Tambourines and Elephants

“All children are artists. The problem is to remain an artist once you grow up.” — Pablo Picasso, Painter, Sculptor.

In the Fall of 2015, I was teaching to a group of high school students on the topic of creativity and innovation in entrepreneurship. As examples, I shared stories about the imaginative minds of George Lucas and Steve Jobs.

Both Bay Area entrepreneurs broke the rules, faced rejection, challenged the status quo, and created massive cultural followings all over the world of their ideas and products for generations. One might argue that neither one of them were positioned for success early in their lives.

One barely made it through grade school while the other was a college dropout. They did not always follow what was considered right or acceptable on their journeys; they followed their passions, and left historical dents of innovation on their universe.

In the middle of my presentation, a perplexed student raised his hand in curiosity and asked me, “So, Mr. Glass, do you mean to tell me a creative answer can possibly be a right answer?”

After hesitating for a moment, I responded, “Creativity, the human imagination, has been solving some of life’s greatest problems, pushing society forward, inventing jobs, and birthing opportunities that would have otherwise never existed. It is not only a skill to be nourished, but a value to be cherished in our life-long commitment to education and economic development. Sometimes, creativity, under certain circumstances is even necessary for survival.”

When do we lose our sense of creativity and adventure? Our desire to create is embedded in our human nature. We are natural artists as children. We dance. We sing. We scribble on pieces of paper and our parents put them on the fridge to call them art. Somehow, along the way, in our culture, we are conditioned to move away from our artistic abilities. Many of us seem to dismiss the importance of being creative; it’s a soft skill, that’s just a detail in our journey and education. Our abilities to be creative may not always be tested in the classroom, but they will be tested throughout life.

Today, at the age of 38, I am still not sure of all the details of my birth and early childhood prior to my school years. Depending on which family member was entertaining my inquisitions, I received different versions and interpretations of those early years. Some parts of my story overlap as related by one source or another, and other parts are memories. In those moments, I would often find some construction of the truth. One might think it is challenging for a storyteller like me to not even know the full, accurate version of my childhood. On the contrary, this gave me a very powerful tool as a writer: my ability to imagine and create my own reality, while gaining incredible perspective into my adulthood. And, in the most challenging of situations I learned not only to survive, but thrive.

The following is the story of my amazing childhood, and the first artist, someone who truly mastered creating an abundant life out of almost nothing, my mother.

My mother, in the search of building a life and family of her own, left home and became pregnant with me at the age of 16. Close family members, specifically my grandmother and grandfather, encouraged her to get rid of the baby. Abortion was the proposed logical solution to the problem of a young, pregnant, teenage girl. I heard this version of the story from my grandparents later in my life. They were such beautifully transparent people to share, not just information, but heart-filled confessions of how they felt before I was born. They were concerned about my mother not being equipped to take care of a child on her own. Well, my mother was destined to be two things in life: a mom and a stubborn woman. She did not yield to the advice of her elders. I have her to thank for a heartbeat in my chest and air in my lungs. That alone should be enough of the story to fill me with gratitude to share, but life only got better from there.

So, there we were, Mom and I, a couple wild kids on this adventure of life. I would like to say she was the one taking care of me, but as I reflect, I think we were taking care of each other. I was barely walking and still in diapers, so my provisional skills were not that great, but I believe my birth and the challenges of raising me represented a new life of possibilities to her.

My old man was not in the picture when I was young. That was okay; Mom and I, we were a few years down the road of writing our story, and she was doing an amazing job as a parent. For many years, it was just her and me on our adventure. My siblings, would join the family band much later.

There was a season, when in the search of a great guy, my mom dated a few rock stars. Yes, and if you listened to music from the 80’s rock band area, you’ve most likely heard of them. One of the greatest moments ever, and my earliest childhood memory, was being held on stage by the lead singer during a concert in Santa Cruz, California. He did not let me take the mic; my stage performing abilities were still an undiscovered talent at the age of 4. I knew I was a rock star filled with talent. That experience was like time standing still, so memorable, yesterday and today.

At age 6, Mom and I moved from San Jose to Redding, California. We were in our classic VW beetle with two tapes in the car: Bob Seger and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s (CCR) Greatest Hits. I remember giving my Mom singing lessons to the tunes on these tapes. We knew all the words to every song. She was not too shabby; one might say she had a great teacher.

