Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Innocence Revisited

When I was 17 and so much more knowledgeable about the world than I am today, I wrote an essay that demonstrated just how bright and precocious I was. I wrote the essay on the eve of my high school graduation, and the subject was An Appreciation of Childhood Innocence. As I reached the milestone of passing from “dependent childhood” and high school to “independent adulthood” and college, I was mourning the stage of my life that I’d decided was finished – the youthful innocence and sense of wonder that continuously atrophies with every bit of acquired knowledge about the world, about life, about one’s self.

I read the essay at graduation; and it was well received – particularly by the adults in the audience. Since I’m not especially modest, I will attest that it was a pretty good essay. Or that’s what I thought at the time. Today, all these years later, I think it must’ve been a great essay, as I have a whole new appreciation of the precious, fleeting, youthful innocence – as I watch it already beginning to dissipate in my own beautiful children.

Sure, I’m aware of the irony. I wrote the essay at 17, at a time when there was so much for me still to learn, still to discover. I knew a lot at 17, but I had a lot to learn. When I was 17, I knew that my childhood innocence was pretty well gone but a hindsight-look at oneself is different than a real-time observation of someone else. At 17, though I knew childhood was fleeting and over so quickly, I hadn’t yet fully realized just how sad this all is. It is likely, at my relatively young age of 34, that I still don’t appreciate this completely, as I will discover as still more time passes.

But I am sometimes startled as I begin to notice the youthful wonder already disappearing in six-year-old Grace. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a DVD at the library. It was a collection of episodes called Growing Up Wild, produced by Animal Planet, with episodes focusing on baby Arctic animals. I wasn’t familiar with the shows but, based on the write-up, decided the episodes would be good and educational for the kids. A day or two later, it went into the DVD player in the van. The kids wear their headphones, and I wasn’t privy to the narration of the polar bear episode. When we reached our destination, I turned around to announce we’d arrived, and there was Grace, tears streaming down her face. The look on her face was one of heartbreak, and I was immediately choked up as I asked her why she was so upset. She told me, broken-voiced and teary-eyed, the sad story of the baby polar bear that was orphaned when its mother was shot. Taken to a rescue facility, caretakers nursed the bear back to health. It grew up alone, without other polar bears, dependent on humans for its survival. The story broke Grace’s heart, and her exposure to and realization of the crappy things that can happen in life broke my own heart. I shed some tears – both for the sad, little polar bear, but mainly for my sad, little six-year-old, who will soon know that there’s a full – and sometimes awful – world beyond the walls of our safe, insular home. The fleeting nature of innocence and ignorance, which often is quite blissful, is a sorrowful thing, indeed.

But, thankfully, there are still more of the other, less-aware days that are so fun to witness. Not long ago, when talking about the president, Grace asked where the president lives. We told her, “In a big house – they call it the White House – in Washington, DC.” And Grace countered with, “I’d like to go there sometime and ring the doorbell.” Ah, if only it was so easy. And then, a few days ago, on the ride to school, Grace heard the radio DJ talking about Justin Bieber. She proclaimed, “Virginia has a notebook with Justin Beaver on it.” I asked if she knew who Justin “Beaver” is and she said she didn’t, but that some of her classmates know him. My heart rejoiced, grateful for this one additional day in which she is unaware of “pop icons” and tween crushes like Justin “Beaver” and Hannah “Muh”tana.

The same morning, Nadia woke up and immediately recounted a dream she had about Diego, the adventuring, “handsome” boy of Go, Diego, Go! In this particular dream, Nadia and Diego were in a rainforest, on an adventure (of course), and there were river dolphins, beautiful birds and all kinds of animals. She sometimes dreams of watching cartoons and she frequently dreams of princesses, or that she is a princess. The “prince” in her dreams is either Diego, or Mike, and all is right in her four-year-old world.

Liam, in all his one-year-old glory, mostly just bats his eyelashes and charms everyone he meets. Everywhere, he is welcomed with compliments, admiration and attention. Everyone in the world, from his standpoint, is a friend and fan, and goodness abounds.

Most of the time, I worry about the kids and all the things in life that they may have to encounter and endure. But there are also plenty of moments when I envy them, as I think that they must think the world is such a great place, thanks to all the things they have the good fortune not to know. It’s a refreshing day when childhood innocence is anywhere, much less everywhere, and life is so good.