Celebrating “The Distance I Can Be From My Son”

In 2013, Lenka Clayton had a goal for a series of works she wanted to create via An Artist Residency in Motherhood. As she put it:

Artist residencies are usually designed as a way to allow artists to escape from the routines and responsibilities of their everyday lives. An Artist Residency in Motherhood is different. Set firmly inside the traditionally “inhospitable” environment of a family home, it subverts the art-world’s romanticization of the unattached artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labour for exploration and artistic production.

As part of this residency, she created a series of videos with a seemingly simple premise. Titled The Distance I Can Be From My Son, Clayton sets up a camera in a static location, then allows her son to walk into frame. He toddles away from her until she feels a need to rush into frame herself and keep him from going any further. At that moment, an on-screen tally shows the distance he travelled away from her in that location.

It’s a truly beautiful exploration of a range of emotions involved in parenting and creating art.

But let’s start at the ending.

It’s not just the number

At the end of each video, the final distance between Clayton and her son is measured.

But it was never just about the distance, but about the myriad concerns a parent weighs while watching a child move away from them.

It’s a punchline, and an effective one.

But by reducing it to an objective measurement, we quantify all those questions inside a parents’ mind into an easy calculation.

It suggests a definitive answer to a constantly renegotiated situation.

The camera is Lenka Clayton, and also not Lenka Clayton

As you watch the video, we see Clayton’s son trot into frame and look back at the camera. In that moment, given the title of the work and the framing, it feels like we’re seeing her son walk away from her in this moment through her eyes.

But at the end, the illusion is broken and Lenka runs into the frame to chase after her son. It breaks the illusion that we’re seeing her direct point of view.

Maybe the camera is a divided part of her perspective, suggesting that there is a fracture between the artist’s perspective and the mother’s perspective.

And yet, as she moves into the frame, Clayton doesn’t eliminate the artistic perspective on the situation by acting in a maternal role. Now she is also a subject of her own artistic gaze. This combination doesn’t negate one for the other, but showcases the complicated interaction between the two from moment to moment.

Also consider the static framing of the shot. From the title of the work, we’re meant to think of the camera as a fixed point that we should measure distance from. However, the boy moves around within the frame, but the frame never tracks or pans with him, like a parent’s head might do.

The unblinking eye of the camera, and its lack of natural movement makes it separate from the experience of being a parent watching a child.

You blink. You turn your head. You’re aware of other distractions, or scanning for things that might interact with or threaten your child. You are not a passive observer.

That lack of motion acts as an invitation to the viewer.

Spectator as co-parent, or The distance we can be from Lenka’s son

With the static camera creating the field of vision for the audience, we’re free to move our own eyes and head as the boy steps into frame.

He turns toward us. He gets further away from us. We watch out for the possible dangers ahead, or the escape routes he might take to get out of our field of vision.

It’s a dramatic use of empathy. Because the camera isn’t suggesting where we should look aside from the movement of the child, we can see ourselves in the environment. In the moment. It doesn’t feel like a constructed reality as much as a slice-of-life.

Even a person who doesn’t regularly care for a small child can watch this and feel the pangs of urgency watching a small child walk away from you. We know the environment, and we know that a small child isn’t ready to explore these spaces completely independently.

We don’t want to see a child come to harm, and even though we know, rationally, that it’s unlikely for someone to deliberately put their own child in harm’s way, our fears are triggered.

You start asking the question: When is she going to run out to him? You start assessing the distance for yourself. When would you run out? What are you looking for as a signal for when this far is too far?

But there’s another layer to these videos that comes into play when you ask the question: Why is he walking away from the camera?

Motherhood as performance

If the boy doesn’t walk in front of the camera, would the premise of the video work? What about if he stops or turns back? Look at how he turns back in every single one of these videos, hesitant. Looking for permission. Testing for a reaction.

Yes, eventually he takes off and wanders away out of his own desire or momentum, but there’s no video without this child walking away from the camera in a way where he stays within the field of vision of the camera.

Every choice was made with purpose. Picking a specific supermarket aisle. Dressing the boy in a red snowsuit for his walk down the alley. Deciding when to cut the camera off, interrupting Clayton’s mad dash to catch up with her son.

The dash itself is a choice. Moving with such force and acceleration. She wants to get to her son swiftly, but there’s something else: She knows you’re watching her. Paying attention to her reaction.

It’s a reminder of the way that we watch parents with their children. Her speed is the product of both a desire to keep her child safe and a desire to demonstrate to the viewer that she wants to keep her child safe.

It’s a reminder that not only are we watching a constructed representation of an act of motherhood, but that in some ways motherhood itself is a performance. To be a mother is to be watched. Judged. Aware of being watched and judged.

