Humans can be very dumb creatures and I am sure the Earth is ready to bear witness to that. A quick google search will tell you that the Earth is more than four billion years old, which means, that she has literally seen everyone – from the primitive hunting societies, to the agriculturalists, to the industrialists. My sympathies are with the Earth: she has had to see us make the same mistakes again and again and again. At this point, it’s safe to assume, then, that the Earth has lived long enough to figure out all the answers by now (or at least, she must think so) and because she knows what we do not know, she looks down on us. She’s probably even rolling her eyes at us right now. But I can’t lift a finger at our Mother Earth for being arrogant. Adults are very much like the Earth, too. Because we know (or think we know) more than children, because we’ve lived a little bit longer, we are unable to see them as equals, let alone accept that they might be superior than us. Children, who are always crying over the cliché broken pencil and are still struggling with the most basic of sums, appear almost stupid to us. However, the world does not work in binaries. It’s not always, either the Earth’s smart or we are, either the children are smart or adults are. There’s nuance in this world; a plethora of shades that we haven’t comprehended. Our problem is this: we are wearing sunglasses because we think they make us “cool”. That’s not the case, though. They only show us the world in one color.
I never paid much attention to children. Sure, I played with them, talked to them, even taught them a thing or two in the passing but I never really looked at them. For me, children were cute but could also be annoying: they picked their noses, fought with their siblings and when nothing went their way, they sat in the middle of a room and wailed. And yet, I’ve been thinking of them more and more.
It started when I picked up Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, a beautiful book that features the American road trip (but with a twist). It was not the road trip, or the twist, that struck me but the patience with which the author treated the children in the book; the gentleness with which she described their absurdly clever habits, the space that she gave them to express themselves in her story. For the first few pages, I found it hard to believe: could these characters really be children? Are children supposed to be this smart? Maybe not. But as I moved on, I started to think of the children around me and how they were always smarter than I gave them credit for. I thought of how many questions my sister asked me which I was unable to answer. And I thought of how, as I grow old, the world seems to slip away from me more and more, i.e. as we grow older, we realize how little we really know. Children, however, don’t think about the mysteries too much. They don’t think about not-knowing. They don’t worry about solving the world’s biggest questions. They just are and because they just are, they are young enough to know everything.[i]
As I pondered over the themes circling Lost Children Archive, children started appearing in my poems. I was surprised to see them there but also awed by their quirky and jovial characters. For some reason, these children were more interesting than all the adults I had written about. In one of the poems, the child was actually a character from the bedtime stories that I tell my little sister. The child/character complained to me (the author) about “always being lost”. It seemed a fun idea at first, a jab at myself for being so uncreative when coming up with stories on a whim, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had said more than I had initially intended to. The poem didn’t just say “you suck as a storyteller”, it told me “children are never lost”, it told me, “children are always finding new ways” and it asked me: but what about you? Did you think that maybe, you are the one who was lost all along?
In another poem, four children appeared, each with their own backstory. One of them was severely traumatized, another had anxiety and was afraid that his friends would make fun of him, and so on. The children went for a walk and during that walk, they witnessed two optical illusions: the green flash of the sun and the Fata Morgana. Upon seeing these magnificent scenes, chaos enveloped the group and suddenly, they were all full of theories, not knowing the scientific reason for the illusions, not listening to the scientist at hand who was willing to explain, not even caring to know the real reason for the green rim of the sun or the floating ships. The scientist, the only adult in the group, tried to stop them but in the end, he gave up, feeling lonely and left out, as the children jumped up and down restlessly, pointing, pointing, pointing. There’s a quote from a random video that my father has been obsessed with: if you want to learn to be happy, you should look at children. What would the scientist have experienced, if he had chosen, in that moment, to forget all the scientific theories and focus on the magic in front of him? What if he had taken notes from the children, had learned to be just as amazed and fascinated by the world? Perhaps, he would have felt much better, much more in harmony with the universe and the excited children. But he didn’t. Funny, then, how regression is a defense mechanism; ironic, how sometimes we have to revert back to being children, we have to forget the grim realities of life and look at things as if for the first time.
The first time. There was a poem that I read (I tried looking it up again but could not find it) that tackled this very concept. It started out with a person telling the poet to see things as if for the last time. To savour them. The poet, however, responded with: why not like the first? This concept has also been mentioned in T.S. Elliot’s famous poem “Little Gidding”: the end of all exploration is to see things as if for the first time. Children have that privilege: to see things as if for the first time, to feel as if every day has a new surprise for them. Age has to do with that: once you see something enough times, you forget the sweet taste of wonder, you forget what’s it like to be taken aback by the poems of the universe. The Earth has been looking at us for billions of years and is tired now by our repeated behaviours. Much like the Earth, we, as adults, have been repeatedly waking up, following the same routine, and seeing the same things for days, months, and years. To get out of this boredom, we have to make an effort: meditate, read a poem, travel, etc. In the end, though, no matter how much we try, we cannot retrieve the innocence of childhood or rewrite our experiences. Children, in that aspect, don’t have to try. As adults, we live tainted lives – as children, we live for the first time.
What I’ve learned from Lost Children Archive and from the arrival of my own poems at the table, is that we don’t look at children closely enough. There is much to learn from them, much to observe, to be fascinated by. Not just in their absurdity, their cleverness, or their fascination with the world, but in the full range of emotions that they witness and the purity with which they witness them. Take my sister for example: a nine-year-old obstinate, persistent child. She doesn’t like losing or not getting what she wants. In a fight, she proclaims that she hates me and wishes bad things upon me. This irrationality and rage are not foreign to even adults. But then. The night arrives. It is silent and dark and my sister is uncomfortable in such little light, does not know how to sleep without our parents. We are still fighting, technically, but as the clock ticks by, she scoots closer to me. A little while later, she takes my hand. Despite our irrationality and rage, we just want to be held. We break at some point, forget our egos, forget what we had wanted and ask to be loved. Especially when we are sad, especially when the night threatens to break our fickle hearts, we revert back to being my little sister in the dark, asking that our hand be held, that our fears be diminished through the warmth of our loved ones.
There are children everywhere: inside us and around us. And they can be many things: they can be mirrors and they can also be lessons. What we must do is be patient with them. We must respect their journey into adulthood and let them live without restraint. We must let them run into the darkness of their life with their “own becoming light”[ii] and we must be in awe of the flames they produce as they move forward. In hindsight, it really does not matter how long you’ve lived. Despite Earth’s exasperation at our repetitive blunders, sometimes, her mouth drops open in surprise (that is when it starts raining). And despite our annoyance and impatience with children, we cannot deny that the children around us have shocked us at some point. Sometimes, they ask a question that we never asked. Others, they do something that no one has ever taught them. One thing is clear: even if you’ve lived four billion years, there will always be something that takes you aback. But since we are unlikely to live that long, the task only becomes easier. Take off your sunglasses. Look at the world. There are hidden clues everywhere.
[i] This concept has been borrowed from Oscar Wilde’s quote “I am not young enough to know everything”.
[ii] The phrase “own becoming light” has been taken from a poem by June Jordan called “July 4, 1974” about her son.