… or Week 3, depending on how you count.
The best interaction I had at the booth this week, hands down, was with a young, blue-bespectacled cartoonist who asked his family’s permission to talk with me and then not only talked but drew pictures, made a miniature blank book, brought his little cousin over to draw together. His family kept a watchful eye at a small distance while they waited for their bus.
If you read that post from this session’s last day, you know he told me that he was worried because he misses his dad and his dad misses him. I know he does miss you, I said. When I found out that he and his dad don’t talk and that he likes to draw, I suggested he do some drawings and save them for him. I bet he’d like that, I said
I don’t actually know if he would like it.
I don’t know if he misses his son.
I don’t know if he’s alive, or well.
I don’t know if things would be better for anyone in the family if they were all together, or if things would be better for some but worse for others.
I don’t know what, if anything, threatens or blocks the family’s sufficiency, or abundance, or safety, or contentment.
There are a thousand thousand things I don’t know about the people who talk with me at the booth, and balanced against them, the weight of what I do know is very slight. While I listen and ask questions more than I talk, I’m still choosing my questions based on what I think I know about them from what they say and how they seem, and certainly my sense of how they seem is shaped by the world in which we all move, the hierarchies of humanity our culture assigns, my own privilege and training. In telling the cartoonist that his dad missed him and would like to see his drawings, I was acting on “instinct”, which really means a mix of all the things I just mentioned, slurrying around and leaching into me as motivations. I will say that he didn’t seem surprised at what I said.
I’ve talked with people before, a couple of times, about the idea that kids are the future and the role that children as an idea play in discussions of climate change. I haven’t said too much yet about actual children, mostly because young children don’t often talk to me at the booth, though teenagers stop pretty frequently. It’s rare for someone under ten to be on their own downtown, and when a parent stops with their kid, the parent tends to dominate the conversation. There’s also a feeling, however erroneous or belated, of not wanting to be the one who gives a kid nightmares, the one who says, “Hey listen, if you didn’t know this was happening, it’s happening and it’s pretty bad.” And how bad do you say it is?
Ursula K. LeGuin writes about this in “The Child and the Shadow,” how stories help us confront our own capacity to do harm, even from the time we are very small. “To give the child a picture of the gas chambers of Dachau, or the famines of India, or the cruelties of a psychotic parent, and say, ‘Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it?’–that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘s0lution’ to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child.
“… It seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to children about good and evil is to talk about the self–the inner, the deepest self. That is something children can and do cope with; indeed, our job in growing up is to become ourselves. … We need to see ourselves and the shadows we cast.”
From the beginning of her imagination, LeGuin sees children as full and complicated beings with a different set of tools than adults have–but not worse. Lynda Barry and Melissa Chadburn have both written/drawn that ascribing resilience to children (among others) can do harm and let people avoid changing the social structures and cultural habits that make that resilience necessary. (The rhetoric of resilience around climate change, design and infrastructure is something I hope to address in another post.)
It’s also true that children’s curiosity, the leaps they make, the ways they wriggle through the world–including the walking towers whose rules are so strange and so seemingly arbitrary–are qualitatively different from, and potentially complementary to, those of adults. Versions of the world that consider children only as sites of past and present and future trauma, as victims, are just as disordered as versions that consider them as sites of innocence, or saviors.
A friend once shadowed a doctor working in pediatric palliative care. This doctor reminded my friend that a life that lasts three years, seven years, six months is a whole life. How can the people in that life help to fill it with as much warmth and joy as possible? she asked. I write this and believe it, knowing also that hierarchies of humanity have a profound effect on who gets a long life, who gets a full life.
I don’t have children.
I think about having children.
I think about never having children.
In the same essay, LeGuin asks, “If you listen, what do you hear?”
You can read what the cartoonist told me about himself. That’s not all there is to him–it couldn’t be–but it’s what he wanted me to know at that moment, and that was the moment that we were in together.