Art and the Sensitive Kid

Over a month ago our family visited a sculpture park. We explored dozens of big sculptures, many of them fun, enchanting, climbable.

Among them was A Place to grow Old by Carly Greene.

I barely remember looking at it. I do remember a feeling of desolation around it. We didn’t go inside; we peered in between the charred, frayed bandages that make up its sides. August asked what it was called (because we’d been reading the placards with the titles of each sculpture) and I told her, and then we moved on.

Tonight as I sang her our usual sweet bedtime song, August started to cry, and to talk: Mama, I keep thinking about the place to grow old. I could barely understand her through the big sobs she was holding back. It took me a long time to figure out what she was talking about, this four year old. The sculpture. I can’t stop thinking about it, and it just makes me so sad, and it feels like there’s something coming from it to me that’s making me grow old. I even think about it at school, and I need something to make me feel better.

Such pure sadness from the inside of this little girl. And what to say? She was right—spooky, genius-level right: it was a sad piece of art, built to produce the exact kind of sob I was hearing come up from her. And she saw it like it was meant to be seen, felt it. And remembered it to herself for a month. And then could articulate that much of it. I need something to make me feel better. My astonishing child.

What should I have said? What could I say? I hugged her. I told her that she saw that sculpture just how the artist wanted people to see it. That she was feeling what the artist wanted people to feel, looking at what she made.

August sobbed more: Why would somebody want to make people feel sad? Oof. Maybe the artist was feeling sad like that, and wanted other people to see how she felt. Maybe she knew everybody feels sad sometimes, and wanted to show them she does too.

I didn’t want to say, think about sunshine and puppies, dear. But I wanted to offer her a way out of it. Can you think of another piece of art that makes you feel a different way? She couldn’t. She asked me to keep singing, and I did, and now she’s asleep.

I remember this, from childhood. Sensing a large and scary sadness in the world. Something like an ocean of dark. Something about the pinpoint of my very small self. Not having a name for it, and knowing nobody could help me with it. I’m in awe of my girl for trying to talk about it with me. I’m shaky with the treasure of her trust. What could I have done with it? Will she keep trying?

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3 thoughts on “Art and the Sensitive Kid

  1. This is beautiful.

    Maybe sometime, when she’s not trying to sleep, get out Ode to Joy or maybe even better- Beethoven’s 5th. The transition from the 3rd to the 4th movement sounds like pure joy to me. Back when I played in an orchestra, it was one of my favorite pieces to play. I played for many years, and played many less “popular” pieces, but Beethoven’s 5th is still my favorite. I can’t listen to that transition without smiling.

    If she’s going to have a sense for the sadness in the world, maybe it will help to have a sense for the great joy, too.

  2. It would be interesting to start some conversations with the kids about how music makes us feel. August is definitely more amazingly sensitive/perceptive with visual stuff than sound, though.

    Since this happened, we haven’t had more conversations about it. I brought it up once, but she didn’t have much to say. This summer, I want to give her a chance to see a bunch of kinds of visual art — see a range of emotion in it, and have the opportunity to learn as much as she wants.

  3. This is beautiful. We had an oddly similar experience recently – on Sunday, we were listening to a symphony in the car, and we got to church and when I turned the car off, Oliver burst into tears. “It was so beautiful,” he said. “It hurt! I’m crying! Why does something being beautiful have to actually hurt?” I turned the radio back on, and we were late. I plan to take him to the orchestra this summer. Art is many things, and one of those things is that is allows us to be brave in new ways.

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