The other day the boys and I went hunting for leaves with which to make Leaf People, thanks to some inspiration found on Playful Learning. I told them we needed lots of leaves in different shapes, sizes and colors to make our Leaf People, and that’s the only direction I gave.
About halfway through our leaf hunt I realized I was doing something wrong.
It started when Evan came bounding over to me with half a leaf, ripped and brown and really unremarkable. I accepted it with fake enthusiasm — “Oooh, good one!” — and when he had turned away to search for more, I let it fall from my fingertips.
With Kostyn I was being more direct, showing him only the perfect ones, the brilliant reds and yellows with no browned corners or torn edges. “Look at this one, Kostyn!” I’d say, heralding a fallen leaf’s beauty and giving my son a subtle example of what he should be striving for.
The second time I silently rejected one of Evan’s broken leaves, Kostyn noticed.
“Mommy you dropped it!” he said, hurrying over to pick it up and give it back to me. He thought my letting it go was a mistake, and in that moment I realized it had been.
Perfection, unless we’re talking about God himself, exists only in the eye of the beholder. The gorgeous maple leaves I was gathering were perfect to me. But the giant brown poplar leaf pieces were in some way perfect to Evan. They were worthy of his attention, worthy enough for him to want to give them to his mommy. So why wasn’t I accepting them as beautiful, useful, and perfect in their own way?
It made me think about how ingrained the ideal of perfection is. From an early age we are shown what others deem “perfect.” Perfect bodies, perfect grades, perfect relationships. We’re wired to equate symmetry and proportion with beauty and perfection. But there is a time, before the judging world works its weariness into our psyches and souls, when perfection can be found in anything. A time when everything is useful, admired, wondrous. My boys are still in this phase. They still don’t mind an apple with a few bruises on it. They don’t notice the stains on the used Fisher Price playhouse we just bought at a garage sale. They showed the same level of excitement and awe at a trail of ants on the sidewalk as they did at a fleet of colorful hot air balloons lifting off right in front of them at dawn.
A few nights ago I spoke to the mother of a 12-year-old girl named Allie who has epilepsy, a seizure disorder she was diagnosed with at age 4. Her affliction is unusual in that she only has seizures at night, while she sleeps. So every single night for the past eight years her parents have taken shifts to sit by her bedside and watch her sleep, waiting for the first sign of a seizure so they can give her the medicine she needs to stop her from convulsing, foaming at the mouth and breathing irregularly. Allie’s father takes the more difficult 11 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. shift. He sits on the floor and tries to stay awake, but he keeps his hand resting on her back all night long; that way if he dozes off he’ll feel her begin to convulse and will wake up in time to help her.
If that isn’t perfect love, I don’t know what is.
Before she was diagnosed, she was a bright 4-year-old who already was reading and writing. But she now has a continual spike on her EEG from the minute she falls asleep to the minute she wakes up, and that constant rush of extra electricity keeps her brain from doing what it’s supposed to do at night — processing and storing the day’s information.
Allie can no longer read or write, and has been trying for eight frustrating years to regain that ability. She’s supposed to be in seventh grade, but developmentally she’s in first grade.
“She’s in Life Skills now,” her mother told me. “I never, ever thought I’d have a child in Life Skills.” Allie’s Life Skills room was moved to the end of the hallway this past year, her mother said. “It’s as if they’re putting those kids away where nobody can see them.”
As she said the words, I imagined myself letting go of Evan’s leaf pieces without so much as a backward glance.
The whole conversation made me think of Evan’s leaves and how perfect they are, as Allie is, in God’s eyes. For the sake of Allie’s frustration and her parents’ heartbreak, I wish her epilepsy would disappear. I wish she’d be able to progress in her studies. I wish her whole family might someday get a decent night’s sleep. But her mother was quick to tell me not to pity them.
“Don’t feel sorry for us,” she said. “Everybody has their stuff, and this is our stuff.”
It’s true, isn’t it? We are all like those poplar leaf pieces as much as we are like the brilliant maple leaves. We are all torn and jagged, with a burnt edge here and a broken stem there. And we are all beautiful and unique and perfect in our own ways too.
So an afternoon art project ended up being more of a life lesson. Thankfully we’d used both kinds — the whole and the torn, the brown and the brilliant — to make our Leaf People. I guess we’d made them in our own image without even realizing it.
I’d say that’s pretty perfect.