Thursday, August 25, 2011

Litmus Test Of Stupidity.

Whenever we visit the museum, Inara and Nissa's favorite exhibit is always the one about the Underground Railroad. We were there this morning, and instead of seeing all the new exhibits they wanted to go straight to their old stand-by, "The Railroad With No Trains".

They think that the subdued lighting is peaceful, and they love that the exhibit is rarely, if ever, crowded - allowing them free rein of the space. They look forward to dressing in tattered rags and squeezing themselves into the hiding spots of re-created attic spaces. They pretend to "row to FREEEDOOM!" in the little wooden boat with the beaten-up oar while Inara looks for the North Star above.

It all leaves me feeling very, very uncomfortable.

Yet at the same time, I wonder if there is something to be said for the sweet breath of life that is swept into this tiny exhibit every time we are here. As we stack firewood in an old shed that was a safe house for escaping slaves, Inara hums to herself, blissfully unaware of the horrors of the past. I wonder if I am doing her a disservice by ignoring it.

So I ask her about it.

"Inara," I say casually, as we perch on rough stools and pretend to eat roots to survive.

"Do you know, sweetheart - do you know what the Underground Railroad really was?"

She putters around the table, holding a pot with a hole at the bottom that paints a dismal picture of a time not so long ago. "Oh sure, mama. I know exactly what it was."

"Well, I'd really like to know what it was. Do you think that you could tell me?"

"Yes, but only if we go in the rowboat first."

Settled in the rowboat (her name is the Maple Leaf - which reminds me that as a Canadian, my history involving slavery is so strikingly different from that of my American-born children), we row over a carpeted lake, quietly, quietly. It's dark and we are not allowed to make any noise, the only light comes from above, given to us by the twinkling blanket of stars.

"Well, Mama," she begins. "the Underground Railroad was a way for people to escape, a way for them to find a better life...." but she doesn't finish her sentence. She begins again with the same words, only to falter. And then she asks Yousuf, who is seated behind her, "But Daddy, what kind of people would need a better life? What are they escaping from?"

(I'm personally relieved that the question has been directed towards Yousuf. How would I even begin to talk to my five year-old about slavery?)

Yousuf doesn't miss a beat. He is not one to candy coat the uncomfortable truths of any situation, and this is no exception.

"From slavery, Inara. The people were escaping from slavery."

Inara nods, sagely. "Oh, yes. Slavery. But what is a slave, Daddy? Is that someone who works outside all day?"

I realize that we are entering that sacred place and time, the one where we are about to say or do something as parents that will be so monumental that it will shape our child's view of the world, possibly forever. It's something that I instinctively shy away from, because the burden is often too much for me to bear. Inara however, seems to sense these moments and launch herself right into them, headfirst, almost every single time. Perhaps it is the benefit of her youth...but I suspect that it's actually a reflection of who she is.

I hold Nissa tightly as Yousuf answers, breathing in her baby hair smells of sunshine and outside and yes, freedom. I tuck my head into Nissa's neck watching, waiting, for what comes next.

"A slave, Inara, is someone who does not have freedom."

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. I watch Inara's head cock to the side as she takes it all in, and once again, I wait.

"Freedom. That's what we're trying to find when we row this boat, right? Freedom. And it must be so hard for the slaves to get Freedom. But Daddy, can you tell me - why didn't the slaves have freedom?"

I finally work up enough courage to add to the conversation, so I hold onto my wise five year-old's hands and look into her beautiful, confused eyes as I answer,

"This is hard to understand, Inara, and it can be uncomfortable for people to talk about. But I want to tell you what happened. There were people who took freedom away and turned people into slaves. It should never have happened."

Have I said the right thing? Have I said too much?

Inara goes back to rowing, gazing over the carpet and somewhere else, entirely. Her eyes linger there, far away from the troubles of this conversation and a past that is too sad, too awful, too horrible, to contemplate. I see her come to a decision, and her voice is defiant as she proclaims,

"Well. That's just silly, Mama. Slavery was silly and I don't understand it at all."

Oh, but darling. I think you do.

And you never cease to amaze me with your own unique perspective. What a lucky Mama I am, to know you and to learn from you, each and every day.

Later on, out of earshot of the girls, Yousuf shakes his head and remarks, "Now that's the true litmus test of stupidity, you know."

"What do you mean?" I ask, having no earthly idea what he is talking about.

"Well, take slavery for example. No matter how difficult a subject is to grasp - if you can't explain it to a five year old so that they can understand the basic concepts - well then, it's just a stupid idea to begin with. Don't you think?"

All of a sudden, I have a inkling of where Inara gets her perspective.

Yousuf is surprised when I answer him with an embrace. He asks me what it was for and I tell him the truth:

"It's for not shying away from something difficult. It's for knowing the truth of what is right and wrong and for having the conviction to share that knowledge with our children. And mostly, for your litmus test of stupidity."

"Well okay, then." he answers, and we walk out the door of the exhibit, hand in hand with our babies, watching, and waiting for whatever the world brings our way.


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