Amidst the articles on getting your toddler to behave (right) and how to keep your house free of clutter (eye roll), my eye was suddenly caught by an anecdote from a mom that merited more than the perfunctory gaze before moving on. The woman who told the story had become obsessed with organization since having children, namely with their toys. She couldn't stand the thought of having mixed pieces of toy sets, and so every night she sorted through every block and puzzle, all the toy sets and put each where it belonged. She went on in this manner, driving herself near crazy as her kids accumulated even more sets of toys, until the day her sun was allowed to pick out his first toy. She tried to steer him to balls and books and toys that didn't come with 101 pieces, but in the end he settled on a Sesame Street camper, complete with small figurines, a campfire, tent, and various other small parts. At first, she tried to keep it together, barking every time it was out that it was to be kept downstairs, rushing around picking up parts and putting it away almost as soon as her son got it out. Then she realized that she would eventually have to cook dinner, do laundry, and a host of other things, and would have to let him play with it unsupervised, and it would most likely get broken and pieces would become lost.
That night, for the first time, she offered her usual "lose this and be sorry" warning, and allowed him to take it where he would. She watched as he took the Cookie Monster part of the camper and carried it upstairs to his room, where it joined some other Cookie Monster friends. Then he took the camper part and used it to shuttle his Elmo to an Applebee's he built of blocks. As she stood there, she realized that while the thing was "no longer a set in the way we might conventionally use that term, its various pieces were all somehow deployed into service where they belonged."
She then quoted a parable, a very lovely parable from a zen master, Achaan Chaa. One day Achaan Chaa was asked by a student how he could remain at peace in a world that lacked any permanence. He held up the glass in his hand and said, "For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and my elbow brushes it and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say 'Of course'. When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious."
She came to understand that "that plastic cookie monster probably belonged in Coby's room even before it came out of the factory. That puzzle piece is lost before you tear off the shrink wrap, and the action figure is down the toilet or lost under the ficus even before you've paid for it. Maybe the best thing for compulsively ordered mamas like myself would be to once in a while take the whole darn camper and hurl it against the living room wall, recognizing that it's already broken and that every moment your child interacts with it, making sense of it in his own, albeit incomprehensible, way is precious."
The even harder lesson, she realized, was that it was "likely the thing I'm trying to sort, catalog, organize, and preserve for all eternity is not so much their stuff as their lives." The thing that was already broken, or more correctly, changing was their childhood, and that like the plastic toys and their million pieces that plagued her, they were moving on, growing into what they were meant to be and do.
Ely's room holds a kitchen complete with 42 pieces of food and dishes. I know this because I am obsessed with hunting down all 42 of those pieces and getting them back into the bin with it's faux wicker sticker that sits in the little kitchen. There is also an ABC animal play mat, with an animal for every letter, a zookeeper, a car for the zookeeper, and two minuscule food bins for the animals. Needless to say, another of my downfalls, and many hours spent digging under beds and in drawers for the lost seal and wayward flamingo. In my son's room are train tracks, some of a plastic set, and others of a wood set. In my opinion, plastic should be stored in the vintage 7-Up bin, wood in the drawer of the table they came with. Aidyn thinks the engines of both should be stored in his car drawer (which I probably shouldn't even start in on because I don't feel like a migraine this early in the morning), and both sets should be scattered together haphazardly around his room, with an array of different dinosaur sets mixed in for good measure.
I copied that parable out of the magazine last night and it is perched right now in front of me on my keyboard. I thought about it this morning and as I went through my morning motions, I looked at my home in a different light. In Ely's room, there is a doll in the sink and no sign of food anywhere. The small plastic pieces of bread and vegetables are over by the animals, minus one piece of chicken my daughter fed to the dog and ended up as plastic shards around my kitchen. Aidyn's room is a time and a place not seen before, where cars ride plastic and wood tracks without discrimination, and dinosaurs and cowboys work mutually to build a racetrack for train engines. Normally this is where the migraine would start, but I turned my mind around it and came up with a different scenario. The doll is in the sink is, of course, receiving a bath. The animals seem to be having a party, and one does need food for a grand event such as this. The chicken that is now in the garbage can was a gift of love from Ely to Bella, and who can fault her brilliance in putting together that mommy feeds Bella chicken every morning and out of all the pieces of food, she chose the chicken. Aidyn is simply showing his imagination, not letting the limitations of this world set any on his mind, and proving that seemingly incompatible characters do quite well in their mutual endeavors.
Further, in my grasping efforts to keep their toys and them contained in these perfect sets, trying vainly to make sense of the scattering and the growing, I am losing something precious. I am missing this small portion of their lives that, while a jumble and not always pleasant, can't be ordered and shouldn't be. I won't be able to keep those sets of toys together and contained the same way that I won't be able to manage every second of their lives in a way that keeps pain and sadness at bay and ensures a life of order, free of mess. In the same way the toys were meant to be scattered and that chicken was Bella's five minutes of chewing heaven, my kids will grow up, move on into the people they are meant to become, and choose their own paths that will probably have detours and disasters. And suddenly, I think I can grasp that and even be okay with it.
Now I'm off to enjoy the land of the dinosaurs and trains, get involved in that animal party, and maybe throw a few sets of perfectly ordered toys against a wall...