Tough Questions

Straight, Ai Weiwei.

Straight, Ai Weiwei.

After Charlotte went to bed Friday night, we did brand exercises. You know the kind, where you list out the qualities that underpin every experience your customers have with your business. By articulating these through lines, the thinking goes, you can forge a clearer path for your business: what products to focus on, where to spend your time, how to treat your customers, etc. Maggie came up with a good list, no thanks to me. “Crush the competition” was my lame contribution, a joke I’ve made one thousand times.

The through line ended up being a useful way of thinking about a weekend I might otherwise characterize as mundane with searing flashes of existential angst. Charlotte has turned up the frequency and the intensity of her questions lately. Where do babies come from? We answered that weeks ago. When will I be taller than Mom? Old news. (Answer: she will, according to her.) This week, we entered some of humanity’s thorniest bushes: tragedy, vice, and Peter Pan.

Three moments:

  1. Brooklyn Museum, the Ai Weiwei exhibit. The prompt was Straight, a sad, simple concept that filled the room with ghosts. The piece is straightened rebar scavenged from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, arranged in a way that calls to mind fault lines, rifts, impossible gaps. On the wall, the names and ages of thousands of children who perished when the shoddy construction collapsed around them, their bodies, one presumes we are meant to ponder, failed by these reinforcing bars. In one corner, documentary footage of workers carrying rubble away from the poorly constructed school buildings, the scene of the crime. The questions: why do buildings fall? What if our building falls? Why do people get trapped? Why is art scary?
  2. One nice perk of first-world living is that after pondering the unbearable you can at least go get pizza. Charlotte’s curiosity was unrelenting at Barboncino, though. She noticed a “No Smoking” sign. What is smoking? Who smokes? Why can’t you smoke? Why shouldn’t you smoke? And so on, until we got to the ultimate question: does lung cancer hurt?
  3. Finally, walking around our block at the end of the weekend, questions about flying and pixie dust and Peter Pan, because she is still just four after all. Maggie, devoted librarian of every Maurice Sendak “Fresh Air” interview, reminded us that Sendak didn’t care for “Peter Pan” in the least. I looked it up later; sure enough:

“When I was a small boy, I was taken to see a version of ‘Peter Pan.’ I detested it. I mean the sentimental idea that anybody would want to remain a boy, I don’t — I couldn’t have thought it out then, but I did later, certainly, that this was a conceit that could only occur in the mind of a very sentimental writer, that any child would want to remain in childhood. It’s not possible. The wish is to get out.”

After two days spent feeling like we were treating Charlotte’s childhood innocence like the butt of a Camel Light, this was just what I needed. The through line was suddenly so obvious. Charlotte—every kid—just wants to grow up. She wants to be taller than us, she wants to know what we know. Literally and figuratively, she just wants to see what we see. Charlotte’s doing everything in her power to grow up.

Looking at the New Jersey Palisades from Fort Tryon Park, Father's Day 2014

Looking at the New Jersey Palisades from Fort Tryon Park, Father’s Day 2014

Honest and straightforward answers felt like thin ice but I’m even more convinced now that we’re approaching her questions in the right way. I tried to put myself in her sandals because I honestly don’t remember what it felt like to get these answers (perhaps I didn’t get them?). I suspect it felt like being let in on big secrets. Learning that things fall, that people die for no reason, or because they inflicted it on themselves, learning that Maurice Sendak is usually right, these are grown up things.

Even if it’s scary, like it was at the museum, she prefers being scared to not knowing. She was undaunted and I hoped that we’d just found the beginning of an amazing new through line.

6 Responses to Tough Questions

  1. Alicia says:

    So glad to see you posting again, Matt.
    One of the biggest things I try to remember in my parenting journey is that being a child can be very difficult. I can recall such confusion, heartache, and frustration as a small person. It felt like the world wasn’t oriented toward me, like I was an outsider. Remembering this makes me a more compassionate and patient parent.
    I love hearing Charlotte’s questions. She’s lucky to have parents who treat her with such respect and love. <3

    • Matt says:

      I have to admit, I only faintly remember those feelings. So, it can be hard to reconcile my fading memories with what I see in front of me, a kid who appears to be having more fun than anyone ever. I guess that shows that, like any good party, it’s possible to both be having fun and want to leave.

  2. Heidi says:

    Our kids are teens now and we still do our best to answer honestly.

    A story I read somewhere online told of a young lass who asked her father some big questions. He responded by asking her to pick up and carry his packed suitcase across the room to him. His daughter tried, then told him that it was too heavy for her to carry. He thanked her for trying, then told her that sometimes the answers to her questions were still too big for her to carry right now, but he promised her that he would answer them better when she was big enough to carry the answers.

    This has been a touchstone for me when considering conversations with our kids. They can handle pretty much any topic now, ones darker than I prefer sometimes, and they still come to us with questions. Trust is long established.

  3. Hilary says:

    I have so much to learn, from both of you. I wish there was more of you two in my life, but I am thankful for the pieces that enrich and beautify it regularly (like this post — and the post that arrived in my mailbox this week).

    I feel especially moved because I too went to an Ai Weiwei exhibition this week where “Straight” was clearly the piece that was missing. Surrounded by other pieces he’d meticulously created from bent rebar, I also watched the video of how the material for “Straight” was reclaimed and then spent hours grappling with the value of human life, the senselessness of tragedy, the weight of corruption on thousands of tiny bodies, the role of government in our lives, my own values and whether any of them were something I would die for.

    Thank you for inadvertently revealing that synchronicity. <3

    • Matt says:

      Wow, what a coincidence. I didn’t know there were other rebar pieces (if the exhibit we saw mentioned it, I missed it). It’s curious that they chose to exhibit them separately.

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