Monday, 30 August 2010

What are arms for?

My five-year-old daughter wants to be an artist. Or to be more precise, she would tell you that she is an artist: this is the first piece of information you'd get, maybe after she tells you her name. From dawn to dusk she can happily do nothing but sit and draw: dozens of pictures, hundreds of them, reams of paper cramming the drawers and cupboards. She could draw us out of house and home. They turn up everywhere. I pull down some obscure 19th-century novel from the shelf, and likely as not I'll find a little bookmark inside, some improbable drawing that she's planted there, hidden away for its uncertain day of discovery – or never found at all, it's all the same to her. When I'm away, I call her on the phone and she gives me breathless reports on the day's drawings. She lives for drawing: she breathes in air and breathes out pictures.

Yesterday while I was playing with her at the park, she fell and broke her arm. We didn't get a wink of sleep all night: she lay in the bed next to me tossing and turning and crying, wanting me to stroke her arm – but without touching it. She asked for a story, so in the dark I told her a long somnolent story about a Russian prince who disguised himself as a pauper and went out one winter afternoon to see how the townspeople live. The prince walked from his palace into the hustle and bustle of the town, and no one recognised him. But he wasn't used to the big streets, the mud, the slick black pools of ice on the ground, and he slipped in the road and broke his arm. The people in the cold street rushed to help him. A man in a huge coat took him back to a little house down the lane, and made him lie down while the man's wife tore one of their sheets and bound his arm. Then she fussed over him and brought him hot stew and a big piece of hard stale bread, and implored him to stay the night with them. It was the smallest house the prince had ever seen: smaller than just one of the great wardrobes in the palace. It was damp and musty with low ceilings (not a single chandelier), one tiny kitchen window, and a few pieces of small plain hard-edged furniture. They made up a bed for the prince beside the kitchen. It was hardest mattress he had ever known, and the thinnest blanket too. But the fire in the stove was warm and good, and a light snow was falling outside; before long the prince had closed his eyes, and he never slept better in his life (broken arm and all). In the morning he went on his way, stepping very gingerly on the icy road. The man and his wife never learned the identity of their guest that night; in fact, they soon forgot all about him. The prince never saw them again either. But as the years passed, from time to time they would wake on a Sunday morning and find – to their never-ceasing puzzlement and surprise – that someone had pushed open the kitchen window and slipped something on to the sill. A silver coin, or some cheese, or a parcel of fine meats, or, once, a single yellow flower, bright and strange and welcoming as sunlight in the room.

When the story was finished, there was a long silence. Relieved, I thought she had finally fallen asleep. But then at last she erupted with an enormous sob, and said: "But it's my drawing arm... I won't be able to draw!"

Have you ever broken a limb – as an adult, I mean? In the same situation, you or I would be worrying about the loss of utility: how will I drive? how will I shower? how will I cut my food? But little Anna sees her arm for what it really is: not a useful tool but a boundless aesthetic resource, a limber extension by which shapeless nature and wild chaotic imagination are disciplined into form. The arm is the mind's pencil, the heart's crayon; it is an instrument not of work but of making. One needs it because one needs (every day) to draw the world into being. If one also occasionally uses the arm to brush one's teeth, then so much the better: it is a happy coincidence, a side-effect of the fingers' capacity to grasp a pencil.

So lying in the dark while my daughter wrestled with her pain, that awful bone-cracking discovery of an inhospitable world, I found myself praying. Not just for relief from the pain, or for sleep, but also (and especially) for her tremendous intuition about what her little limbs are for – what she is for. May her arm still ache to draw the day the cast comes off. May she never grow satisfied with the tawdry three-dimensional drabness of this world. May she always long to colour it, to flatten it into shape, to bring forth those bustling graphite landscapes where all the birds smile knowingly and children's faces stretch out wide from ear to ear, straining to contain the enormous shining bubbles of their eyes.

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