Writing—seriously writing—I see it as Julie Andrews. I am Mary Poppins, and I’ve entered an orphanage, filled with dozens of shy, scared kids. They are all hiding in the corner, crouched down, arms covering their heads, with their eyes barely showing. But, their eyes follow me around the room, watching my every move. They want to know if I’m for real, if I’m going to stay or if I’m going to turn around and leave. I stay for a while, not asking or expecting the kids to come and interact. I sit in the middle of the room and I speak to other adults, and when the adults leave, I remain in the room and hum a tune and doodle on a canvas. I’m hanging around, in no hurry. The kids remain in their positions, and a few eyes are a bit wider in their hidden stance.
I do leave—they watch me leave—but I return the next day, and the next, and each day, I do the same thing. I show up, place myself in the middle of the room, and allow but do not ask and do not expect the kids to come over. The kids begin to realize that I come; I do leave, but that I return. They can now count on that. They can expect me to return. And, one day, when I do return, one or two of the bolder ones will gently, slowly rise up, shake out their bodies and venture toward me—to see what I’m doing. And, then, the next day, they remain far away, watching again. And, this continues, and then another day they come up and join me, and maybe a few others follow the bold ones, and they stand around me, some next to me, and watch me doodle. Maybe they talk amongst themselves, but not yet to me.
If I ask the children a question at this point, they clam up—they avert their eyes, and their energy flows back inward, self-protecting. They are curious and feel a bit safe, yet they don’t trust me.
This happens for a while, until one day, I am in the middle, quiet and patient, and a few children come up to see what I’m doing. A bold and curious one will ask me a question— what I am doing? If I answer too strongly—giving too much explanation—the child will shut down again. So, I mirror the answer– answer in the way I am questioned. The child is silent, contemplating. I continue, and although I am more excited now, I contain the excitement, for if I shout my thrill at being approached and interacted, the children will flee, frightened and annoyed.
For a while, we play with this dance. Some days I am approached and questioned—now by more children—and some days, they remain in the corners. Some days, no one pays any attention to me at all. Some days they come out and play with toys and talk amongst themselves. Some days I don’t notice the children, focusing on my art.
But slowly, and without even noticing, the questions and answers increase, and sometimes they melt into a conversation of sorts. We forget to be scared and just simply interact with each other. They know I’m not going to harm or leave them. They know I will listen to their questions, and I will answer them. And I know that I am going to continue to return to them, regardless of the outcome. Being There is the outcome. It’s as good as it gets; it has to be, or else it all falls apart.
Then, one day, something magical happens: we all suddenly, somehow, stop taking ourselves so goddamned seriously. We cannot control each other—they can’t make me return and I can’t make them interact—but suddenly we suspend caring about that, and for a brief second, we just… laugh. Something funny happens—I spill a jar of paint, someone farts—something funny happens, and we all burst out and giggle! Except the shier ones. They still look on, with wide eyes. And, of course the shiest ones, who are still hiding near the wall.
But, we laugh! Even the shy ones who are not laughing are enjoying the moment—perhaps they are laughing inside. And, in that moment when we all laugh at some silly little thing, we have done something we have not yet done—we are enjoying the moment, together. And, nothing happens afterwards. We just laugh, and afterwards, everyone can go back to safe corners. And I leave.
Except that the next day– post-laughing day– when I come into the room, my eyes scan the room. I meet the eyes of some of the braver, and I look with love at the shier—I gather them in, with a smile. Some smile back. I don’t do anything else; I don’t talk about the laugh, I don’t invite them up, I just return to my table and I continue my process. Maybe they come over and maybe they don’t.
After the laughing day, though, it is easier. Children come up and ask questions. We have conversations. Some children offer ideas on what to draw. The shy ones look on, and once in a while, from the wall, one of them will ask a question, and I will answer them. Or, they’ll ask something and I’ll invite them to come see. And, once in a while, they will. Some of the bold ones will ask if they can try—so I hand them some art supplies and they play with the pastels and the canvas. Sometimes they draw something that causes the others to giggle or speak animatedly. A few more bold ones will ask to try. Some of the shy ones are now raising their heads, wiggling their necks a bit, to get a better view. They are squeezing in a bit tighter, to see more of the picture. And, one day, I feel two tiny fingers gently—ever so gently—touching the palm of my free, hanging hand. A particularly shy child—a sweet young girl who has not yet uttered a single word or who has ever looked me directly in the eye— comes up, unnoticed from the excitement of the crowd of active children, stands behind me, and quietly takes my hand. For a few minutes, we are holding hands, without pressure, but with gesture and feeling. The world and space around our hands is holding us together. And, when she lets go, I melt away and feel like crying. This tender interface of energy is something too dear, too much to manage some days. The moment of sweet victory is tremendous, and sometimes I have to acknowledge it.
But, not take it too seriously. And, not expect it to happen the next day. Or, ever again. Except that, from that point on, I can enter the room, make eye contact, acknowledge the shy ones, and as I make space for myself in the middle of the room, I now lay out canvas for the other children—there is plenty of space—and materials for them to draw. I don’t expect them to come, but I can see it, and I am comfortable with it, so now I make space for it. Some draw, some watch, some remain by the wall watching, some talk, some are quiet still, in the same position as in the first day. I wonder if there are some children who I will never come to know, in the time of my being there. But, in a way I have come to know them; they are the hidden ones. They are not part of my active experience, but they too choose to show up every day. Perhaps they are the audience, participating through their observation. And, if they are not noticing us, they are simply being with us. We are all keeping company.
One day I feel the urge to hug one of the children. Or, they have the urge to hug me. Whatever. All I know is that, when it’s time for me to leave, one of the children leaps up, shuffles over to me, and as I turn to him, all four of our arms are outstretched. We hug, smiling, and say, “see ya.” Others look on, and there is a moment of stillness in the air. We’ve all been here before. Somehow, we have all moved forward a tiny bit and taken a bit of a chance, and that we’re all waiting to see what will happen next. And, without expectation, but with deep sorrowful gratitude, I am smiling inside; it just doesn’t get any better than this. I begin to clean up my space and head out the door. And, as I do, the chorus of children shrieks behind me: Susie! Susie! Several—no, most—of the children come rushing forward, rushing toward me in a sea of love and pure child joy—and we hug in a circle, tremendous and wiggly.
I am beside myself with joy; I separate from my body and watch this magical moment. I am watching me get hugged and loved, watching me give love.
And I return the next day. And, the next. And, of course, the next. And, I keep on returning, until the day that I am no longer myself.
p.s. The shy girl holds my hand most days now.