Lego by Lego: 12 Things Building the Death Star Taught My Son (Umm, Me) About Writing…Life

SAMSUNG CSCSomething awesome happened in our house last night. It was a moment 4 years in the making. Half of my son’s life, as he likes to point out.  An hour after dinner, he rushed upstairs from the basement with a huge grin and wide eyes and exclaimed: “I did it! I did it! I have one more piece and I want you all to come downstairs to see it! Bring your camera, Mom!” Of course, we all knew what he was talking about, and of course I was going to bring my camera. As I say to my kids on an hourly basis. Bring my camera? Is the pope Catholic? Now I have to admit I am one of those moms who is all sorts of proud. Every day. It doesn’t take much. I have to admit it, I am easily impressed. I hear myself sometimes, and I even cringe. My daughter has to tell me to shut up on an hourly basis, lest I make a fool out of myself or her.  But seriously, did you know how easy it was for you to walk? I say to her, one afternoon while trying to convince her of her own amazing-ness. You were only 10 months old. 10 months! You just got up and walked. Cue teen eye roll and exasperated exit out of a room. We also have an embarrassing video of me during my son’s first bike ride. While my son is cruising around the cul-de-sac on his two-wheeler, I am heard off-camera blabbing to my neighbors what a preternatural genius he is—He potty trained himself at eighteen months old, you know. He’s gifted. Truly.

I am that mother. As Jimmy Fallon and my teen say so perfectly: Ew.

But, last night was different and today’s blag (Blog-brag--wait is that a thing? My daughter says that it’s decidedly not a thing) is different. Somehow the pride I feel inside is completely different. There was something sort of monumental that happened and I couldn’t put my finger on it in the moment, but then as I sat and watched him arrange all of his Lego men on the newly built Death Star, the 3,803 piece Lego set that he had just completed on his own, something hit me. My 8 year-old figured this proverbial s@#t out before I did. He figured out life already.  It took me entire lifetime. Yes, it took twenty-nine (ahem, give or take a few) years to figure out what he did at the ripe old age of 8.

Here’s the 12 things I Learned Watching My Eight Year Old Build the Death Star:

1. If you love something enough, it’s worth the wait.  He was not much more than 4 years old when he saw the Death Star Lego kit in either a Lego Magazine or catalog and asked Santa for it. There was a discussion, I vaguely recall, about managing one’s expectations and a reminder that Santa was going to be busy bringing food to starving children, and he wasn’t going to have space or money to bring a 4 year old a 450 dollar Lego kit. (Yes, I did my best impression of good Irish Catholic mother on that one…two parts guilt and one part reality check). He asked for a vacuum cleaner instead. (Really.) But, the next year, he asked again, and again we said something like, Probably not going to happen, kid. But, we made a deal. His dad and I said: “You earn and save the money for at least half, we’ll think about getting it for you for Birthday/Christmas one year.”  That was at five years old.  And I hate to admit this: At the time I never thought I’d see the day. Not because I didn’t think he could do it, but because he had a lot fleeting obsessions that came and went. Once, for example, he asked for a giant RV with a swimming pool in it. Another time, a helicopter. A real, life-sized helicopter.  So it’s not like he had a good track record for asking for gifts we could actually afford to give him--or even existed. And then there was the obvious:  Where was a 5-year old kid going to get that type of money? Turns out—birthdays, Christmases, First Communions, and piggy banks can add up. As the possibility grew closer that he would have enough money, we added a stipulation—if you have enough money to pay for it, and the taxes and give to charity, you can buy it.  He agreed to the terms. All the while, I was thinking: This is never, ever going happen. (Nice. Way to believe, Mom!) But, sure enough on May 5th   2014, he pulled out his wallet. Not only did he have the 450 bucks, plus tax saved, he had money for charity. Game on.  He didn’t let a silly thing like money get in the way of what he wanted. He didn’t give up and say: “That will never happen. I can never save that much.” It’s true, if you want anything badly enough you’ll find a way. And he did.


