This is a summer of ‘once upon a time’s. Of lions who can talk and crayon drawings that come to life. Of dragons who like tacos and of ornery pelican siblings.
In other words, I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books. Nannying is a humble job–putting on shoes and sunscreen, changing diapers and pushing swings–but it is joyful. I’ll put on circus music, say, and watch a baby and a four-year-old spring to life, clapping their hands and spinning until they fall down, giggling, pure joy on their faces. I’ll dance, too, and then the baby will rush over to me as fast as her chubby legs can take her, stepping heavily from side to side like a tiny dinosaur. She knows I’ll pick her up, put her on my hip, and spin around in circles. She’ll grab onto my shoulder like it’s just a little bit scary, but she’ll have the biggest smile on her face. The expression in a word: elated. As a bonus, this trick makes her stop crying every single time.
Martin Luther King Jr. said this, which I love:
“If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music…Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
With this particular summer job, which does not feel like a job most of the time but rather a gift–I seek to, yeah, babysit like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Beethoven composed music, like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Like it matters.
Hopefully these sweet kids will learn from me. The baby can say “bonjour” and “coucou.” If she’s learned anything else, it would probably be some dance moves and the knowledge that I’ll match her zest for flipping through books (but just barely). The little boy and I talk about instruments and listen for them in songs. I’ve played for him the Beatles, Bobby McFerrin, Vivaldi. We talk about new words, watch videos about how things are made. I’ve taught him yoga poses. The other day we talked about how to make hummus. We play hopscotch, baseball, Candy Land (right now we’re working on losing gracefully). He likes me to build structures so he can knock them down: “make it look like the Eiffel Tower of London, Jess-i-ca!” (We’re working on geography, too.) He pronounces my name with a French accent, jeh-see-kah, because he met me at his French immersion school.
My favorite part of every day (besides the insanely adorable dance parties) is when one or both of them snuggle up to listen to a story. The baby is proud she can turn the pages, (though she’s a bit hasty). The little boy listens closely, rapt. Last week I brought over a kids’ book I own, a charming book about good behavior from the forties. (Now sold at Anthropologie) It’s been reprinted and now sports a bright cover and is full of sweet line drawings. “How to Behave and Why” by Munro Leaf. It’s sixty pages, with a frankness unheard of in modern kid lit:
“Ever since the days when men stopped living in caves, the good and decent people of the world have found out that there are certain ways we all have to behave if we want to live together pleasantly.”
Try reading that to a four-year-old with a totally straight face.
The book’s thesis, if you will, is that one must be honest, fair, strong, and wise.
Honest, because “only a dope will tell a lie.” “We can’t believe ourselves or anyone else, because we don’t really know what the truth is any more than a penguin and that is a stupid way to live…as anyone can tell you.”
Fair, which we can be when we “[believe] that other people have just as much right to be alive and happy as we have.”
Strong, which some people mistakenly believe is “just a matter of having muscles like a gorilla.” But “real strength comes from having a clean, healthy mind and a clean, healthy body.”
Wise, which won’t be hard if we are “honest and fair and strong.” “‘I can’t always be right no matter who I am’ is a good thing for all of us to remember.’ Other people have ideas and thoughts, ways to do things, ways to work, ways to play, ways they think of God and their country and their race. Their way can be just as right as your way. Remember that.”
It’s simple, sure. But it’s enough. It’s perfect. Those four words have flopped around in my head for days. What if I woke up every morning with that focus? “Today I will be honest, fair, strong, wise.”
As I read, we came up with a new game. He’s good at that. “Jess-i-ca, what if I threw a duck into your hair?” “Ooh…” I say, a look of faux-concern. “That wouldn’t be very fair, would it? I didn’t do anything mean to you!” Or “what if I threw all my food out the window?!” “Hm. That certainly wouldn’t be very wise.” The sweetest: “What if I said, ‘I don’t like you, Jessica’ ?” He answers his own question. “That’s not honest!” he cries.
I plan to keep reading this to him. It will be for both our benefits.
Good reminders, stated simply.
“Anywhere you go with a smile and a wish to like people, you will find someone who will be glad to see you.”
“Get up in the morning wherever you are and go to school or play or work or parties or new places, glad to meet new people and make old friends of them.”
Be honest be fair be strong be wise.
There is wisdom to be found in children’s books, there is joy in sweeping streets. And don’t even get me started on Dr. Seuss.