I was thinking of George Macdonald’s fairy tale “The Light Princess” the other day. The entire story is a pun about the two meanings of lightness; the princess floats and laughs, and only learns to sink and walk the earth when she experiences sadness, heaviness of spirit, for the first time.
The twins are gaining weight too. I see it in their eyes, in how they walk. Abel in particular has studied two very heavy issues in school this year; slavery and the Holocaust. He’s reading a horrific autobiography, written by a Polish man who survived 5 different death camps, heard about his father’s brutal murder from an eyewitness he met in one of those camps. The man is still alive and lives locally; he’s supposed to visit the class at the end of this unit. Abel is very excited about this.
It’s not that it’s new to them, this weight of the world we live in. They had picture books of Anne Frank and Harriet Tubman (I know; sounds horrible to me too, but they were very well done). They have grown up in a country where, walking out the door in the morning, they were confronted by a large family living in a tent, no electricity or running water. The family used to ring our doorbell and present us with an enormous bucket, which we would fill from our tap, and then watch them lug it across the open sandy space separating our tiled and shaded home from their ragged-edge living quarters. The twins had Mauritanian friends from school whose families still had slaves, although they were euphemistically called “sisters” and “brothers.” We would visit and watch the dark-skinned “sister” hanging out the laundry and bringing us drinks while the lighter-skinned “sister” took Ilsa to her room to play. I don’t know how much of this they realized at the time, however.
The twins have experienced two deaths of people close to them; one the father of their friends who was shot in the street, one a woman they called “aunt” who taught them French, who was brutally murdered by a man whom, up until that time, they had called “uncle.” On top of that, they lost their grandmother, my mother, 18 months ago. They have said multiple goodbyes to friends and places, experienced civil unrest and a parent struggling with depression. These things have added gravitas, weight, to their lives. But I watched them tuck these things away with the resilience of childhood. Events may shape our lives and characters, but sometimes they are buried deep.
Part of maturing is realizing that these things happen to everyone, around the world. Knowing that people are dying in Brazilian landslides and Haitian cholera, that your good friend is missing a week of school because there is rioting near his home in Tunis, that a friend’s 17 year-old sister just lost all her hair to chemotherapy. Wondering how the family continues to cope without their father; it’s been a year and a half now.
Of course I want my children to be aware of the suffering that goes on in the world, to be sympathetic and concerned and do what they can to help. Being able to articulate your own experiences helps with this, I think, and that comes with age. Being aware of others is part of why we chose to raise them overseas. We wanted them to have a broader view of the world. (There’s a partial answer for those of you who asked why we moved initially. I have not forgotten those questions. I’m just saving them up for when I can’t think of anything else to write about)
But it’s interesting to watch them, in this transition from childhood to adolescence, young adulthood. They’re 13 ½. Maybe it’s just the accumulated weight, and their age is coincidence, but I think that it’s more, that it’s burgeoning maturity, adding weight to their eyes, to their knowledge of the world.