“Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.” It’s part of my credo, I guess, and may well have been aided in its development by doing those hilariously futile duck-and-cover atomic bomb drills of the Cold War era. And the air raid drills—we lived in a Ground Zero area near several military bases, strategic coast, and a handful of Nike missile sites in those days—fire drills, earthquake drills, tsunami drills, and later when we lived in the midwest, tornado drills. You’d think we’d all have grown up incredibly paranoid after such stuff in childhood. But I think that besides being remarkably resilient, kids use logic on such daily puzzles far better than they remember how to do when they hit adulthood and have been taught their prejudices, and are much more easily distracted and blinded by grey areas.
I don’t remember ever believing that crouching under a flimsy little wood-and-steel desk would save me even from the shrapnel of shattering windows and imploding walls in the event of an attack or large-scale disaster, particularly since I imagined the desk itself would become shrapnel along with everything else in the atomizing roar of a bombing. Little and naïve though we were, we had gleaned hints of the enormity of such things from our beginning school studies of the world history of war (skewed to our own culture’s view, of course); no matter how grownups think they’re shielding kids by sanitizing and limiting the information the wee ones are allowed to see and hear, children are quick to notice the blank spaces where redacted information interrupts the flow of facts, and no adult is more curious than a child to hunt for clues as to what was redacted. Frankly, if there really is any use for an institution like the CIA in this day and age when practically anyone can find out practically anything with the aid of easily accessible tools like the internet, cellular phone, and, apparently, privately owned drones, along with all of the more traditional tools of spy-craft, I suggest that the crew best equipped to uncover any facts not in evidence would probably be a band of children all under the age of about twelve.
Meanwhile, we still have large numbers of people who think it prudent to withhold or skew the information passed along to not only kids but even fellow adults, giving out misguided or even malevolent half-truths or remaining stubbornly silent and in full denial about things considered too dark for others’ knowledge. And what do we gain from this? Are there truly adults among us who still think that even smallish tots can’t quickly discern the differences between a fable or fairytale, no matter how brutish and gory it may be, and the dangers and trials of real-world trouble? Does delusion or deception serve any purpose, in the long run, other than to steer us all off course in search of firmer, more reliable realities?
As I just wrote to my dear friend Desi, it seems to me that the majority of humans always assume a fight-or-flight stance in new or unfamiliar circumstances before allowing that these might be mere puzzles to decipher, and more importantly, we assume the obvious solution to be that whatever is most quickly discernible as different from self IS the problem. Therefore, if I’m white, then non-white is the problem; if I’m female, then male. Ad infinitum. And we’re generally not satisfied with identifying differentness as problematic until we define it as threatening or evil. This, of course, only scratches the surface—quite literally, as the moment we get past visible differences we hunt for the non-visible ones like sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, and so on.
Unless and until we can change this horribly wrongheaded approach on a large scale, we’ll always have these awful problems, from petty playground scuffles right into the middle of the final mushroom cloud. The so-called justice systems of the world are set up and operated by the same flawed humans who make individual judgements, so the cycle is reinforced at all levels. Sometimes it truly makes me wonder how we’ve lasted this long.
Can we learn from kids? The younger the person, the more likely to blurt out the truth, whether it’s welcome or not. The subtleties of subterfuge are mostly wasted on children, who unless they’re engaged in happy storytelling for purposes of amusement and amazement, would rather be actively puzzling out the wonders of life than mucking about in search of evasive answers and duck-and-cover maneuvers. We might gain a great deal by reverting a little to a more innocent and simplistic view of the universe, one that blithely assumes that others are not always out to get us, that direness and doom aren’t lying open-jawed around every blind corner, and that the great powers of the internet and cell phones might just as well bear cheery tidings of goodness and kindness, and drones be removed from deployment as spies and weapons to work instead at delivering birthday presents to friends and packets of food to hungry strangers.
I’m not fooled into thinking any of this is easy to do, any more than any savvy kid would be, but I’m willing to believe it’s possible if more and more of us will commit to such ideals.
We all know that there are certain kinds of thrills that are worth the risk, that the forbidden fruit can taste sweetest when it’s a chocolate sneaked from Mom’s birthday gift selection (not that I would know anything about any such thing from my youth!), the extra hour out past curfew when one thinks one’s parents are out of the house, the bouquet picked from a neighbor’s flowerbed en route home from grade school. And there’s no doubt that some are drawn to romance most powerfully when it is risky, when it defies convention, when it defies logic. Is anyone really immune to the lure of breaking with tradition, just a little?
Bravery is a rare commodity. Many people who think they’re being brave only dare to do so from within a like-minded group, however small in number, and when they are genuinely in the minority spend more energy on protesting that the majority from which they’re excluded is unfair and unjust than on doing anything useful to change it. It may be true—knowing human nature, often probably is true—that one’s opposition is no exemplar of justice and fair-mindedness. But we’re seldom willing or able, ourselves, to make a cleanly balanced assessment and especially, to act wisely and compassionately on it either. We’re generally convinced that anyone else having anything good means less goodness for ourselves, and that that is a terrible thing.
