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On Michael Leunig and motherhood

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Michael Leunig at the 2012 International Biennial Parks Leadership Conference in Adelaide. Photo: Bahudhara
Michael Leunig at the 2012 International Biennial Parks Leadership Conference in Adelaide. Photo: Bahudhara

I saw the cartoonist Michael Leunig the other day, along with a couple of hundred other people, at an event hosted by the Broken Bay diocese. It was a conversation between Leunig and Dr David Ranson of the Catholic Institute of Sydney on the topic of Faith and Grace in Everyday Life.

I’ve enjoyed Leunig’s cartoons ever since I began reading The Sydney Morning Herald as a teenager. The two men covered a lot of ground in two hours but one theme that Leunig spoke about was creativity, recounting the process he often goes through in creating his cartoons.

He often begins with a good idea, which quickly becomes a mess when he tries to translate it onto paper, he explained. “Then I try to fix it up and I just make it worse, it’s hopeless, and I think ‘oh, why am I doing this, I’m uneducated, I’m not fit for this’… all these doubts still come in after all this time,” he said.

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In the end, after hours of this he gives up on his ideas, which lie in tatters around him, and sits in despair while the clock ticks on towards day’s end. It is a painful place to be, he said, but he’s learnt the value of remaining there.

Because it’s precisely there in the mess and nothingness that “something comes through, a little thread, and now that I’m free because there’s nothing else I can do, I can just play. I can pull that little thread and follow where it goes, I can start to push the bits of things around and see where they might fit together in different ways.”

It is in shedding anxiety and regressing to or regaining childhood pre-verbal innocence and receptivity that creativity is possible, he believes. “It is lost and found all the time.”

Leunig went on to say that he thought that this process was not only true of art but of much of life as well.

Isn’t it ever! I immediately applied it to motherhood, and to the little way of spiritual childhood; even to the teachings of St John of the Cross – a master of the spiritual life.

Am I the kind of mother I imagined I would be when I was growing up or newly married? No way. I’m not even close to that vision of maternal perfection and it’s been painful, the shattering of that false idol many times over the years.

But with those unrealistic ideals broken up at my feet I can stoop and notice the beautiful little shards of mother-of-pearl along the path and make a humble little mosaic out of them; a full rainbow lighting up the sky on the big girls’ birthday; the sight of the preschooler’s upturned face, dark eyes glinting mischief; the weight of a sleep-warm baby; the sharp scent of the first day’s coffee. I can line them up and follow these threads of life a very long way.

With God I’m the co-creator of my life, and this time of mid-life is an especially interesting and creative time. It is a time when so much youthful energy and effort has come to naught, when I am humbled, again and again, brought down to the thought that there’s little that is good in my life for which I can take any credit.

It is uncomfortable, if not impossible, to sit in this space feeling the weight of oneself without reaching for self-justifications or the validation of others.

And then, of course, just as Leunig described, it is always “lost and found”.

For God never seems to leave me in this state for longer than a day or two before giving at least a glimmer or an abundance of light and enjoyment in the simple things of everyday life.

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