Shortly after moving to Redding, we moved again to Tuolumne, California. We had just arrived at some of the most wonderful years of my childhood. It was a beautiful area, and a great place for a kid. Our new mobile home was huge; much bigger than the room we previously rented. We did not have much money, stability, or possessions, but we both had each other and an unquenchable zest for life.

I made the most amazing friends a kid could have ever asked for in Tuolumne; we were little kings of a small town. In the summertime, most days were filled with biking all over the main streets until it got dark each night. Sometimes, I would even stay out until midnight. I was special. I knew everyone. The bums, the drunks, and even the church folk were my friends. It seemed like they were all watching out for me; I felt safe in that town.

Occasionally, during my expeditions, I would swing by the market up around the bend from my school where my mom worked. In the wintertime, my friends and I would take the tops of garbage cans from the neighbors and turn them into sleds. We would build a giant pile of snow for the last one down the hill to hit, and it felt like a rock when one of us would collide. Sometimes, after school, I would have the house all to myself. I would spend most of my time outside building forts and climbing trees. Oh, how I miss those years. They were incredible chapters of my life that are still very much alive in my memory today.

At age 10, we moved back to the big city. Life was no longer an exploration of open fields, mountains, and playing in the dirt. All of a sudden, riding my bike all around town was no longer permissible. Mom no longer worked down on the corner of the main street next to my school. I had to make the best of a new life in a new place. Fortunately, I made more great friends and loved the remaining years of elementary and middle school.

Over the years, Mom and I drifted apart. By the age of 16, I was on my own. I learned a new set of skills, and how to take care of myself. I had unlimited freedom, but I missed being at home; I did not want to be on my own. However, I am incredibly thankful for that season of my life. That was a period in my life of great growth, autonomy, and creatively making the best of my situation. I learned how to do laundry, work for things that I owned, and make Top Ramen. These would become quintessential survival skills during my college years. One of the greatest developments happened during that season of my life: I co-founded my first company.

I lost touch with Mom and my brothers and sisters during my college years. I hoped for the day we could all connect. In my heart, I felt that day would come soon.

At the age of 24, I moved back to Redding to help my Mom and my siblings with the new restaurant. As I was on a 4-hour road trip in my VW, I opened my glove compartment and discovered I only had two CDs: Bob Seger and CCR. Still with every word memorized, singing along the way, I looked forward to being reunited with my co-singer and our new traveling band.

Every moment of my childhood had a part in assembling this blessed life I live today. Harnessing creativity early in my childhood gave me opportunities to discover positive answers even in the hardest situations. My mother brought me into this world. However, my imagination and my eagerness to create things brought me to life. I am an artist today because my mother never stopped putting my scribbled work on the fridge. She never stopped celebrating my talents. She never stopped believing in me on our journey.

I have certainly not done everything right as I have made several mistakes along the way, and still some questions remain unanswered about my childhood. As I grew older, my past and present life became beautiful when my perception changed, and I realized I was the author of my own story; the real test was learning to extract joy and happiness, and build great memories even from challenging seasons.

I could have held onto the hard times, but rather I am filled with gratitude at being raised by a single Mom who did the best with the tools she had and life she created. Many questioned if she did the right thing taking on the responsibility of having a baby and raising a child when she was only a teenager. However, much like those who start out with crazy ideas, she was questioned less about her decisions, measured by great results, as she grew and found creative ways to provide for all six of her kids over the years. Every one of her children turned out to be great, caring people. What a beautiful picture she created with the brushes and paint she had. The way I see it, as I turn the page in each chapter of this life I am privileged to write, I am still the same, fortunate son.

“Imagination sets in pretty soon I’m singin’
Doo doo doo lookin’ out my back door.
There’s a giant doing cartwheels, a statue wearin’ high heels.
Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn.
A dinosaur Victrola list’ning to Buck Owens.
Doo doo doo lookin’ out my back door.
Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.
Won’t you take a ride on the flyin’ spoon?
Doo doo doo.
Wond’rous apparition provided by magician.
Doo doo doo lookin’ out my back door.”

— Originally by CCR, Remastered by a Young Mom and her Son in their “VW Studio”

— Jeff Glass writes and teaches the Entrepreneur Mindset Program for different schools, organizations, and the Juvenile Justice Department. He can be reached via email: [email protected]

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