2. You need a lot of people around you rooting for you. The following Saturday, the entire family piled into the minivan and we were headed to the Lego Store.  He knew this was a big moment. He recognized it, even if we didn’t. He wanted all of us to be there to see him pull out his own Star Wars wallet and celebrate his long-awaited and hard-fought victory to finally get what he wanted. He knew instinctively that some things in life are better when shared with those you love. And it’s OK to celebrate yourself. It’s OK to say: You know what? This is a big moment for me. So often in life we are told not to feel too much. Not to get too excited. To lower our expectations. Not make such a fuss. But, here’s the thing:  Most of our lives are pretty mundane. We don’t celebrate enough. And some of us have been conditioned not to share good news lest we be perceived as a showoffsky or a braggart. We hide our successes in the shadows and mistakenly call our shame over our successes humility. We don’t need to be embarrassed when we’re happy, proud, or excited. These moments should be celebrated and shared—especially with those you love. (And other people are handy to have around to shoulder the weight of load—literally—the box weighed more than him.)

3. It can be overwhelming at first. So take it Lego by Lego. As soon as he got home, he wanted to tear open the box and get started. When he opened the box several individual boxes were stacked in it along with a 193 page instruction manual. Yes, he knew building a Death Star wouldn’t be easy, but seeing the work in front of him was a different story. The manual was half his body length, and almost two-inches thick. Everything about the project before him seemed huge—no, gargantuan. I looked at him on the floor next to the giant box and thought: This is too much. How on earth is he going to do this? I warned him to be patient. And he looked at me like I just fell off the Stupid Truck.  Well, um, duh. (He didn’t say that. He’s too polite. But he didn’t have to).  “I know, Mom. I’ll just take it Lego by Lego. One bag at time. One box at a time. One page at a time.” One page at a time. Seriously, that’s what he said to me. Add to the Why the hell didn’t I think of that? file.

4. Follow directions. Greats have gone before you, and paved the way. Don’t ignore their advice or instruction. They are there to help you. Not only was he going to take it one page at time, but he was going to review all the directions carefully. He carefully studied the manual. Yes, he’d been building for years and knew his stuff, but that was no substitute for following the rules set down before him. He knew that he needed the guidance.  He couldn’t get too cocky. The guidelines were there to help him, not hurt him. It was OK to follow other’s advice and instructions. In fact, that’s what makes the greats so great. They read others. They study. They take in everything they can.

5. You’re going to mess up. Fail. Have to start over. It’s gonna suck. But, if you want to see this through you have to do the work. Stick to it and remain calm. Two nights into the big build, he came running up the stairs—tears were in his eyes. His arms were literally over his head in surrender. “I can’t do it, Mom! I can’t! I pressed in a piece and the whole thing collapsed! It collapsed!” He sobbed. It was terrible. Over 15 hours of work had already gone into the build, and he was looking at having to start over. Ah, the brutal feeling of failure and defeat. I walked him back downstairs. The site looked grim. Gray and black pieces were spread out all over the carpet. I rubbed his back and said. “You did it! You failed!” He looked at me like I was nuts. I didn’t back down, “Don’t you know? All the greats have to fail at least once, if not a thousand times, before they make something great. You’re one failure closer to making magic happen! The only way to figure out what you did wrong or what works is to fail. You did it!” I sat with him and he sniffled through the first few snaps of Lego bricks, and before he knew it he figured out a way to get the pieces back together. He found a structural problem at the center of the Death Star. He needed to fix it otherwise it would keep collapsing. If he didn’t fix it now, it would have happened much later, with much more disastrous consequences, and lots of more wasted hours. He was, in the end, grateful for the fail. For sticking to it. For learning from his mistakes. It happened again a few times. But, he never came up from the basement crying again. He knew he had it in him to fix it, and he knew he was one step closer to being a Master Builder with each successive failure and lesson learned. He also learned it’s not the failures that make or break you; rather it’s how you handle the failures, learn from them, and move on.

6. Sometimes you need a little help from your friends. Asking for help is not a weakness. It takes great courage and strength to know you can’t do something on your own. At first he was upset that he needed me. He said, “I can do it.” But, then something softened as I walked around the room picking up Legos. He realized that it was OK to ask for help. It wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was a sign of courage. Sometimes two brains are better than one. It’s absolutely essential to have someone else to bounce ideas off of, or sometimes, simply get another perspective. It’s important to have someone who you can share your angst or frustrations with. It’s OK to seek out someone who will understand. Every great artist needs a circle of support. They need critics, too, but constructive ones who will hold them accountable and push them to be better. It doesn’t take away from your own accomplishment to have others help you along the way. It adds to it.

