I think my four and a half year old son can write a book on Zen and the Art of Cleaning the House. Or Zen and the Art of Making a Salad. It’s quite refreshing to see kids get excited about the things many of us consider chores. This week has been an especially exciting, or shall I say “zen” week. “It’s for Passover!” Sebastian exclaimed every time I passed by him as he was sweeping or vacuuming the floor. The ritual of cleaning the home in preparation for the holiday must have been a very effective and memorable lesson at his gan.
The cleaning, and the ten plagues, which he spews rhythmically, teetering between blood, locusts, and vermin, all the way to the climactic slaying of the firstborn (מכת בכורות), to which he adds casually, “all the boys die”. Sebastian’s enduring involvement with the subject of death, in light of the holiday spirit, has been a little less sunny, but no less sensitive and impassioned. The spirit of thankfulness (דיינו; Dayenu — “it would have been enough”) that is appropriate to the Passover theme of freedom rings in his energized pronouncement one evening during dinner: “How awesome it is (’איזה כייף’) that I wasn’t in Egypt and that they didn’t kill me!” The deep sense of gratitude that swept over him, presumably, came on the heels of a rather calculated reflection from an earlier evening: “It’s really not fun (’ממש לא כייף’) for people who die.” [To my prod, why? (I couldn’t resist) — “because they can’t get to know Israel better and go to Canada…”]
Sebastianisms, this blog should be called. I marvel at the stuff he says. The other day, walking uphill after a morning at the beach, he stops, legs slightly spread, and says, looking down: “How is it that our feet are so small and can support us?” My immediate and enthusiastic response to his sensitive query was what has by now become my form response: a simple — at once aborted and pregnant response — that is elicited by a sense of emotional awe and intellectual shortcoming at once: “what a wonderful question…!” I walked up the hill more aware of my body, more cognizant of my feet’s contact with the ground, and marveled at our amazing instruments and at the harmonious complexity of our physiology.
Later on that afternoon, while sitting on a bench eating popsicles at the playground, Sebastian said: “Ima, listen to the birds. “Just the birds,” he added, “not the children.” I tilted my head, squinted, and strained to discriminate between the manifold sounds surrounding me. I tried to isolate, to concentrate, to listen. This was an exercise in focus, in mindfulness, and I accepted the challenge.
Then came a happy “sound of the children” that I could not ignore. It was rhythmic, spirited, and very very familiar: “Hayom Yom Huledet le-Liliana” (Happy Birthday to Liliana). As far as my two year old is concerned, every day is her birthday. And she declares it. Loudly. Boldly. In song. Hers is a sense of entitlement that is refreshing, undaunted, and positive. Her vital confidence is buoyant and almost enviable. We all join in song.
Life is too serious to be taken seriously. But life in the home of a toddler and a preschooler also serves up the flipside: play is too serious to be taken lightly. No plastic strawberry is placed haphazardly, no balloon is stapled on casually, no stuffed animal is positioned accidentally.
Sebastian dresses up from head to toe for a pretend birthday party. Liliana hauls the pillows and the blankets for a pretend nap (this one’s fast becoming my favorite of the pretend games; being read to and tucked in by a two year old is a great perk). The point is: everything is deliberately planned; and vigorously executed.
I’ve been reading other women’s (Tina Fey, Sarah Kay) sharp, poetic, and stirring passages on the subject of “what I want to tell my children”. I ask myself what I want to tell mine. And shrug. I haven’t yet figured it out. But I do know what I want to learn from my children.
I want to inhabit their sense of wonder. To see a snail in the pile of poop in the potty. I want to attain their emotional openness. To go from tears to laughter instantly with the help of a silly distraction. I want to absorb their sense of privilege. To holler “it’s my birthday” in song. Even when it’s not my birthday. I want to seize their joy. To crack up at a silly impersonation. To gush at the beautiful foolishness of little things. I want to live lightly, and play seriously. To approach everything with deliberation. And enthusiasm.
Ponyboy, in S.E. Hinton’s gem of a coming-of-age novel The Outsiders says: “Nothing gold can stay.” Robert Frost’s simple truth has always touched a tender and wistful nerve in me.
And yet the one thing I find myself wanting to tell my children, is: “Stay golden.”