I don’t have any grandchildren yet, so I enjoy seeing little kids with their families in fast food restaurants. The babies, of course, and the toddlers, and the two-year-olds, and the three-year-olds.
Those older tots take special pleasure in being asked to throw some of the remains of a meal — a balled-up hunk of paper, perhaps, or a few plastic forks — into the garbage. They feel a bit grown-up. They like knowing what to do and how to do it.
Often, on his way to the garbage, a little boy will start skipping. Or, on the way back, a little girl will suddenly have the urge to execute a clumsy yet endearing ballet twirl.
I’ve wondered why they add these small grace notes to their trip to the trash. Or at other times when I see them — when they’re walking down the street with a parent, for instance, or waiting by the family car to climb into a car seat.
It is, I think, an instinctual celebration of life. I can imagine children in medieval Spain spinning and hopping, and in the families of earliest humanity in Africa, or outside a yurt of a nomad tribe in Mongolia a millennium ago.
There was a movie some years ago, “Can’t Stop Dancing.” These kids can’t stop skipping and twirling. It’s in their blood.
And, truth be told, I’m jealous.
I wish I were comfortable enough to skip a step or two while making my way to the el. Or to twirl around a few times while standing in line at Dominick’s.
But I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get away with it. For one thing, I’m just not as cute as those little kids. For another, I’d probably trip over my own two feet. “Timber!”
Still, I think those kids can teach me a lesson.
Excited to be alive
For them, each day is filled with new discoveries. They are constantly surprised by the revelations of existence. They love getting deeper glimpses into what it means to be alive.
They’re excited to be alive.
So, maybe I can’t skip and twirl. But I can keep my eyes — and my mind — open to life the way they do.
As the new year begins, I’m going to try to remember this. As old as I am, I haven’t seen it all, and I haven’t figured it all out. I have no reason to feel complacent. I can’t let myself get too comfortable.
It’s unsettling, of course, to be bombarded by life’s surprises. Why do you think those little kids cry so easily? Yet, I want to let myself be unsettled by the amazements of existence.
I want to be jarred by some new facts that will alter the way I think about a subject I’ve studied all my life, say, Chicago politics or the life of Abraham Lincoln. I want to be caught short by the recognition that, at times, I’m not as unselfish with my family as I like to think I am.
Maybe, if I open my eyes and my mind, I’ll come to better understand and enjoy that Renoir painting of two acrobats at the Art Institute, the one that, up to now, has always left me cold. And perhaps discover the novels of Jane Austen. And make new friends in unexpected places.
I want to keep being excited to be alive.
To skip and twirl, if only in my dreams.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune of December 28, 2012. See it here.