Every art form, no matter how unique, no matter how revolutionary, builds its meaning out of patterns. We recognize a symphony by its shape, its familiar contours, its adherence to a norm. Schoenberg’s atonality defines itself in opposition to that norm. In its divergence from established patterns, it demands a new way of listening, a new set of expectations. New patterns.
Picasso’s cubism fragments our familiar three-dimensional reality and reconfigures the slices along a single plane — face, belly, mirror laid flat for re-viewing. He juggles the pieces, the expected sequence, and forces the viewer to develop a new way of seeing.
The poet William Carlos Williams knew what he wanted to write, and knew as well that the rhythms and rhyme schemes he inherited didn’t quite fit. So he created his own metrics, his own revelations, as easily recognized now as a cold, sweet plum.
For a storyteller, patterns take the shape of character development, plot arcs, and sentence structures. Readers understand the dichotomy of protagonist/antagonist. We expect a plot arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In English, the subject usually comes before the verb — though in German, reversed is it sometimes. Where you stand determines what you see. Writers can wiggle the rules, even break them, but only if they set out another path to follow, another trail of cobblestones.
Parenting, too, is an art more than anything else, rife with its own internal contradictions, its own self-questioning. It’s an art elaborated through patterns — in our expectations, our criticisms, our praise. Veer in one direction, towards the lenient or the strict, and the path begins to lay itself, each day building on the one before.
At 41, you’d think I’d be able to identify a rut from the inside, but I often have to stumble through days of my own disorder, my own raised voice, my own grumpy negations before I realize that I have paved a road I’d rather not travel. Bad days, bad moods lead to more bad days and worsening moods.
It takes a Schoenburg moment, a Picasso slant, a Williams shift to alter our direction. Sometimes our children create the change, with a laugh that bubbles into inspiration, a hug that squeezes out the sour. Ultimately, though, the reinvention of days is a parent’s domain. We scrape back the residue and begin again. We pry up the cobblestones. We lay a different path.
The true magic of any art like writing, like parenting, lies in its simple repetitions, its patterns, but also, and more deeply, in the possibility of change. A pattern is what it is because it isn’t something else — so simple it smacks of truism, but hard to remember in the thick of distress. When we open our writing or our parenting to new rhythms, we discover, like Williams, that “so much depends” on how we choose to look and what patterns we are willing to imagine.