Who gets to be an artist

Going back to Clayton’s original statement of intent on her residency, she talks about the change in how others perceive her and her career after the birth of her child:

I find now that many aspects of the professional art world are closed to artists with families. Most prestigious artist residencies for example specifically exclude families from attending. Despite a legacy of public artist/parents it still seems to be a commonly held belief that being an engaged mother and serious artist are mutually exclusive endeavors. I don’t believe or want to perpetrate this. I like to imagine the two roles met as competing directions but to view them, force them gently if necessary, to inform one another.

This is another aspect of the works that I greatly appreciate.

When you think about a successful artist, what do you picture their life being about? Do you see room in their life for responsibilities and goals that don’t wholly relate to their art? Do you picture them needing to completely surrender to the muse?

What informs your conception of what the life of an artist is all about?

Let’s Talk About Cats

Picture a cat.

Now picture that cat in your home, somewhere near you.

What do you imagine that cat doing?

Don’t overthink it. Whatever immediately came to mind when I said to imagine a cat in the room with you works fine.

Got it?

So, what did you imagine?

Was it something you’ve seen a cat do before? Chase a laser pointer? Stare out a window at some birds? Knock something off a table? Curl up and purr in your lap?

Remember that. Keep your imaginary cat in the back of your mind for a few minutes.


Recently, my daughter looked down at our lazy, 13-year-old cat lounging on the carpet.

“When’s Luna gonna get bigger?”

I paused. “She’s already fully grown. That’s as big as she gets.”

Sprout started to pout. “So I’m never gonna get to ride her‽”

I didn’t see that one coming.

What Sprout did just then? That was beginner’s mind in action.


You see a cat, or you imagine a cat, and your experiences tell you about things that cats do. They tell you purposes cats have. You catalog and categorize the things you see in the world around you.

This thing is a cat. This thing is like a cat. This thing is not a cat.

Time passes. More things make their way into the matrix of your memory. All thoroughly cross-referenced and orderly.

And that’s why you didn’t consider riding your imaginary cat.

You have your reasons, and they’re good reasons. They’re true. It would be foolish to try and actually ride a housecat.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an imaginary possibility.


I want to try to break down how Sprout came to this moment. My guess is she had some combination of these thoughts (not necessarily in this order):

  1. There’s Luna.

  2. I love my cat so much, I can’t handle it.

  3. I am small, and so is Luna.

  4. I am growing.

  5. Is Luna growing? Ask a grown up.

  6. I can ride animals, like that time I rode Oreo the pony.

  7. If Luna was bigger, I could ride her!

  8. When will Luna be big enough for me to ride? Ask a grown up!

Her creative process for this idea probably involved memories, established facts, and questions about the unknown.

It’s unlikely she’s seen anyone riding a cat, so that’s a novel element. It’s an aspect of the unknown.

It's just a picture of He-Man on Battle Cat.
I am absolutely certain Sprout has never watched He-Man in any form, so I’m ruling out this as an influence.

However, that element of the unknown is an extension of the known. She’s not just creating this possibility out of nowhere.


So why am I doing a deep dive on two sentences from my daughter, besides the fact that they made me laugh really hard?

What I saw in her in that moment was a piece of the larger creative process: The desire to create something that does not currently exist, except in the mind.

It reminded me of the beginning of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The more we learn about an idea, or a process, or an art form, the more it can constrict our thinking. That which has already been proven, or has already been done, suggests boundaries for what can still be learned or done.

It limits the questions you ask, or the solutions you attempt.

While I can’t deny there is value to be had in deep study of anything you want to work with, be it a creative medium, a scientific field, or any job with its set of processes and requirements, adhering to strongly to “the way things are done” can stifle novel solutions.

The best cinematic expression I’ve seen of this comes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While training on Dagobah, Luke whines to Yoda about how he couldn’t possibly lift an X-Wing using the Force. He says that even though he can lift rocks with it, an X-Wing is much heavier.

Luke knows the weight of objects, and he knows his capacity to physically lift objects. He applies these rules to how he thinks the Force works.

And Yoda attempts to convince him that his strict adherence to just these facts isn’t helping him.

Yoda: 'You must unlearn what you have learned.'

In this example, Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force to make a point: This is something new to you that you don’t yet understand. It isn’t a muscle. It doesn’t use your body. You can’t hold onto the same rules you learned from interacting with heavy objects using your body.


There’s a method to test and explore ideas. To not feel like everything is already decided for you, or that what you already know is an impenetrable wall, halting your progress.

Anchor your ideas in what you know, but test those boundaries of possibility. Ask questions, the way Sprout did.

Think about what happens if something you see as a hard rule could bend, just a little.

