On Filling Boxes

My 3-year-old has a little tin he calls his treasure box, and in it he keeps assorted bits and bobs, pennies and string and stones he likes.

This morning, he was trying to fit another, slightly smaller tin inside his treasure tin.

“I can’t do it!” he shouted at me, like this was my fault, like I ought to be able to wave aside the laws of the physical world so he could fit one tin inside another even though it doesn’t fit.

I did solve the problem, however. I gave him a Tupperware container and said, Look, you can put both of them in this box. Aren’t I clever?

He put both tins in the Tupperware container, very pleased. Then he stared at it, thinking. He got up and went to the cupboard and took out our largest Tupperware container and said, “Can I use this?”

I was pleased he bothered to ask, so I said, Sure. He put the small Tupperware container, with its two tins, inside the large Tupperware container. And he looked at it.

The large Tupperware container was so much larger than the other. I guess it looked kind of empty. He went and got a box of tissues and three stuffed cats and put them inside the large Tupperware container, so that it was full.

And looked at it.

He said, “I need a bigger box.”

We just happened to have a large, empty cardboard box that I hadn’t put out with the recycling yet, so I said, You can use that one.

He put the large, full Tupperware container into the big box. He looked at it. He said, “I need to fill this box up.”

He got plastic dinosaurs. He got underwear and socks. He got some books. He got some duplo building blocks. He rushed back and forth, so busy, so serious.

“This is big work,” he told me. “This is the biggest work I have to do.” He panted a bit, to show me how hard he was working, how exhausting this big work was. He filled that box, and he was so happy while he was doing it.

But then it was full. He dragged it around a bit, looked at the contents.

He said hopefully, “Do we have another box?”

He knew we didn’t. I shook my head. That’s the biggest box in the house, I told him.

He suggested emptying out the refrigerator so he could use that. I said that was not a good idea. He looked around, wandering from room to room like a bigger box might materialize if he wished for it hard enough. All his busy joy had evaporated. It wasn’t enough anymore, that big box full of smaller boxes.

I suggested a bike ride. No, he said crossly. I suggested we might dig for worms, which is one of my least favorite activities, but he looked so forlorn. He agreed, head drooping, leaning sadly against me while I helped him put on his shoes.

I know how he feels. It’s like writing a book. It starts with something small but exciting. It expands, ballooning outward as you add characters and backstory and the world develops. You feel terribly busy and preoccupied with it. It feels like Big Work, and it is so satisfying as it grows from a character or a premise to a Story. But eventually it is done and you look at it and you think, hey look, I’m done! Look at this lovely book I made! But somehow it isn’t quite how you thought it would be.

I never really want to be done. Being done is thrilling for a short time, and then it makes me inexplicably sad, and I have to start over with something new as soon as possible. Luckily stories, unlike boxes, are not in limited supply.

And having wrung all the juice I can out of that metaphor, I’m going to go back to writing a book, because this is the Biggest Work I have to do.


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