How the rare purple squirrel was saved from extinction

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. – Pablo Picasso

Father’s Day came, and Father’s Day went this year, and I was thinking a lot about my dad. It is a really hard day for me, some years more than others. I’m sure it’s a really hard day for a lot of people, given death, separation, family dynamics and abuse. But just like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, it’s very “in your face” in a public way, advertised for weeks with events and sales created around it and so much commercial hype that it’s not easily ignored. So every year since my father’s death I get through it, somehow.

A month or two ago, I passed a record store that had second-hand vinyl on sale, marked down to 50 cents. And there he was, a beardless, baby-faced, Gordon Lightfoot, staring at me. And there they were, in all caps, in a school-bus-yellow oval on the front cover, the words If You Could Read My Mind. Hundreds of other people had passed the store that day without knowing (or needing to know) that it was my father’s favourite song. But I knew. And so I picked up the album and took it to the cash, where I had a very lovely conversation with the cashier, who could relate when I told him the story (of course I told him the story, I am a storyteller). He was missing his father too, and I promised him a poem I wrote, a poem about my father that I didn’t start writing until 19 years after my father’s death. A poem about grief, loss, rage, reconciliation, acceptance and release. On Sundays/I plant flowers for you/folding tucking prayers into the earth/on Sundays. Then I went home, put the album on the turntable, dropped the needle in the groove, and cried (like I’m crying now incidentally). Fortunately the tears helped release some of the grief. And finally on the Saturday before Father’s Day, I put an end to my procrastination and dropped off a hand written copy of the poem at the store.

… a man chained by grief and desire in equal measure.

The story doesn’t end there though. The first time I heard the song after so many years the poetry of Lightfoot’s lyrics spoke to me across time and circumstance, it was as if my father was saying the words to me directly. I don’t know how old I was (probably in elementary school) when my dad told me that If You Could Read My Mind was his favourite song but even at that age, I knew it was important. As the child of divorced parents, I didn’t have the opportunity to spend as much time with my dad as other children might have with theirs. And so I held onto his revelation even more tightly, comforted by the thought that my father had shared something of his inner life with me that he may not have shared with anyone else. The imagery of the song is powerful, a ghost, a wishing well, a dark castle, a man chained by grief and desire in equal measure. “When you reach the part where the heartache comes/The hero would be me/But heroes often fail”.

We all have sad stories, and many of us have stories of abuse and trauma that we walk with on a daily basis. For me the key to healing is to become the hero of your story (I am using hero as a gender-neutral noun here). Examining your past and becoming a hero is not always an easy process, and it doesn’t come all at once, but it’s a worthwhile journey to embark on.

I stood confidently in the invisible cloak of the artistic visionary, purple-crayon-sabre at my side.

This year on Father’s Day I was too ill to buy flowers and plant them, which is what I had planned, and what I had done on the first Father’s Day after my dad’s death. I’m not going to pretend it was an easy day this year, it wasn’t, and I moped and dragged myself through it. But this week, on the mend, I was asking myself what where the most important lessons my dad taught me. As a visual artist he was always excited to share his knowledge with me. I distinctly remember him showing me how to create a colour wheel and introducing me to primary and secondary colours. It still feels like “every day magic” to me, taking two colours and making another. It’s almost like watching a new species appear before your eyes (okay, so I exaggerate, another storyteller’s prerogative) but it is actually amazing. I remember learning how to sharpen a pencil with an X-acto knife (way before my mother thought it was appropriate) and actually being good at it. I remember how accomplished I felt in art class when I was the only one who knew how to do it before the teacher taught us. But most of all I remember the purple squirrel. And it was only this week that I really understood why.

Great art picks up where nature ends. – Marc Chagall

When I was growing up, colouring books were banned in our household. Not out of any puritanical need to stifle creativity, rather the opposite, because my dad thought lines on a page were too confining for an artist, and not good for my inner muse. My mother agreed and I always had access to lots of paper, but there weren’t any colouring books around. And so one day, when my dad brought me to visit his sister’s children, I had the rare opportunity to colour in one. The cousin closest in age to me (a few months older) took one look at my masterpiece and instead of admiring my work, went full throttle into ridicule mode.

“Squirrels aren’t purple!” she announced with astonishment, “Squirrels are brown!” And the rest of my older cousins joined her, laughing. Keep in mind, I was a very sensitive only-child, used to the praise and attention of mostly kinder adults, so when my dad asked me how the visit was, I told him the story. Until this week I thought his response was helpful because it confirmed my inborn artistic perspective and talents, because he affirmed me as a fellow artist and defended me as a proud father. But now I understand there is another piece that makes this such a powerful story for me. It’s because my father turned me into the hero of the story – rather than leaving me in the role of victim (that I was certainly relating to at the time). With only a few words and a lot of heart-felt emotion, he told me that I could use any colour I wanted, because I was an artist. What I heard was that while everyone else (being my cousins, who he was clearly mad at) thought that squirrels could only be brown, black or grey I (wonderful daughter, hero of the tale) knew in my brave, bold, creative, artistic heart that squirrels could be any colour, even purple. I could feel his admiration for me and my perspective shifted immediately. With the sting of ridicule erased, I stood confidently in the invisible cloak of the artistic visionary, purple-crayon-sabre at my side. A few well timed words and a new way of looking at the situation had transformed me, not for a moment, not for a day but actually for a lifetime.

Art is not a thing, it is a way.  – Elbert Hubbard

Becoming the hero of your own story is not for the fainthearted. It is an ongoing and often challenging process. There is no one way to get there but with time, attention, counselling, and support you too can become the hero of even your most painful stories. And that is one of the many reasons it’s crucial for you to tell your own stories.

The hero would be me – Gordon Lightfoot

crayon box
Child’s crayon box. “But most of all, I remember the purple squirrel”
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