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.


Unknown said...

I hope she will get better soon. And for her allround education, I know I 'll get some for my daughter, when she can read.

"Children play and draw with crayons practically every day, so why not make the experience more educational? This listing is for a set of 48 labels to stick in the crayons in a basic 48 pack of Crayola crayons so that while children are coloring, they are also exposed to the names of chemicals that will make those colors! So instead of thinking "I want green" they will think "I want Barium Nitrate Ba(NO3)2 Flame" "

roger flyer said...

So lovely Ben. The love of the father, the joy and heartbreak of the child whose vocation has been threatened.

Heartfelt prayers and love to you and your lovely family. Your blog is a gift in the darkness of the world wide web.

Unknown said...

And this is why Anna Grace has been from the day I met her "my favorite Australian artist." Please tell her I miss her and that I cannot wait to see more of her drawings.

Zac said...

This anecdote and your interpretation of it is bringing up memories of reading Arendt's "The Human Condition", specifically as it makes me think of her categories of Animal laborans, homo faber, and the vita activia. May your daughter's arm heal quickly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this. It reminds me of last summer when I became ill very suddenly with an indescribable headache and fever. My brother took me to the ER and I was admitted right away and basically told I had a migraine. I'd never had a migraine in my life, let alone headaches. This was very much out of the ordinary. Anyway, unconvinced I pushed for further testing and my condition worsened. The next day I was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. As I spent the next week in quarantine being injected with powerful antibiotics I feared for my brain. Meningitis is an infection of the meninges cells surrounding the brain. They swell up exerting pressure on the brain as well as the spinal chord. Bacterial Meningitis can cause permanent brain damage. I am a student, want-to-be professor. I feel like my brain is the one thing I really have going for me, so the possibility of loosing my capacity to think critically was not far from horrifying. Fortunately, the meds. were well received and I was out of there after a week with several more weeks of recovery at home in bed...reading.

Anonymous said...

I hope she heals quickly--and keeps her priorities!

jonathan said...

Ben, thanks for this post. A very similar thing happened to me when I was a teenager: I broke my wrist during a hockey game. It was traumatic not because my hockey season ended early, but because my major creative outlets, which were the most profound and personal of my adolescent activities (drawing and playing guitar), became next to impossible for nearly two months. Combined with a significant amount of teen angst, the experience sent me into a minor identity crisis. What good am I if I can't use my gifts?

Paul Tyson said...

Yes… our children remind us of what it means to be human. Strange, it is the pragmatic instrumental realism that is immature, not the mystical joy of the child. How is it that we grow so immature with age?

Pamela said...

I broke my wrist, as a teenager, while playing tennis - my great passion! It seemed like the end of the world and it was only in plaster for six weeks. Time (and the discovery of my averageness as a tennis player) sorted it all out.

The Charismanglican said...

Kids! They will toss aside our most intricate night time story-telling to get to the bottom of what really matters.

I remember being delighted to find out the connotations of the word "workmanship" in Ephesians 2:10. It forever changed the context of that verse so that "to do good works" was forever transformed in my mind into "to make life beautiful."

Looks like your daughter gets it. Hope her arm heals soon. makes for a long comment, but I can't help but share my own kid anecdote. My son Ethan was 6 years old. In his mind, arms are for gymnastics, stunts and parkour. He fell out of a tree he climbed at church and broke his arm. A few weeks after the cast was removed, he said this: "I miss having a cast. Can I break my arm again?"


kim fabricius said...

If I had been in the park with my daughter when she was a child (she's getting married in October) and she had broken her arm, when we got home my wife would have made sure that I joined her.

roger flyer said...

I woke up this morning with a guy named Billy McLaughlin on my mind. Then I connected his story
with Ben's post.

For all you artists and mad musicians who check in here...

"For twenty years, (Billy) astounded audiences around the world with his complex and rhythmic music.

In 2001, Billy was diagnosed with Focal Dystonia, an incurable neuromuscular disease that rendered him unable to play his own music.

By 2002, Billy McLaughlin's career was over.

In 2006, Billy began a comeback. He was doing the unthinkable - relearning his songs left handed.
Billy McLaughlin is astounding audiences once again with both his story and his music..."

Ben Myers said...

Well, my fears that she would stop drawing have proved unfounded: today she started drawing with her left hand, and with her mouth!

kenotic said...

I broke my collar bone right before Christmas break during my 2nd year of seminary. I was able to postpone my Greek exam for a month. So, the break was actually extremely beneficial for my academic career.

Erin said...

Warming story, Ben. May you both have a speedy recovery!

dan said...

Personally, having suffered a major break in my ankle not that long ago (surgery, steel rods and plates, etc.), I found myself relieved to have lost my utility and mobility. It was glorious (a far better experience than when I broke my arm and wrist as a child). Sometimes I make plans to break my other ankle so that I can go through the experience again.

Fat said...

Ben - developing the left hand is a good thing - Our daughter having broken both her arms at different times is able to draw and write equally well with both hands and educationally it is very beneficial because it develops both sides of the brain.

Chris said...

Thanks for your great post Ben! I was touched. I fractured my ankle several years back, right in the beginning of the training season. But I worked hard to get back on the team, and eventually made it to the competition! So I'm sure your daughter won't give up her passion over a break - it's these falls that make us stronger!

The Sketchy Ice Creams clip also prompted me to make a post on my blog :P (Which you can read at Thanks for the heads up!

Pamela said...

Ben, I can recommend an excellent little book for yourself/others and Anna to read about drawing. It's called 'Drawing Together' by Mimi Thebo, Walker Books.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Pamela — I'll get a copy.

DorothySay said...

Ben..I've just stumbled on your post.
I look forward to pulling your up frequently, as we seem to have very similar interests (I'm a grad of the University of Chicago Div school)--
WHERE can I get that magnificent pin about reading more Barth?
Elaine W.
Chicago, IL

Kelly said...

Wow, touching story! I used to draw a lot when I was young, but the spirit of your daugter is amazing. Inspiring. Thanks.

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