Tending Imaginary Sheep

“Mama, can you help me shear my sheep?”

Although we live in a big city apartment, my three-year-old is blossoming into a fine imaginary shepherd. Equipped with a pair of red plastic tongs, he gently coaxes his herd out of the dining room and into the kitchen where we work together to snip wool from each member of his sheep family. We scratch them behind the ears and nuzzle their wet noses. They baa, giggling when we tickle their tummies. We diligently load the invisible wool into his small plastic dump truck, sending it off to be spun into imaginary yarn.

Longing to share his purposeful concentration, I commit myself to sheep shearing. In the privacy of our kitchen, I allow myself to become unselfconsciously, luxuriously absorbed.”

As a writer, I understand how deeply satisfying it is to be completely absorbed in an invented world. As a mother, I’m honored to be invited to tend my child’s imaginary flock. It means he trusts me to take his creative work as seriously as I expect adults to take my own. But also there is a special purity to his endeavor. While I must stay focused on my final product, he is free to be blissfully process oriented.

At three, my son has yet to internalize the adult concept of time. He is gloriously unburdened by my grown-up notion that time must be spent productively. Flow, the deeply satisfying feeling of being immersed in the creative thought process, is immediately accessible to him.

Longing to share his purposeful concentration, I commit myself to sheep shearing. In the privacy of our kitchen, I allow myself to become unselfconsciously, luxuriously absorbed. But I cannot hold back the passage of time. Church bells confirm that evening has arrived. The baby cries to be nursed, dinner must be cooked and dishes are piled high in the sink. Practical concerns always seem to invade our creative space just as we hit our imaginative stride.

Putting an end to our play is painful for both of us. My five-minute warning functions only as a premature interruption, turning a sweet moment bitter by disrupting our suspended disbelief. I attempt to keep playing even as I nurse the baby while pulling ingredients out of the fridge. But the jig is up. I’m no longer a carefree shepherd and we both know it.

“The sheep are tired now. It’s their bedtime.” I suggest, hoping for a graceful exit. “No, it’s not.” My son whispers, betrayed. I’ve broken the spell and let my rushed tone, my real world urgency shatter his calm. Poof, the sheep evaporate, our happy moment of focused cooperation along with it.

Imagination is the mechanism by which children explore the mysteries of the world, making important connections and discoveries. We adults, even those of us in creative fields, can easily sabotage our imaginative potential when we undervalue process in our rush to work more efficiently. But serious thought, especially creative thought, requires blocks of focused time.

This is a need I want to honor in my children. But often I find myself modeling just the opposite, for instance pestering my son with urgent demands when he is deeply engaged in imaginative play. He’ll be attentively tending a feverish teddy bear and I’ll step right into the middle of it, ordering him to put on his shoes and socks, “Right now!” When he doesn’t switch gears immediately and jump at my orders, I lose my patience and snap unkindly. Conflict escalates — calm evaporates. Remorse comes tumbling after.

My discomfort with slowness, guilt about time wasted or unproductively spent makes me fret if I’m not doing multiple things each moment I’m not truly maximizing time’s potential. It’s not for lack of knowing better. I have read  about the downside of maternal multitasking. When we multitask we subject ourselves to an increase in negative emotions, stress and feelings of conflict. Yet, there are places to be, chores to complete, deadlines to meet and commitments to honor. How then can I teach my children to move gracefully between their creative pursuits and practical responsibilities?

The glimmer of an answer comes with my son’s favorite question, “Can I help?” He stands atop a wooden chair next to me at the kitchen counter, peeling carrots. I hold them steady while he carefully positions the peeler. Orange ribbons dance to the cutting board in long fluttering strips. He laughs, delighted. His eyes have that same look of intense concentration he gets when we are shearing our sheep. He works deliberately, gaining confidence with each turn of his wrist. I tune out my peripheral thoughts, slow myself down and join him in the flow.

Hallie Palladino is a playwright and essayist. Her most recent essay Gather the Stars appears in The Point Magazine and her plays have been featured in Idle Muse’s Athena Festival, PFP’s LezPlay and Something Marvelous. She has performed at a numerous Chicago live lit venues including Tuesday Funk which she co-founded. She lives and writes on the north side of Chicago.