I had come to the restaurant to write. The place was mostly empty in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I should have gotten a lot of writing done, but Robert had other ideas.
Robert is a talker. His dad works in the kitchen of the restaurant and had been called in to finish someone else’s shift, so Robert tagged along to wait for him. He quickly struck up a conversation with me.
Robert is in the third grade and he wanted to tell me all about his life. He’s a golfer, he said, but people frequently ask him whether he’s a quarterback on a football team. He and his family have five cats and the one called Boo Bear is is favorite. (Boo Bear sleeps with him.) He’s going to be a firefighter or maybe “something easy” like a landscaper.
There was nothing extraordinary about Robert’s story, but everything about this sweet kid sparkled with life and wit and happiness. That such a thing is so ordinary is extraordinary in itself.
I’m not exactly sure whether children gravitate to me or whether I gravitate to them, but I constantly seem to end up interacting with them. In another restaurant this week, I had another “ordinary extraordinary” encounter.
As I ate dinner Tuesday night, I met a 19-month old blonde girl named Olivia. She was shamelessly flirting with me from the next booth, but her good-natured mother told her she’s too young for me. As she left the restaurant in her mom’s arms, she whipped her head back around toward me — swinging the red bow in her hair into her mother’s face — and waved her little hand at me and called out, “Bye! Bye! Bye!”
That sweet little lady made me smile.
On Wednesday night, I briefly met another little blonde girl. (What is it about little blonde girls lately?) As I ate that night, a tiny little girl — barely old enough to walk slowly with her mother holding her hand — came walking by on their way to the restroom. As she got to my table, the girl stopped and wouldn’t go on, even though her mother tugged her hand just a bit. She just stared at me. I spoke to her and she smiled. Her eyes got big and she smiled more. Her mother seemed confused.
“She seems to want to stay here and have a conversation with you,” her mom said. “She’s never done this before.”
The little girl never said anything, but she just kept grinning. Her mom finally picked her up and they went on. When they came out of the restroom, she waved to me and grinned again as she left in her mother’s arms.
Something about these little encounters fills me with joy.
I was thinking about my encounters with children Thursday evening as I listened to an interview with “visual storyteller” Maira Kalman, whose work you might have seen in the New York Times and it various other places. There’s a lot in her interview I’m still thinking about — and I recommend that On Being interview to you — but I was struck by her fascination with death.
Kalman said she starts every morning by reading the obituaries in a newspaper. She doesn’t seem like a morbid woman and she sounded quite happy with her life. So why does she start each day by reading about death?
She said it’s because it gives her clarity about what matters in her life — trees, walks and all the little things that we fall in love with every day.
As soon as she said that, I realized I do the same thing, but I do it by focusing on the early part of life and the end. I’m drawn to children for what they teach me about being alive — and I’m drawn to thinking about death for what that teaches me about the parts of life between childhood and death.
As this realization hit me, I thought about part of a song that expresses the idea beautifully. In a song from 1984 called “Man of Steel,” singer/songwriter Pat Terry has an emotionally powerful metaphor for this. In part, he’s lamenting that he has to be a “man of steel” in order to survive in “a world gone mad.” But the rest of this verse gets more complicated:
It’s a typical day for the man of steel
A little happy and a little bit sad
Seems like a reasonable way to feel
For a man in a world gone mad
There’s a baby that’s bouncing on his daddy’s knee
Grinning like the world’s his own
There’s a Cadillac climbing a cold, dark hill
To a grave with a fresh-placed stone
And the man of steel has a gleam in his eye for the innocent one
And the man of steel has a lump in his throat for a loved one gone
And the man of steel has hope in his heart for anyone
Who can see what’s true between the two and carry on
In Pat Terry’s carefully constructed narrative, it’s easy to miss the point. He first talks about the baby “that’s bouncing on his daddy’s knee,” but then he abruptly switches to noticing a hearse climbing a cold, dark hill to a grave to bury someone who’s died. Why the sudden shift from a joyful image to one of death?
Terry tells us that he has a gleam in his eye for the child and a lump in his throat for the dead person — and here’s where it all comes together — but hope in his heart for anyone in this world who can see the truth between these extremes — and and who can choose to carry on with this thing we call life.
That’s what I’m doing when I interact joyfully with these children. That’s what I’m doing when I somberly read death notices of people I don’t know and I wonder about their lives.
I’m reminding myself that everything I have is in the gap between those two. I’m reminding myself that I’m obsessed with finding the truth about what this life is. I’m reminding myself that life is perfect and joyful and full of hope at the beginning — full of absolute innocence — but I’m also reminding myself that it always ends.
I am terrified to live in a world where people act as though they have forever to start living. I’m shattered to live in a world where so many people seem oblivious to the joy and innocence of childhood. I feel like shaking people and saying, “Don’t you know that if you don’t change what you’re doing, you’re going to wake up one day and find you’ve wasted your life — and you’ve never even been happy?!”
Most of all, of course, I’m fearful of that for myself.
I’m fearful of not finding those things which will give life the most meaning for me. I’m fearful of not having a safe space within which to live out the love and connection which I know gives life meaning. I’m fearful of almost touching the things I need and then failing to win them.
Every child I meet is a promise of what life can be for me.
Every death I notice is a reminder that the clock is ticking for me.
In a world gone mad, I see the promise of life and the certainty of death. I see where I’m going in the end — many years from now — but I also see what life can be like in the meantime.
I see these extremes and I embrace them. I don’t know how to find the things I’m still desperately searching for, but I do know that I dimly see the truth of what’s between birth and death — and I consciously choose to carry on — with the innocent faith that love will win over death.