“What are you supposed to do?” I ask her.
She rests her chin in her hand and says, “I don’t know. Whatever I want, I guess.”
“And this is homework?”
“Yes.” She pauses, and I can see her mind churning. It’s a little mind, a young mind, but a powerful one.
“What if I kept it like this?” she asks. “I could tell the teacher it’s a cow patty.”
She giggles into her hand and I let her, because hearing a child laugh is the closest thing you can get in this world to hearing an angel sing.
“That’s not bad,” I say, “but I don’t think that’s what your teacher had in mind. I think what she’s really after is for you to make something.”
“But I can’t make anything,” she says.
“Sure you can. It’s art.”
She moves her hand away from her chin. “What’s that mean?”
“That means you just need to have fun and not try so hard. You have to turn your insides out.”
She doesn’t seem to like that idea. I can’t blame her. Turning your insides out is a tough thing, whether it’s on paper or with clay. But it’s a good thing, too. It lets people know they aren’t alone and that when you get right down to it, everyone is the same regardless.
“What if I don’t do it right?” she asks.
“I don’t think you can do it wrong,” I tell her. “It’s like looking inside and what you feel and think and like, and taking a picture of it. The only difference is that to let everyone else see it, you have to use your hands and not Wal-mart.”
She sets to work then, mashing and rolling and shaping. She smiles and makes a joke, which makes us both laugh, but then comes the silence that creating always seems to bring. A holy silence. The sort of silence that comes just before nothing becomes Something.
I let her work, knowing that it’s much more play now.
Ten minutes later, she’s done. A smiling sun stares up at me, it’s rays drifting outward in small arcs to gather in the cold and the hopeless. I’m happy with the result. Not because it’s flawless, but because she did what she was supposed to—she turned herself inside out.
“Thanks for teaching me, Daddy,” she says.
I give an approving nod and offer a quiet welcome, but the truth is that she’s taught me much more.
Because I too wonder at this gray lump of life I’ve been given. I wonder what I can do with it and, more, what God wants me to do with it. There are times when I don’t think much can be done with it at all. It’s drab. Cold to the touch. And I think the best thing it could be, the very best, would somewhat resemble a cow patty.
But the great thing about our world and our God is that spending time with both shows us otherwise. We can be beautiful if we let ourselves. We can take that lump of life and make something of it, something that will inspire and comfort and gather in the cold and the hopeless.
No doubt about it.
Billy Coffey's first novel, Snow Day, will be released October 11, which means he still has some time to shape his own lump of clay. You can see what he's making by visiting his blog at billycoffey.com or connecting with him on Twitter at @billycoffey.