Curiouser and Curiouser….

–          Alice in Wonderland illustration by Arthur Rackham (1907) [Public Domain

Grown-ups never understand anything or themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them (Antoine de St. Exupery, The Little Prince)

A few weeks ago, someone quoted from Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart: “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty”.  Brown goes on to associate curiosity with discomfort:  “We have to admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking.” Later, Brown links curiosity with the perception of an information gap that we commit to closing.   I immediately bristled – internally, since it would have been inappropriate to react to the nodding of heads and pervasive affirmation in the group. 

When I was a young child – and even when I was old enough to read them myself – two of my most beloved books were Alice in Wonderland and The House at Pooh Corner.  I read them joyfully to my children – and later to my grandchildren.  What I cherish about both of them is their exploration of simple, uncomplicated curiosity.  Alice hesitates only briefly before biting, although she knows that “one side will make you smaller, the other will make you large”, while the doorknob says “nothing’s impossible.”  Pooh looks at every day as a fresh adventure, whether it is confronting the loss of Eeyore’s tail or stalking the mysterious Heffalump.  While Alice sometimes bemoans a choice she has made, she quickly picks herself up and asks another impertinent question.  Pooh, on each day’s adventure, only hopes that there will be honey involved.

Curiosity may involve a risk, but it is not something that holds either Alice or Pooh back – more than momentarily.  Eeyore reminds us that worrying about not knowing – at least more than briefly – can be a path to cynicism and depression.  I took this lesson to heart:  Be curious.  Move on with the adventures.  Don’t do anything potentially life-threatening, but assume that the jams that you get in to will be temporary.  Don’t think about the “information gap” but move toward the unknown.  In other words, nurture the impulse to try stuff, and a full range of emotions that encompasses trepidation, but also the delight that comes with doing or learning about something new.

It turns out that Brown is talking to people who feel “stuck” in a comfort zone.  She covers all the research that says that we will be happier and freer if we respond to “I don’t really know” with curiosity. We all get stuck sometimes….certainly, retirement for someone like me, who loved going to work, meant that I had to allow myself to drive past the exit for my office without feeling lost and uncomfortable!  And although many routines nurture us (brushing our teeth, eating lunch, going to bed at roughly the same time on most days), it is easy to slip into ways of thinking and habits that constrain.  But getting stuck seems to be something that we choose more and more often as we exit adolescence.  With Alice, Pooh, and Thich Nhat Han as guides, however, we see that embracing vulnerability (which Brown endorses) is not a conscious decision to endure discomfort, but a practice of anticipating novelty and adventure – of embracing childish wonder and a Beginner’s Mind.  

And then there is the spiritual side.  One version of Genesis situates our humanness in “original curiosity”:  “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit…”  Albert Einstein echoes this, suggesting that “curiosity has its own reason for existing.  One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality…Never lose a holy curiosity.”  Julia Cameron also argues that curiosity is a spiritual path rather than a cognitive decision, and that it requires habits – she suggests random writing in “morning pages”, scheduled “artist dates” to explore a new esthetic, and regular walks that have no purpose other than to look deeply at whatever is in one’s path. 

Photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash

I admit that I don’t do these as consistently as I once anticipated, but I have other habits that invoke the same opportunity to approach the world with a Pooh-like sense of wonderment.  Meditation – something that for years I thought that was beyond my capacities – clears my brain of monkey-mind, and creates space for hope that goes beyond ticking off items on the incessant to-do list.  Connecting every week with someone (or several people) who are willing to engage in authentic and vulnerable conversations about “big stuff” never fails to make me curious.

Of course, I take Brene Brown’s assertions about the benefits of curiosity to heart because it is particularly important as we age.  According to Henry Emmons and David Alter’s 9 Keys To Staying Sharp, curiosity comes only a few steps behind the basics of moving, eating well, and getting enough sleep in warding off mental decline.  Nor do I want to ignore Brown’s s admonitions against getting too comfortable and avoiding vulnerability.  If I am always afraid of falling, will I ever learn how to skip again?  However, I also note that as we age we can more easily choose to embrace vulnerability and become more playful, as long as we are willing to follow Shel Silverstein and  “grow down” (along with giving away our business attire and our mother’s china):

He got his trousers torn and stained,

He ran out barefoot in the rain,

Shouting to all the folks in town,

“It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.

 — Shel Silverstein

What is Aging When I’m Still the Same Kid?