What impresses me more than bravery, real or imagined, is seeing anyone express real empathy for others through their own beliefs, lives, and actions. I tend to doubt that we’re capable of doing or even wanting very lofty things, but I also think that small doses of empathy will go ever so much further than any amount of derring-do and action-figure heroics in bettering the world and the human condition within it. Daring to let another person be richer or more privileged than me or to have the last word, even when I’m fairly sure I’m smarter, closer to correct, or more deserving requires quite a different sort of courage than running into danger in anyone’s defense or their stead.
But treating others with such respect seems to me far more likely than argument and defensiveness, self-protection and fear, to get anyone to trust and respect me in turn. So shines a good deed. The unselfish willingness to accept another person’s reality as valid even when it might cost me something significant is a kind of courage I dream of having, hope to learn.
We’ve long since established that I can’t dance. I couldn’t dance well enough to stay in a second-grade dance class; heck, I couldn’t even be trusted to remember whether we were supposed to show up wearing tights with our tutus or not, for the class picture before the big recital. Though it’s only fair to give myself credit for having been obsessed with the ugliness of our getups to such an extent that I forgot the part about the stockings, and I promise you, they were hideous costumes.
But you also know that I am enamored of beautiful dancing of nearly any kind, if allowed to watch it from a safe distance. So I think I can be forgiven for letting others take to the floor in real life and only doing so in my imagination and, occasionally, in my poems. I think any creature, real or imagined, that can dance beautifully deserves my attention and admiration (as long as it wears the correct tights with its tutu).
It’s probably nigh unto heretical to say so, but despite my stereotypical feminine admiration for shoes and my not-so-secret desire to own a zillion pairs of pretty ones, I seldom bend so far as to wear any that aren’t mighty comfortable in real life. Why, I have been known to fall right off of them and skin my precious knees whenever there was a handy hole in the pavement to snag my heel in for such purposes. But I hate pain, even the relatively minor pain of standing upright in high heels, so I really don’t often put myself in such danger.
In a similar vein, at times I am willing to go so far as to put on a little eyeliner, or suck in my gut to get a too-tight waistband to zip, or even give myself a semi-polished pedicure when I’m wearing sandals, but if time is pressed or I’m not in the mood, I’ll certainly never be bothered with such efforts. I feel more than a little ridiculous when I’m dolled up very far, and mostly I’m much too cheap and lazy and, well, un-girly, I guess, to enjoy the process, the expense or the artificiality of being ultra-feminine. Plus, there’s the risk of the people who know me best having a heart attack if I go all ruffly and spangly on ’em. That would just be mean and selfish on my part.
When my family and friends were conscripted to help install the artwork for my master’s thesis exhibition, they could not help but note that it would have been a kindness on my part to specialize in something a little more manageable, say, postage stamp illustration. Hanging murals of up to nine by thirty feet in dimensions is admittedly more unwieldy than mounting a bunch of tidy little framed life-sized insect portraits or installing a series of elfin sculptures made from shirt buttons and walnut shells. Alas, though I did segue into much more portable forms in later years, it was not soon enough for my loved ones’ sakes.
My verbosity is a similar burden on my circle of acquaintance, as I am not famous for knowing when to shut up any more than I am known for limiting my opinion to those who have actually asked for it. But just as I have learned to appreciate and work at smaller and less physically demanding visual media along with my enjoyment of massive and messy kinds of art, I have a fondness for smaller and less epic essays and poems, too, and have been known to craft these with similar avidity. While scale in no way guarantees quality or lack thereof in any medium I know, it is sometimes a relief to me as much as to my friendly audiences when I get my kicks by producing petite expressions of my inventive urges.
I got to cuddle a couple of babies lately. I’m a sucker for cute babies and even when they’re a little weepy or unhappy, I’m generally glad to get to play grandma for a little while in exchange for the warmth of a wriggly tiny person’s presence in my arms. I didn’t have either the instinct or the timing to be a mother myself, but I’ve been gifted with siblings, in-laws, and friends whose babies have been the delight of my Auntie and pseudo-Granny life. In the last couple of weeks, I got to hold and cherish one of my great-nieces for the first time. What a joy!
Of course, I admit I can’t help but feel a teensy bit of envy when I hold a sweet, curled up baby, whether she’s awake or asleep. The brief part of life when you’re still consistently the most adorable person in the room, even when you’ve just spewed copious quantities of used milk on everyone in the vicinity, is surpassed only by the preceding months of cushy luxury spent doing the backstroke in the protective amniotic pool, and I think it would be lovely if I could just get hooked up to that kind of spa service on a longer-term basis.