“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” ― Virginia Woolf
Each year, I seem to learn of several new things to dislike about growing older and being An Adult (one of my co-workers, who is 62, likes to warn me about things that I have to “look forward to” in years to come). As a child, I never really imagined it would be this way. I imagined a kind of weightless freedom — the freedom to eat Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast every morning if I wanted! The freedom to stay up all night long reading if I wanted! The freedom to drive a car! To pick my own clothes! To make my own rules. Being An Adult was something as seemingly distant as the Moon. Imagining myself as an adult, I never fathomed that I would still actually be Myself — the same awkward, anxious, dorky person — just older. And, no matter how much my parents and grandparents may have tried to warn me, I never put much stock in the negatives that I now see: the bills, the responsibilities, the lack of naps, the wrinkles.
I don’t generally eat Lucky Charms for breakfast, although I certainly could, because somehow the adult version of the same old anxious, dorky me prefers to “eat healthy”. I don’t generally stay up all night reading because the adult version of me gets tired. The adult version of me doesn’t necessarily miss being a child, in the way that missing implies. I would not choose to go backward in time. In fact, the adult version of me appreciates every step and misstep that has led to me this very point in time. I wouldn’t change much. But there are things for which I have a greater appreciation, looking back now, and things for which I feel nostalgic. Things like seeing the world through the eyes of a child.
Our adult eyes will never see things the way that a child does. Our adult eyes are covered with layers and layers of filters, made up of all the years of context that we’ve added to our worlds. Our adult eyes can be cynical or frightened or judgmental in ways that a child’s eyes don’t yet know to be. Our adult eyes miss so much, for all that we think we’re seeing.
A few months ago, my husband and I took our niece to Hollywood to see the Broadway show The Lion King. We parked some distance from the theater, which meant we had to walk for many blocks on Hollywood Boulevard. There is a lot to see there and our niece’s head swiveled this way and that as she took it all in, wide-eyed. At one point, we passed by a young woman posing suggestively as a friend or colleague took photos of her. She was dressed in a long teal-colored gown that was designed in such a way as to reveal plenty of skin and silver stiletto heels that made her poses feats of agility. I saw her and then instantly turned to my niece to gauge her reaction, to see if she had noticed her too, smiling to myself. Of course she had noticed, as she noticed everything around us, and her reaction was obvious: she was thrilled. When she looked at this young woman, through her child eyes, she saw someone glamorous and beautiful! To her eyes, this woman was potentially “a princess”.
My adult eyes, connected to my adult brain, questioned whether this was an “appropriate” thing to expose my niece to — this garish, scantily-clad lady and her cohorts on Hollywood Boulevard. What would she think? How will this impact her sense of self, her sense of femininity and feminism and… I mean, should I say something about it? My mind whirled.
To my adult eyes and ears and brain, “princess” is a loaded word. Is it to you? From the moment my oldest niece was born, I’ve consciously avoided ever gifting the girls with a single pink, plastic, bejeweled, princess-ish item. I’ve read extensively on the effects of media on children and the dark side of Disney and the problems with our whole princess subculture in preschool. I have strong opinions about it all.
It’s possible that my adult brain may think too much.
Because while this is all quite valid and quite concerning in general, through the wide and highly contextualized adult lens, the fact is that many small moments can safely be taken entirely at face value, through child eyes. Through child eyes, the color of that gown was gorgeous in the sun. The silver shoes sparkled. The smile on that young woman’s face as she posed was lovely. And it didn’t need to mean anything more than that.
“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” ― Franz Kafka
If we really think back, transporting ourselves and our senses through time, we can catch glimpses of things that influenced our individual development of aesthetic. When I was small, it was the ’80’s and my mom was taking an aerobics class one or two nights a week. When she would go to her aerobics class, she would wear bright-colored tights and legwarmers. I loved those tights. She had one pair that was teal and they were thickly woven and shiny, with a satiny feel. I loved those tights. I loved the color and the texture. Not unlike the way that my niece appreciated the flash of that dress and those shoes on Hollywood Boulevard, my senses were awakened by that uniquely ’80’s aerobic outfit.
When I was seven or eight, I was given a book about birds. It was my favorite book for years and years, due to the illustrations of exotic birds and the fact that it introduced me to words I had never known existed, like Quetzal. In an art class that I was taking shortly after receiving the book, we had an assignment to make a mask. I decided to make a mask of a Quetzal. I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than that bird, rendered so strikingly in the book. I spent hours with paint and cardboard and glue and feathers, creating a Quetzal mask. I was so proud of that mask, and in love with the way I transformed my idea of it into reality. A few years later, my grandparents happened to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and my grandma brought back for me a purple feathered Mardi Gras mask and dozens of beaded necklaces. The mask was gorgeous, the necklaces a sensory delight with their small, smooth beads that clinked and clacked together, and I spent many days disguised in them, feeling fabulous.
Buttercups, a member of the Ranunculus genus, grew wild near my house in the spring and summer when I was young. My friends and I would pick them, gently plucking their thin, green stems, and hold them under one another’s chins to see if the brilliant yellow would reflect against our skin, indicating, it was rumored, a love of butter. Decades later, I can imagine the feeling of the tiny, flexible stems between my fingers and the shine of the bright yellow blossoms in the sun. Despite the intense embodiment of yellowness, they always smelled green to me.
Stephanie Feeney and Eva Moravcik wrote an article entitled A Thing of Beauty: Aesthetic Development in Young Children that explores how children develop an appreciation for and understanding of beauty through nature, art, experiences, and what adults share with them.
“One of the first things teachers can do is to reflect on the role of beauty in their own lives, become aware of it, and share it with children. In their daily experiences with children they can respond to the aesthetic qualities of the world around them. While on a walk in the park or a trip to the tide pools they can help children to reflect on colors, patterns, and textures; focus on tiny flowers, or watch a spider spin a web. These experiences will help children learn to cherish the beauty around them [...]“
They write share it with children, which I think is important to note. We’re not overtly teaching children what’s beautiful because their senses have already taught them and this will continue to develop. We trust them to form their own opinions and express their own aesthetic. We’re exposing children to the diverse possibilities of beauty, everywhere. So when my niece finds the flash of a revealing teal gown to be breathtakingly beautiful, I can celebrate that color and that shine along with her without judgment and without over-contextualized concern.
As a child, I knew a world full of simple beauty and wonder in the look, the feel, and the smell of the world around me — in books and birds and buttercups. Experiences like this can provide balance to that noxious plastic princess culture. Children can be trusted to recognize beauty, in its many and varied incarnations. With our adult eyes, we see not only what is but what has been and could be and each worst-case scenario, heavily laden with subtext. Child eyes see things more clearly, without necessarily assigning weight and meaning. It’s possible that my niece could appreciate that gown on Hollywood Boulevard without wearing it herself, without being that person in that pose. It’s possible that what she’s drawn to has very little to do with the full package that my adult eyes have consumed, but with a snapshot — maybe the color, maybe the confidence, maybe the smile, maybe something else entirely, quite beyond the scope now of my adult eyes.