On day fifteen of a grueling drive across thirteen states, with one hour left to our destination, my husband turned the jeep off onto a country lane. We had split the kids between our cars and I assumed the one in his backseat was begging for a potty break. The rollicking greenery falling away to every side seemed unlikely to offer up a Chevron or a Dunkin Donuts, I thought. But soon my phone’s map adjusted to show that this was no detour, but a route, a reward of pastoral cruising to end our Interstate sojourn.
The girls shrieked with unbridled delight. “Up, up, up, up, up,” they crescendoed up each crest, and down each hill we rolled amid squealing laughter. Geronimo bubbled over, exclaiming things like, “Look guys, I can see the whole world!” and “I’m so exciting! I am riding on a chocolate rainbow!” (This is highest metaphorical praise from a newly four-year-old.) Songbird added, “It’s exhilarating!”And it was. We had been privileged to watch the changing landscapes of desert to scrubland to bayou to woodland over the past two weeks, but these hills were straight out of a Little Golden Book illustration, all farm and forest in swells of green and dappled sunlight.
I couldn’t help but contrast this belly-deep joy with the dully pacifying effect of trail mix and donuts, solitaire apps and tablet movies that I had been tossing back at intervals to break up the monotony of sitting in a five-point harness for 3,474 miles. Those were hits of cotton candy to this feast, saccharine powder to this fresh summer peach. Something to numb versus something to enliven.
How much of what is designed for children (or to keep children unobtrusive) can never sate, but keeps them discontentedly lapping for more? Here was something that drew in their minds, senses, and imaginations with a breadth and depth only found in a real, live world.
The saccharine offerings of modernity leech away our joy in real things because real things are interactive. They require something of us in response. And though that engagement is itself a joy, the easy passivity of watching and receiving images is…easier. It lulls little brains with dopamine hits.
And so it takes radical, daily decisions to protect our inborn delight in the world from succumbing to the mind-numbing flashes and bangs coming at us. And so it becomes countercultural to engage delightedly in the real world and its study; children who play Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh because history thrills them and roll out of bed to do extra math pages for the joy of accomplishment are weird. And so their interests appear at best boring, perplexing, and at worst pretentious.
Children and parents who each day choose to revel in realness are still susceptible to the mindless pleasure of the saccharine. I love Tennyson and Netflix. My girls love Shakespeare and, heaven help us, Sofia the First. But when cultivated purposefully, our fickle minds will too crave the deep satisfaction of the real.
If we can imagine it.
Before we can purpose to transcend the mundane expectations of our time, the two-dimensional aspirations of GPAs and SATs and a house in the suburbs and an Employee of the Month plaque, we need to imagine something radically different. We need to see our Parnassus outlined behind the clouds before we can try to plant our feet on its base.