Then chase that notion.

It’s mental jujitsu. Use the weight of the knowledge you already have against itself, and try to swing it to the side to see if it will make way for something unexpected.

To be clear: I do not have all the answers to this, or a simple, listicle-friendly process for people to follow. It’s something I wrestle with regularly, too.

What I do know is that some ideas are less solid and impenetrable than they seem, and it’s important to be able to test your ideas to understand them as they truly are.

It does you no favors to look at a suggestion and see it as a rule, or vice-versa, like the difference between a stop sign and a yield.


One caveat: This doesn’t mean that all ideas formed in this Beginner’s Mind state are great ideas.

I can’t tell you how many times since having this conversation with Sprout that I’ve had to stop her from straddling Luna in preparation to actually try to ride the cat.

Feel Today Today

Lately, Sprout demands to wear a dress every morning. The twirlier the better, because “You can’t twirl without a dress!”

The only problem is, she has a finite number of dresses, and they’re not always the best outfit for, say, playing in the sandbox at school.

Sometimes we convince her that there’s a logical reason to wear something other than a dress if the situation requires it. Other times we make lots of first-thing-in-the-morning compromises.

And then there was this morning, where she got upset about the dress we said she could wear tomorrow.

“But I don’t want to wear the carousel dress! It’s not twirly!”

Okay, so on a scale of one to Vera-Ellen, I concede that this dress isn’t her most twirly.

White Christmas - When We're Dancing.gif
This is pretty near the upper limits for twirliness.

But that’s not the point.

I asked Sprout to come over and talk, and I told her:

I know you’re upset. I hear you. But we’re only going to feel today today.

It was one of those moments where I take a step back and realize that I’m saying this as much for myself as I am for her.

There are times when we let ourselves fill up with anticipatory pain. The bad feelings of things yet-to-come.

But each day has more than enough feelings to feel on its own. You’ve got plenty of things to feel today. Maybe even some good feelings you haven’t anticipated.

Make room for them.

Cutting with The Muppets

We ran into a problem while rehearsing for the table read of Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Ida Walker: The read-through ran longer than the block of studio time we had reserved for the recording.

The traditional rule estimates that one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time. Whether or not you believe that measurement, you can chuck the ratio out the window when someone needs to read the action and description lines out loud.

I needed to make cuts, and there was one more restriction. These had to be straight cuts: No additions or substitutions.

(I was trying to be mindful of school resources since I’d already printed copies of the scripts for the actors once.)

As I sat down with a pencil and a copy of the script, I lost some of my nerve. The revision I did before handing the script over to actors already cut a number of pages. How was I supposed to know what else to trim?

That’s when my daughter’s obsession with The Muppets helped me get over my uncertainty.

Nearly every time we get into the car, she asks “Can we listen to the Muppet music?” I grew up on the Muppets, and all things Jim Henson, so I’m totally fine indulging her obsession.

The film’s soundtrack includes an extended cut of the villainous Tex Richman’s rap “Let’s Talk About Me,” where he explains how rich, powerful, and awesome he is to the Muppets.

It’s great. Academy Award Winner Chris Cooper chews the scenery so hard, you want to offer him a Tums. You should listen to it.

The difference with the film version? The soundtrack cut features an operatic bridge:

I recall a heartbreaking story
About my own tenth birthday party
Should’ve been a glorious day for me
I’d have been happy as can be
But the Muppets were there
To put on a show
They started to dance
They were telling their jokes
I didn’t laugh
I didn’t know how
Then my friends
They all turned around
And they laughed at me
They laughed at me
I hate you, Muppets so

It provides an explanation for why the character needs to say “Maniacal laugh” to his henchmen instead of laughing himself. It gives a motivation for why he buys the Muppet Studio. It informs why he’s so cruel to the Muppets. And it sets up the joke at the end of the movie where Gonzo hits him with a bowling ball and he learns how to laugh.

Seems necessary, right?

But without that verse, we can still understand why he buys the studio (he wants to drill for oil), and why he’s cruel to the Muppets (he’s an evil oil barron that wants to drill for oil).

The inability to laugh is funny even without an explanation, and the repeated action itself sets up the joke for when a comical concussion knocks some laughter into him.

Everything doesn’t need to be explained in full.

Humans are narrative-making creatures. We try to fill in the gaps and find sense in events. Allowing for small omissions understands this feature of human thinking and respects the audience.

Everybody writes Tex Bridges.

You don’t trust that people will understand a strange choice you made. You worry that something will cause your reader or audience to bump, so you try to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You love the backstory you’ve come up with for a character and think everybody else will love it, too.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a Tex Bridge, but there’s also nothing wrong with cutting it and trusting your narrative momentum.

