creativity. We’ve been working on making for the sake of making, without a plan, just for fun. For the sake of exploration and discovery, for finding the beauty in the accidental, for embracing mistakes and learning from them.
(It is hard for us both.)
And sometimes, a gal needs a plan.
I grab the Acer Switch and we sift through page after page of clay giraffe tutorials while Scout gulps his milk. Minutes later, long after his bottle is finished and his eyes have grown heavy, Bee settles on her plan and begins gathering colors, lost in the making of magic.
I once took a color theory class in college. Seated in a large room packed with sorority girls in nose rings, I learn this:
Brown is the color of wholesomeness, reliability, foundations. It is the color of home.
While Scout naps, I tidy the kitchen, slice apples, wash the whites, check my email. I start to draft a few responses, but then Bee asks if I’ll make the flamingo, and you know, I suppose I’ve always got time for a flamingo.
And so, we create. She with her giraffe, me with my flamingo, later a zebra, a snake. The moments pass quickly, Scout soon wakes.
I know enough to know that those rare perfect afternoons that stretch along happily – fully immersed in clay and cheer – inevitably end. I know enough to know that energy wanes, that excitement fades, that clay dries.
That sometimes the magic-making is enough to sustain the day.
That sometimes, it isn’t.
That there are afternoons in which brown doesn’t feel wholesome, or reliable.
That there are afternoon in which it feels brown, is all.
Scout wakes up slowly on my hip while Bee puts the finishing touch on her giraffe. We call for Ken – Come see the zoo! – and as Bee gives Ken the grand tour, Scout’s hand lunges at the table in one fell swoop.
In seconds, our hard-earned magic is squelched by the sound of a squished-and-flattened zebra, an ever-curious baby, an ever-disappointed toddler.
It wasn’t in the plan, of course.
Mistakes are never in the plan. Learning to flex, learning to forgive — this takes time, and thought, and much, much practice.
This is not my strong suit. If given the choice between learning from experience and learning from say, a textbook, I’ll get busy with my highlighter every time.
And yet, if parenting has taught me one thing, it’s this: Mistakes do not end you, mostly. Failing does not mean failing; it means failing and living to tell of it.
Brown does not always mean brown.
Ken picks up Scout as Bee and I try to reshape the zebra, but soon, it becomes clear we’ll have to go off-plan.
If we roll this up into a ball, we’ll get gray, I say. What gray animals do you know?
Her eyes light up, and it’s decided: Can you look up a hippo?
I’ve always got time for a hippo, too.
And so, we begin again. I grab the Acer, we look up a hippo. We mold and shape, trying our darndest to find beauty in the accidents, to flex and forgive, to allow ourselves a plan, to allow ourselves to veer from it all.
To fail and live to tell of it.
By the time Ken calls us for dinner, our zebra has blended into a hippo, our afternoon into an evening, our unshaped clay into a vibrant, bustling zoo.
I’d love to tell you that Bee far preferred the hippo to the zebra, that we successfully made proverbial lemonade out of lemons, that there was a reason for the mistake all along because it led us to our favorite hippo in all the land.
But she still misses that zebra.
And so, we will live to tell of it.
We will sit down for dinner, and afterwards, we’ll survey our busy little zoo on the dining room table. We’ll choose a few animals to keep forever, and we’ll return the rest to their tubs – colors mixed and marbled.
Tomorrow morning, she’ll ask for cashews and raisins, apple slices. She’ll busy herself at her desk, and she’ll open the tubs to see the colors are beginning to dull.
I’ll open the blinds, remind her to embrace the brown.
I’ll pour my morning coffee, remind myself the same.
This essay was written for Acer, a brand that builds computers for real life because they know what life is really like. Thanks for reading!
P.S. If you’re in the mood for your own crash course in creativity, failure and living to tell of it, take a peek at this online course from my friends at Brit+Co!