So, there was this little one, the other day at the place where I was sitting, sipping my black coffee out of a real mug.
I could see that every blond hair was precisely in place, each square centimeter of his expensively styled outfit a perfect complement to his mother’s managed persona.
He carried a pristine bear and his shoes, un-scuffed, walked across the floor of the coffee shop, so very carefully.
Heel, toe. Heel, toe.
Sitting with feet dangling off the tall chair, drinking lukewarm cocoa out of a straw while his attentive mother dabbed at spots and smoothed wrinkles.
Perhaps they were on their way to a fab photo shoot.
I suppose, if I hadn’t seen so many costumed tiny children lately, I wouldn’t be writing this. These thoughts never occurred to me when my spiky-haired boys were this age.
You know what was missing from his scrupulously clean face?
A smile. There were no inquisitive eyes darting around the brightly colored interior of the shop, yet, in every other way he was normal in his mannerisms and engagement with his mom.
There he was in a conspicuous absence of sizzling, little boy energy, sitting so still.
I found it unsettling.
See, I have boys. I have really good, but really normal boys. They’ve always been bursting to explore, experience, conquer, and move. We spent a lot of time in the middle of life lived all piled dishes, stinky laundry, loud laughter, and messy days of parent failure and child exhaustion.. On pretty much any day I could take them to even antique stores as toddlers without batting an eye. No matter where they were they smiled, they engaged, they laughed, and giggled.
They wailed and sometimes wept too, but the point is, they SHOWED something of what was inside their souls and minds. Something other an exquisite self-absorption colored their faces.
Which is why, in this fearful, cautious world of real and imagined dangers behind every door while phobias and germs lurk around every corner, the thing we have to guard ourselves against more than almost anything is robbing our children of the realities of life when we proactively sci-fi sanitize their existence into white cubicles and stainless steel modern rooms without texture or depth.
These children, so resolutely guarded are robbed of experiencing the difference between clean and dirty, light and dark, whole and broken when they see only a deliberately applied censorship of “acceptable” through a grown up lens.
They must only play with the pre-approved list of friends, from the list of pre-approved homes and backgrounds. They must not interact with those who are not of their social, religious, economic station or status.
No coughing, no sweat, no dirt, no laughter… Diminutive mannequins we engage at our leisure while making the family façade more about how the children reflect on the family than how the family expresses love to itself and those around.
Micromanaged, they lack the confidence to make decisions for themselves and live without the triumph of an arm-wrestling tournament or building a dirt jump in the back lot.
These small people, intended to sparkle with color and brilliance, are reduced to a crisp, sterility and hum of safe electronics and white on white, fade to gray, anonymity.
When the boys were tiny, sure, we were concerned about things like health and safety concerns:
No, you can’t eat a slug. Yes, you can chew on a coffee bean. You can’t wipe poo on the rails of your crib, but peeing outside is totally fun.
We never held them at arm’s length when they cough/vomited from too much ice cream or an upset tummy. We gently and carefully cleaned up the last bits of crusty snot from the back of downy heads while wondering how in the WORLD it got there!?
Kids are beautiful, gorgeous, messy, dirty reflections of us.
As any parent of a toddler can attest, if they are honest, we understand the grossness of bleaching a tub every night because the aforementioned youngling feels so warm, relaxed, and comfortable when sitting in warm water they cannot, nor do they understand why they shouldn’t, dump a load off in the bathtub.
Breaking out the bleach.
Looking back I would swear there was a 3-month period where I bleached the tub every, single, blessed night.
And that was ok.
My kids played in dirt until they were black with it; they caught critters and snakes, winged and spider-legged. They were ferocious seekers of fun.
That was ok too.
When they caught colds, we wiped noses and together breathed eucalyptus and menthol fumes until our eyes ran and our throats burned cold and clear.
No matter the bug, we snuggled and kissed hot foreheads through discomfort and fever, the crankiness and confusion.
When they brought a little blue-belly lizard, grubby hands outstretched, eyes bright and proud, I took it and kept the cringing inside. Quickly, we named the little reptile for the few minutes we held and examined him before returning him, sleepy and petted, to scamper through dusty sage and sun bleached deadfall as far as he could get from the lightening fast reflexes of the Lizard Snatchers.
As the boys have grown from snot-nosed toddlers in oversized shirts to lizard keepers in muddy shoes, to the tall, young men with big shoes and broad shoulders where majority of their current messes reflect relationships and social interaction. Regardless of the situation, we take the same approach.
“He’s broken, Mom. She’s messy. She’s lonely. They aren’t very nice. ”
Purposefully, we press in, close to unlovely people and situations with barely a shiver. We’ve been practicing for a while, so putting our arms around the dirty and un-sanitized people around us has become second nature.
It took awhile but I finally died to the pride that said keeping a spotless house before friends came over was a requirement. Good gravy, I have never been able to achieve that longer than about 20 minutes in my life, so it wasn’t much of an achievable goal anyway.
Through it all, I have had a singular purpose:
The last thing I want my sons to ever believe is the lie that they have to be sparkling clean and perfect, pressed and spotless, before they are accepted and held. I hate to think they would decide they must achieve a mask of acceptability before being welcome or before they can welcome others.
There is no person on the planet who isn’t a reflection of chaotic, sloppy humanity. We want to raise the generation that follows us to live in authenticity and open-ness, with the courage to tackle the reality of justice and loving the unlovely.
But before that can happen, we have to stop sanitizing our kids and their lives.
They are us. What they know of love will trickle down to us in our nursing homes…
I hope I will have raised people who can see the person behind the disheveled and be willing to hold me too when I am most unlovely.