So I thought about Tex Richman, and looked for the places in my script that felt like that bridge: Places that might be entertaining, but over-explained something that the audience could infer from everything else.

The Farmer(‘s Wife)

A local nursery had a sale this weekend with a petting zoo, and Sprout wanted to wear her overalls. I didn’t think this would become a bigger conversation, but then —

“I’m going to be a farmer’s wife!” she said.

“Don’t you want to be a farmer?” I asked.

“Farmer’s wife.”

“Girls can be farmers, too.”

“I’m a farmer’s wife.”

I thought for a second. “Is Mom a librarian’s wife?”

“No.”

“Right, she’s a librarian. And is Grandma a teacher’s wife?”

“Noooooo.”

“Right. She’s a teacher. So could you be a farmer?”

“Okay. I can be a farmer and a lady. And an eye doctor. Actually, I just want to be an eye doctor.” She picked up a toy from her doctor bag. “This is my otoscope!”


This isn’t an outlier in the conversations I have with my daughter. And sometimes she’s the one who gets things started:

This wasn’t a one-off conversation, either. There was a day she refused to watch Sesame Street, and when I asked her why, she told me it was “Because they’re all boys!” A show with a tradition of quality isn’t above criticism, and my daughter was loud and clear on the problem: She wanted to see characters that were like her on the screen.

Are we using words like “representation” and “gender parity?” Not usually.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not talking about these things. When she sees something that doesn’t look like it includes her, or it’s not for her, she grapples with it.

Even a three-and-a-half year old can catch on to the idea that something’s wrong when the world on the screen doesn’t reflect the population of the world she lives in.

 

When Sprout wants me to make up a story to tell her, she says “Tell me a story with your mouth.”

Usually she asks for this when she’s supposed to be falling asleep, and she knows I won’t turn the light back on to read one (or four) more books.

The other day, I was feeling pretty worn out, so I asked her if she’d tell me a story with her mouth instead. “But I don’t know how.”

Jumping over to physicist Richard Feynman:

Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin 1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He gauged his audience perfectly and said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But a few days later he returned and said, “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.” (source)

I was challenging myself to see if I could break down how to tell a story for a three-and-a-half year old. What I came up with was:

  • Pick someone
  • They’re trying to do something they like
  • Something makes it difficult to do that thing

It’s a setup she’s familiar with, from Moana to Daniel Tiger to Elephant & Piggie.

So I asked her who the story should be about. She chose Fletcher. If you haven’t met Fletcher before, he’s a stuffed fox from Target that Rosie got for her first birthday and has loved since first sight. Here he is:

IMG_6425.jpg

“Okay,” I said, “so what does Fletcher like to do?”

“Paint!”

“And when Fletcher goes to paint, what’s something that could go wrong.”

She thought for a moment. Then it dawned on her. “A volcano!”

“That’s cool! But what about something that could go wrong while he’s painting?”

“He could open the paint and there’s a volcano inside.”

We’ll work on plausibility and foreshadowing later.

 

Treading Lightly

When my wife and I first brought our baby home, Sprout slept in a pack & play next to our bed. It helped us to respond quickly to her needs, but it created a problem: We needed to be quieter in order to avoid waking her.

After a few nights of hearing the Mission: Impossible theme in my head every time I tried to slip under the covers, the realization hit that there was more to it than stealth. We started looking at the room differently. There was a need to rearrange where things were in order to make it easier to take care of the necessary tasks. It became more important to maintain the order in that space than before. Anything left on the ground could create noise or injury to the person trying not to make noise.

You start to look at your actions differently. Being quiet doesn’t involve tensing up and tip-toeing the way that every cartoon ever would have you believe. You limit how much you move. You tone down how much force you put into actions. You set things down gently instead of tossing (which also helps to maintain the space). Your actions begin to feel lighter.

You even think about your actions differently. It may start as “I have to be quiet while I get into bed, or else this baby is going to hear me, wake up, and never go back to sleep until the next Presidential election, and I will rip all my hair out long before then!” but if you keep that up, you will wake the baby. And you will be annoyed. And it will be harder to focus on getting the baby back to sleep.

But with practice, you can hit that sweet spot where you’re even treading lightly in your mind. “I need to pull the covers back.” “I need to sit down on the bed.” “I need to shift my weight to slide under the covers.” Simple actions, pushing toward the goal, but detached from the prediction of failure. Even your mind is using less effort. Walking softly.

Drop a rock in a stream. The water doesn’t stop, look at the rock, swear under its breath, and evaporate. It flows around. That rock can be seen as an obstruction to the natural flow of the water, or it can be seen as the cause of a new route. Either way, the water keeps flowing. The trick is in learning to see the difference.