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Susanna Birdsong's picture

When I was in elementary school, my mom (an artist) and I (decidedly not an artist) entered a recycled art contest being held in a local park.  My entry was a snake made out of Coke cans that I glued together in a straight line.  I think I made a forked tongue out of a piece of newspaper and called it a day.  My mom’s entry was much more involved.  She created two human figures out of wire, using papier mache on the frames to fill them out.  She found an old wooden window in a salvage yard, and placed the figures on either side of the window so that they peered at each other.  They didn’t have expressions, but the postures of the figures left no doubt that they were curious about each other, and about the world on the other side of the window.  It was really great, and everyone was drawn to it.  In fact, I think she was the only one who was surprised when her entry won first place in the contest. 

My mom is responsible for so much of who I am and what I believe that it would be really hard to list everything here.  But this art project of hers—along with her reaction to winning the contest—exemplify two of the most important things I have learned from her. 

The first is that there is no substitute for curiosity and wonder, and that the desire to discover is something that should be cultivated and deeply valued.  The figures that she created were the essence of her appreciation for discovery and curiosity about the world around us.  This is something she has always encouraged in me, and it has resulted in life experiences and taking chances that I wouldn’t have had if she hadn’t been there telling me to go for it.  This appreciation of new and different people and places also lends itself well to thinking about the world as it is and as it could be—and of continuing to strive to reconcile the two.  We continue to have a lot of “but why” conversations—although now these conversations tend to focus on much harder nuts to crack, like gender equity and life balance and the structural changes that need to happen in order for things to be different.  Sometimes I’m sure she wishes the “but why” phase was over—it’s more complicated now than it was when I was 5 and the questions were more straightforward—“but why do vegetables make me strong?” or at least more entertaining—“but why aren’t there unicorns?”  But since she continues to encourage it, she reaps what she sows!      

The second lesson is that humility and confidence each have a place in my daily life, and this balance is critically important to success.  My mom expressed confidence in entering the contest, and in creating a piece of art that was unique and physically large.  She believed that she had something important to contribute, and so did.  Yet she was humble in winning, and deeply appreciative of all the other entries in the park that day—even down to my ridiculously simple snake, which I’m sure she still has in the attic somewhere.  She has always been confident enough to take chances and to strive for the next goal—but continues to recognize that there is much she can learn from others.  This balance in self-confidence and appreciation of others is something that I strive for in my work and in my life, every single day.

These lessons have always been so valuable to me—and now that I’m a mom too, I only hope that I can provide the same kind of guidance to my daughter.  On Mother’s Day, a big THANK YOU to my mom for all that she is, and for all that she has made me! 




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