Nick Hitchon is the handsome young 21 year old on the far right.  That picture was taken four decades ago, after the release of the third film in the “Up” series, which has followed the lives of those in the picture from age 7.  “63 Up”, opened to thoughtful reviews, with many critics quoting Nick’s observation: “I’m still the same little kid, really.  I think all of us are”, probably because it captures a universal dilemma.  What we retain—the “essence of me” as we barrel into the future— is at the heart of defining identity as we age. 

The jokesters say, “I didn’t expect to turn into my mother” while the cynics say, “you can’t get rid of the past”.  In my case, the joker and cynic regularly change places.  In my 60s, whenever I met my kid I was surprised.  Now she is following me everywhere, mimicking my mother (and my father as well) and occasionally still rebelling at them.  Some of my kid-acquired habits are modestly noble (giving as much money as I can to those who have less) and some are laughable (squirming, as I did this year, at the Ghost of Christmas Past visiting me again with the groaning mantra of “a little lutefisk at Christmas keeps you Swedish for the rest of the year”). 

But the good side of revisiting my kid is that it causes me to think about the power of childhood experiences that have shaped me forever.  How being asked to write the music for my 4th grade school play left me with the belief that I could do most things that I had no idea how to do if I had some help along the way and didn’t expect the outcome to be perfect.  How traveling to Norway for a year in 1955 (we had to go on a boat!) gave me both a life-long commitment to visiting new places and a belief that kids are really alike, even if they travel to school on sleds rather than buses, eat whale, and don’t speak English.  I learned  to  “Knit the Norwegian Way” even before Arne and Carlos became famous…These experiences, which were challenging and joyful, are a deep part of who I became.  I think about them now not as stories of fun times, but as stories about the kid who is still within.

The “positive aging” gurus call revisiting these stories legacy wisdom (or a similar term):  We want to make sense of what we have experienced or done so that we can explain it, with modest coherence, both to ourselves and our grandchildren (Lord only know that our children don’t really want to listen to it….).  Just as important is remembering how my “inner child” is reflected in what I choose to do today and how I choose to do it.  Now this can get even more fraught than legacy wisdom, since “inner child work” is identified with healing early traumas that hold us back.  I have nothing against that, but I honestly don’t feel that any difficulties that I experienced before I hit late adolescence were anything but bumps in the road – certainly not axel-smashing potholes.

Instead, I remind myself that I am still what I was then.  As a child, my mother took me to the library every week and I would read the 5-7 books under the covers with a flashlight in order to be ready for the next visit.  I loved the words as well as the stories. I liked playing with other children, but I also liked being alone – my father made me a perch in a small poplar where I could sit and read as the leaves quaked silvery green. 

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I was curious, and looked forward to exploring our encyclopedia (it was bound in a pseudo-green leather and I can almost see the print in my mind). I was always too ready to speak up in class, which some teachers loved and some hated. I was not a daredevil, but I wasn’t worried about doing new or unexpected things when they came up, and I was never concerned about being perfect.  Although I rode my bike everywhere (like all children then), I was happier when I was sitting. I was not a jokester, but loved to groan at my father’s shaggy dog stories. (I also have to admit that I was regularly mean to my little sister).

I am all those things today — curious, wordy-nerdy, happy with others but equally happy alone, experimental and modestly allergic to formal exercise.  These inner child characteristics are, perhaps, even more apparent than I was when I was jousting with the world of work and frantically trying to maintain a reasonable role as a mom while maintaining a svelte shape – in other words, wearing my adult overachiever persona like a shield. But meeting and enjoying my personal kid does more than solidify my identity – as a “person of a certain age”, when I bring my child with me, I am less afraid of the very real uncertainties of tomorrow.   Listening to my kid means paying more attention to the activities and interactions that reward her rather than “professional Karen”, whose persona is also still part of me.  It is my kid who experiences joy that goes beyond satisfaction with accomplishment.

I review the list of opportunities that I described in Curating Joy – and think more about how they will make my kid feel.   What is the right balance between Zooming with others and being alone?  What will nurture my curiosity?  How can I plan my days to make sure that I have time to knit and read?  So, as I write this I am playing with my wordy-nerdy kid rather than cleaning my house, which is crying for attention.  I was never a perfectionist….

Let me end with the surprising similarity between Nick Hitchon (a physicist) and Gertrude Stein (an iconoclast):  Stein said, “We are always the same age inside” before Nick came to the same conclusion.  Or, perhaps, we all come to that realization on our own, which is why if you google “I’m the same kid” you will find over 1 billion hits. 

At least I am not mean to my sister any more.