When Children Appear
During the hurried disquiet commonly referred to as “The Holidays,” the spinning seems relentless. But every now and then—especially when we least expect it—the world slows. Or, appears to slow. Either way, it allows us that occasional, proverbial Zen-like moment of quiet clarity.
Three years ago, around Thanksgiving, at the PTA-sponsored Talent Show at Linwood Holton Elementary in Richmond, Virginia, I was given one such moment. It came in a flash, of course, as is the habit of distinguished moments. And it came via the British singer-songwriter Adele. Much to everyone's surprise, she had appeared.
With angelic voice, she was crooning her 2011 smash hit “Someone Like You.” Only, it wasn’t really Adele; it was little Zoe and little Ada. Two young girls—their voices cracking but trying—were covering Adele’s newly-iconic ode to the entanglements of human love.
A sort of smile-smirk-smile enveloped me. How could it not? Eight-year-olds had commandeered a stage in the school gymnasium and were somehow earnestly singing: “You know how the time flies/Only yesterday was the time of our lives.” One of the oldest melancholies the world over had been entrusted to third-graders: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead."
Culturally, I suppose you can draw a direct line from American Idol (and its sibling shows) to the first-of-its-kind Talent Show at Linwood Holton, where our two youngest children spend their daytime hours. Such is the American thirst for entertainment and achievement. Not to mention, youth.
On this night, surrounded by a flash-mob dance number featuring well-meaning teachers in an organized chaos, a groovy cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” by a jam band, and a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Zoe and Ada gave it their best Adele. It was surely the stuff of child’s play.
Except—it wasn’t child’s play in the least.
I heard that you’re settled down/that you found a girl/and you’re married now—
Several years ago, my six-year-old daughter revealed a significant secret: she told me the name of the boy she wants to marry. Obviously, I took her decision in stride, given the balance in our savings account and given the years of her life not yet experienced. (Still, according to my little girl, this boy had the most beautiful hair she’s ever seen!)
Hearing Adele’s rueful muse that “The One” got away, that marriage was involved, that another woman necessarily left her out of the equation—it was strange and all the more striking because Zoe and Ada were relaying the story. Naturally, they knew not what they were singing.
But God only knows: Sorrow has this desperate tendency to become larger than our lives. Here, however, in this snatch of time, sorrow seemed contextualized—and more to scale—through the voices of little girls, who may or may not have already chosen their spouses.
Regrets and mistakes, they are memories made/who would have known how bittersweet this would taste—
When children speak way out of their league, I can only speak for myself: occasionally, it’s quite charming.
For instance, once upon a time, on the day before Thanksgiving, my five-year-old son announced: he would no longer be responsible for hunting the turkey, killing it and cooking it. The annual work was far too exhausting, he said.
Of course, he has never hunted, killed or cooked a turkey. Let alone, anything. And when he was asked to recall Thanksgivings past, he launched into an impressive yarn in which (as a three-year-old) he walked alone to Bryan Park, shot the great bird, picked off its feathers and later stuffed it into the oven for dinner. The story had our family thoroughly bemused—which is exactly how I responded to Zoe and Ada.
These girls were imploring me—a grown man; and somewhat grown-up—to transform my view of regrets and mistakes. Consider them memories, if you will. Kids were channeling that mature realization that broken relationships are more often than not bittersweet.
Love was way out of their league. Yet the charm worked perfectly.
I had hoped you’d see my face/and that you’d be reminded/that for me, it isn’t over/Never-mind, I’ll find someone like you—
In song, Adele reaches for her most soulful self. She emanates a hopefulness that persists against the odds. She stares down disappointment and sadness—with an optimistic glare—as if they were small, non-threatening foes.
Yes, very much like a child.
Listening to little girls trying desperately to bring the soul from a deep place reminded me of those humorous E*Trade television commercials. You know, the ones in which an adult’s voice inhabits the body of a baby, who is wearing diapers but also thumbing a smartphone, wheeling and dealing his financial portfolio and relationships.
With Zoe and Ada, the children had inhabited the adult’s voice. They were wheeling and dealing our emotional portfolio. They were interpreting our complicated desires, asking our ever-present questions.
How is this genuinely possible? I thought, as the grown-ups clapped their approval and the quiet faded and I folded up my chair.
Because, at the end of the day—and should this come as any real surprise during Advent?—children are always someone like us.