It's my fault my daughter Ellen draws pictures of palm trees and sunsets. She makes happy little islands surrounded by wavy blue water and smiling seabirds dancing in the sky. Her pictures are finished quickly. Yet they are incredibly alive -- very different from my pathetic attempts, which usually end up overdone and dying.
As any parent knows, children have a blissful innocence, a courageous spontaneity and a clarity of vision that they easily express.
Most of us remember having that kind of freedom -- now mostly lost -- to imagine and dream, and the daring to use any crayon we could find to color it. Children don't let the outside world prejudice their drawings. Ellen doesn't analyze her pictures. She just draws them. I, however, analyze.
My palm trees are certainly drawn more accurately than hers. I take an incredible amount of time making sure the fronds on my trees are just as thin, straight and yellow-green as they might look in a photograph -- not thinking, of course, that if I really wanted a photograph, I could just use a camera.
I started doodling palm trees as a way to pass the time on a flight from Buffalo to Key West, Fla., about 30 years ago. I didn't think much about it. Drawing was just a passive way of releasing all the excitement I had bottled up inside me. I had never been to paradise before.
Years later I returned to the Keys with my wife and children, and started doodling again. And I began entertaining a frustrating idea. I thought if I could perfect my pictures to the point where somebody might say, "Gee, those are great. Would you like to sell one?" I could sketch out a living as some sort of wacked-out artist and afford my family a sandy driftwood conch shack on one of the lesser-known Lower Keys.
But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make a palm tree look like a palm tree. Ellen, on the other hand, drew a really good one the very first time. Well, it seemed like that, anyway. Or maybe I was just flattered by her imitation of my madness.
"No," I thought, examining her picture, "it is a good one!"
So I went at it again. But the harder I tried, the worse my palm trees got. Then one day after hours and hours of drawing and ripping up a lot of paper, I realized it wasn't perfect pictures I wanted after all. What I really wanted was to be as spontaneous and fully absorbed in life as Ellen. I wanted to shake loose the tightness and see the world again like she sees it.
Ellen assures me I can use any crayon in my box. No one will be offended if my horizon isn't straight or my sun isn't yellow. And I know she's right.
We adults often get way too caught up in efficiency and perfecting the process, rather than in just doing the work. Through Ellen, I'm discovering that we are unreasonably impatient, unnecessarily worrisome and tediously grave in the way we draw our grown-up pictures of life.
If Ellen and I could trade places for a moment, and she could see the world as I see it, I imagine Ellen might simply give it to me straight and say, "Dad, you really do need to stop torturing yourself if you expect to make any real art in the world."
My daughter is a wise teacher.
John Tilert lives in Hamburg.