This time of year, with the advent of Christmas approaching, I think about infants and the state of being childlike.
Put aside the specific religious associations for the moment: the celebration of nativity seems to stir something inside, something primal, mysterious, on incalculable importance.
The image of an exalted birth — the idea that an entity or experience both purer and more innocent yet at the same time vastly more powerful than our ordinary adult world, something that appears to be the epitome of weakness and invulnerability yet has the capacity to conquer death — touches a deep chord.
Eckart Tolle writes that the reason babies are so compellingly attractive, so magnetic in their adorable yet strange other-worldliness, is that they are only partially “here” and still have one foot in eternity. (He didn’t say it exactly that way, but that’s the general idea.)
Perhaps the thing that is so compelling about the celebration of nativity is that being a child is our native state, something like our hometown, or first language, a state we not only never forget but still carry actively inside our grown-up skin.
I just returned from a visit with my three-year-old granddaughter. (She has a sister on the way, any day now; in the photo three-year-old Fern is on the left; no-years-old-yet Jane is hiding on the right.)
Three is an amazing age: old enough to speak, even with considerable sophistication, yet still fresh enough from the source that you can feel wisps of eternity floating off of her like cosmic vapor trails.
The thing that amazes me about her (I admit: one of roughly a zillion things) is that I not only remember when her mother was just like that; being in her presence also reminds me vividly of when I was just like that.
That sense of being three, of gazing out Miranda-like at the vast wondrous world of phenomena, yet still being tethered securely to the boundless source that is where the sense of wonder itself comes from, is more than “just like yesterday.”
It’s just like right now.
Re-reading one of my very favorite books, Neil Gaiman’s achingly and terrifying sweet childhood adventure-fantasy The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I flagged this beautiful piece of dialogue.
The narrator, a boy of seven, is talking to a neighbor girl, Lettie, whom he suspects is something quite a bit more than an ordinary human girl, and he tells her so. “I bet you don’t actually even look like that,” he tells her. “Not really.”
Lettie shrugged. “Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”
She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
The other day Ana and I were talking about what it is we love about each other, and we both remarked how when we look at one another we so often see the little boy / little girl hovering a millimeter or two beneath the surface. One reason I love being with her is that she always reminds me of who I am.
A few years ago we were traveling and incredibly busy on the day of our anniversary, and we had made a mutual promise not to get each other any gifts. At the last minute we both confessed: we had each gotten the other a card. We pulled out the cards and handed them each other at the same time.
Here’s what they looked like.
Whatever your holiday and whatever you name it — Christmas, Hanukkah, the Feast of St. John, the Winter Solstice, Boxing Day — Ana and I wish you a joyous, wondrous, and hilarious entry into the new year …
And that you remember always your country of nativity: that inside, you’re still three years old — and always will be.