During the hurried disquiet commonly referred to as “The Holidays,” the spinning seems relentless, doesn’t it? But every now and then—especially when we least expect it—the world slows.
Or, at least, it appears to slow. Either way, it allows us that occasional, proverbial Zen-like moment of quiet clarity.
Four years ago, right around Thanksgiving, at the PTA-sponsored Talent Show at Linwood Holton Elementary (Richmond, Virginia), I was given one such moment. It came in a flash, of course, as is the habit of distinguished moments. And it came via the British singer-songwriter Adele. Much to everyone’s surprise, she had appeared.
With angelic voice, she was crooning her smash hit “Someone Like You.” Only it wasn’t really Adele. It was little Zoe and little Ada. Two young girls, their voices cracking but trying, were covering Adele’s newly iconic ode to the entanglements of human love.
A sort of smile-smirk-smile enveloped me. How could it not? Eight-year-olds had commandeered a stage in the school gymnasium and were somehow earnestly singing, “You know how the time flies/Only yesterday was the time of our lives.” One of the oldest melancholies the world over had been entrusted to third graders: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”
On this night, surrounded by a flash-mob dance number featuring well-meaning teachers in an organized chaos, a groovy cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” by a jam band, and a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” by a fifth grader, Zoe and Ada gave it their best Adele. It was the stuff of child’s play. Except—it wasn’t child’s play in the least.
I heard that you’re settled down/that you found a girl/and you’re married now—
Once upon a time, my six-year-old daughter revealed a significant secret: she told me the name of the boy she wanted to marry. Obviously, I took her decision in stride, given the balance in our savings account and given the years of her life not yet experienced. (According to my little girl, this boy had the most beautiful hair she’d ever seen!)
Hearing Adele ruefully muse that “The One” got away, that marriage was involved, that another woman necessarily left her out of the equation—it was strange, and all the more striking, because Zoe and Ada were relaying the story. They surely knew not what they were singing.
But, God only knows, sorrow has this desperate tendency in our lives to become larger than our lives. Here, however, at the Talent Show, sorrow seemed contextualized—it seemed more to scale—through the voices of children, who may or may not have already chosen their spouses.
Regrets and mistakes, they are memories made/who would have known how bittersweet this would taste—
When children speak way out of their league, well, I can only speak for myself: occasionally, it’s quite charming.
For instance, several years ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, my five-year-old son announced that he would no longer be responsible for hunting the turkey, killing it, and cooking it. The annual work was far too complicated and exhausting, he said.
Of course, he had never hunted, killed, or cooked a turkey. Let alone, anything. And when we asked him to recall Thanksgivings past, he launched into a rather impressive yarn in which (as a three-year-old) he walked alone to a local park, shot the great bird, plucked off the feathers, and later stuffed it into the oven for dinner. The story had our family absolutely bemused—which is exactly how I responded to Zoe and Ada.
These young girls were imploring me—a grown man who is mostly a grown-up—to transform my view of regrets and mistakes. Consider them memories, if you will. Mere kids were channeling that mature realization that broken relationships are, more often than not, bittersweet.
Love was way out of their league. Yet the charm worked perfectly.
I had hoped you’d see my face/and that you’d be reminded/that for me, it isn’t over/Never-mind, I’ll find someone like you
Here, Adele reaches for her most soulful self. She emanates a hopefulness that persists against the odds. She stares down disappointment and sadness—with an optimistic glare—as if they were small things.
Yes, very much like a child.
Listening to eight-year-old girls trying desperately to bring the soul from a deep place reminded me of those humorous E*Trade television commercials. You know, the ones in which an adult’s voice inhabits the body of a baby, who is wearing diapers but also thumbing a smartphone, wheeling and dealing his financial portfolio and relationships.
With Zoe and Ada, the children had indeed inhabited the adult’s voice. They were wheeling and dealing our emotional portfolio. They were interpreting our complicated desires, asking our ever-present questions.
How is this even possible? I thought, as the grown-ups roared and clapped their approval, as I folded up my metal chair and stacked it in a gymnasium corner. Because, at the end of the day—should this come as any real surprise during Advent?—when children appear, they often appear as someone like us.