When I was little, I thought hiccups could be captured in a tiny invisible box. I believed that if I thought hard enough—imagined myself sitting on the box, and nailing it shut, and applying a layer of glue, and locking it tight—they could be smothered, extinguished, conquered.
I also believed that the food on my plate had feelings, and would be hurt if I didn’t eat it. And that somewhere in the world, dinosaurs still existed. And that one day, I might grow up to be a mermaid.
In last week’s post, I mentioned the elementary school I attended in L.A., which included dance as part of its progressive curriculum. In addition to that, we spent a period of time each day discussing problems—things that made us angry or sad, or that troubled us. We would sit in a circle and offer thoughts or advice on whatever issues arose.
Inevitably, as children who attended private school and whose time on Earth hadn’t yet exceeded a decade, our problems tended to skew toward the lightweight. Rebecca pushed me on the blacktop. Joey threw dirt. Shoko put grass in my shoes. (Someone actually brought this one up one day; I still strongly dispute that it ever happened.)
Some incidents, in retrospect, were funny. “Joey showed me his middle finger today,” I remember one girl telling the class. “That means something bad.” She looked at the teacher. “Can I say what it means?”
“Yes, you can say what it means,” said the teacher.
“It means fuck,” said the little girl, her last word a whisper.
But the remark I remember most clearly made an impression for another reason. “I don’t want time to go by,” a little boy said. “Because I don’t want my mom and dad to get older and I don’t want them to die.”
I sat in my place in the circle on the floor, a strange sensation building in the pit of my stomach. It was a thought that had crossed my mind before, but one that was too terrifying to touch. Thinking about it made it a possibility.
The fact that someone else put words to it made it real.
I read a poem recently, a sad one. It was called Lies I’ve Told My 3 Year Old Recently, written by Raul Gutierrez. “Trees talk to each other at night,” reads the first line. “Tiny bears live in drain pipes,” reads another. “If you are very quiet you can hear the clouds rub against the sky.”
It continues for a few lines, then ends: “Books get lonely too. / Sadness can be eaten. / I will always be there.”
It made me think of things I believed as a child.
That people, if they were special enough, lived forever. That I could fly. That someday I’d see the entire world. That I’d always be happy.
None of these things are true. And realizing this over time has created a special sort of sadness. But, as a friend pointed out to me today, there are things we know now that we didn’t believe were true as children. For instance, that not being able to draw a tree that looks like a real tree, or a cat that looks like a real cat, or a face that looks like a real face, doesn’t make you a bad artist. That you can be terrible at geometry and chemistry and trigonometry—anything involving numbers, really—and still be smart. That being weird is cool.
That there are worse things in the world than sadness.