“Apply the oxygen mask to yourself before assisting your child.” The flight attendant’s instructions never fail to unnerve me. I understand the logic, but the words smack of selfishness. We celebrate individualism. The ubiquitous devices of our time—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—begin with a letter that doubles as a personal pronoun.
Parenting should never be self-indulgent. As a father, I have assisted my children by fostering their embrace of creative muses. Whatever tools they needed, they had. Crayons. LEGOs. Cameras. My daughter knows she needn’t ask permission to borrow my laptop if her muse is demanding she write a short story. I know what that feels like, to have words pounding inside your skull in an attempt to escape.
As a toddler my daughter would occasionally awaken, alone and distressed. I would sing her troubled spirit back to sleep, and then, being already awake, enjoy her gentle breathing while releasing those skull-pounding words onto paper. I would write my pre-dawn musings—from serious examinations of the challenges of parenthood to whimsical reflections on how “why” was my daughter’s favorite word—and then put them away. At some point she began sleeping through the night. I put down my pen.
“Apply the oxygen mask to yourself before assisting your child.”
And now, years later, my daughter and I find ourselves on the campus of an art school for a pre-college visit. I take her hand. I’m so happy for you, I say. You’ll thrive here, surrounded by creative people just like you, passionate spirits who draw, paint, photograph, write. I share my pride, but I mask my envy. She has an artist’s observational eye, however. She sees the truth in my face, hears it in my voice, feels it in my grip. “Why don’t you write anymore, Dad?”
For sixteen years I have instructed my children to live a life of truth. But have I modeled that life? I told my muse that the demands of parenthood forced me to choose my children over her. But that is a lie. I did not have to choose, yet I took the easy path. One day not writing became two, then four, then a year, then a decade.
I hear in my daughter’s question that to her I am a fellow artist. Perhaps her artistic inspiration stemmed not solely from my provision of tools but from her witnessing my stolen moments of creative writing. She views me as having applied the mask to myself first, and she is grateful. But at some point I removed the mask. As I stand with her on that campus, I know her mask is secure. I know as well that it is time for me to return to my muse, and embrace the intake of purified air.
Patrick Ross is an award-winning journalist in northern Virginia. He is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction with the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and blogs about living an art-committed life at The Artist’s Road. He loves antique maps, historical biographies, and bacon.
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