7. Once you find your groove, something awesome happens. There are few things more consuming or pleasurable than getting lost in one’s own work or craft. You know you truly love something or are doing what you’re meant to do when the hours fly by and it feels like only a minute has passed. This is a thrill few people get to experience. If you find it, ride the wave and hold on tight.  There is nothing more satisfying in life doing what it is that you love or feel like you were born to do. And when find that something, never, ever let it go. It will sustain you always.

8. It’s OK to be by yourself—with no friends, no music playing, no television on, and simply work. Some of your best times in life will be by yourself and that’s OK. 

9. It’s OK to get lost in your work, but even though you love what you do, and want to do it day and night, responsibilities and stuff that you don’t want to do still have to get done. Not long into his building experience, Colm came down with an acute case of Deathstaritis. Symptoms included headache, stomach ache, involuntary retching, knee aches, earache, elbow pain. He was in so much distress he was unable to attend school. He just couldn’t possibly make it.  We all knew what he was up to. The Death Star awaited in the basement—and school and all that nonsense was getting in the way. We had to have a nice little reminder over breakfast, that even when you find the thing that you want to do all the time, all the pesky “have-to-dos” in life still need your attention. Like school. Basic hygiene. Sleep. Eating. And when you get older—paying the bills. Yes, sometimes you need to keep your day job while you pursue what you love to do. You can’t let your love-to-dos get in the way of your have-to-dos, and someday if you’re lucky and work hard enough, the love-to-dos and have-to-dos overlap. But, until then, stay the course and don’t lose sight of your responsibilities or all the people in your life. Your work is good and fun and meaningful, but it is not and cannot be everything.

10. You have to protect your craft, your work. People will want to destroy it. Taint it. Take it away from you. Don’t let them.  A couple of things happened that he wasn’t expecting along the way. A few people tried to crap on his dream. It was bound to happen. An adult with a “It must be nice to have parents who spoil you” or "Lucky kid! Getting whatever he wants!”  He was gracious—and didn’t say anything, even though he knew he paid for it with his own money and worked hard, and wasn’t just some spoiled kid who got whatever he asked for. And then there were competitive kids in school: “Oh, I built one of those. It was nothing.”  There are always going to be competitive, Captain Buzzkills in life who want to shit on what you do and make you feel badly about something you’ve accomplished or achieved because they haven’t been able do it, or because they don’t like the idea of anyone else in the world being happy. They are everywhere. And they suck. Literally. They suck the joy out of so much, but mostly their own lives. Don’t let them suck the joy out of yours. When it came time for his sister’s graduation party and we knew lots of little ones were going to be running around the basement, I suggested we move it and keep it safe. He was grateful for that. I knew he would be devastated if someone even accidentally kicked it or destroyed it. It meant too much to him.  He hid it and we talked about the importance of protecting your “Stuff”—not just your stuff, stuff. But, all of your “stuff.” The things that matter most to you are the things that are most vulnerable. And things that took a lifetime of hard work that can be destroyed in a moment, because of another’s thoughtlessness or even, sadly, maligned intentions. So take care.

11. Enjoy the thrill of completion. Celebrate your accomplishments whenever you can and embrace the moment of success. There is no better feeling in the world when you finally complete something that you've worked hard to achieve. We have graduations, birthdays, anniversaries to mark momentous occasions.  When we finish a labor of love it is deserving of a celebration—now I am not talking ponies, jump houses, and all that ridiculous-ness, I mean a simple honest to goodness moment where you can sit back and look at what you’ve done and revel for a minute. Call your parents down to the basement. Shout “I did it!” And take a picture. You won’t be sad that you did.  That feeling, that moment of celebration is the seed for another great accomplishment waiting around the corner. It will sustain you and drive you again and again.

12. Get out there and play with your creation. Have fun. Battle away. It’s all yours.