I was listening to NPR yesterday—an interview with Sir Tom Stoppard, screenwriter for the new Anna Karenina movie. When asked about the meaning of love he posed the question, “Are we born self-interested and we have to learn to be good? Or are we born selfless and merely corrupted by competition and institution?” I’m guessing there’s not any black or white answer to the question, though I was taught in my young religious days that we were born in total depravity with the need, of course, to be saved in an institution that just happens to make a lot of money off such doctrines—a truth that seems to belie the first argument in support of the second. And even looking to something like my own parenting, I find the dregs that betray the likelihood of corruption.
When my older son was five, he had a passion for Mary Poppins. He loved her magic, her command, her wisdom. He loved her clothes. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that on a fall afternoon some thirteen years ago, after closing the TV cabinet on the gazillionth viewing of the movie, he declared, “Mommy, I want to be Mary Poppins for Halloween.”
A few years earlier, following my academic introduction to Virginia Woolf, I’d told his dad we should keep the toys androgynous until our son could choose for himself the objects of his imaginary flights. At the time, it was an academic gesture, not yet personal, and something I didn’t imagine playing out as it did. So when, at four, he introduced himself to his soccer coach as “Ariel” (of The Little Mermaid) and took Barbie to his school for show-and-tell, I was more nervous than I wanted to admit. Not because I objected, but because I feared laughter at his expense. By the time he was settling on Mary Poppins for Halloween, I’d relaxed on some level, though not entirely. As I recall, I gave pause, then offered, “Okay. Let’s go to the Goodwill, find a navy suit, spray paint a straw hat, tuck in a daisy, and I think that would do it,” to which he offered his own pause:
“But I don’t want the blue suit.”
I wrinkled my brow into a question:
“I want the white dress.”
“The white dress?”
“You know, where she jumps into that chalk picture in the park, and she comes out with the really pretty white dress, and a red belt, and that big white hat with the flowy scarf, and an umbrella with puffy flower things? That one.”
Too much… TOO, TOO much. I would NOT be sending my son to his kindergarten Halloween parade in white lace and chiffon.
But, then, how to negotiate the situation.
I’d told my son from the time he could understand me that people are all different and that’s not only okay, but it’s really, really good; yet here I was ready to deny him this sweet and honest expression of his five-year-old passions. And unwilling to see that I was making myself a pawn to the very institutions I raged against—that my real fear was that people would disapprove of me—I proceeded to convince him that more of his friends would recognize him as Mary Poppins in the navy suit with the hat and white daisy than would in the white lace. My argument was effective, if dishonest, and on Halloween Day, he headed off to school with his shock of white hair glowing from under a daisy-laden, navy-painted, straw hat. It was sweet, but I was nervous still. I hadn’t warned him that some of his classmates might laugh at his appearance in a skirt, so half expected that when I picked him up from school, I would find him hiding tears, carrying the blue straw hat at his side, a meek daisy looking conspicuously out of place.
I waited for him on the margins of the playground that afternoon, leaning on the steel post of a chain-link fence mounted atop a concrete retaining wall. Easily a head taller than most of his classmates, I could spot him exiting from the back of a drove of Halloween-garbed bumblebees, pumpkins and the like, all bubbling toward their caretakers. To my surprise, the straw hat was still on his head, daisy strong, and as he crossed a leaf-littered sand pit toward me, I saw no tears, no hint of shame.
“They laughed at my costume. They said it was for girls.”
I knelt to look at him. “Honey, I’m so sorry.”
“They were mean to me and that’s stupid.”
Indignation. How dare anyone tell him who to be on Halloween; how dare anyone be mean. No impulse to hate himself or to pretend—that had been mine.
So a few weeks before Christmas that year, I went to the Goodwill and perused the racks of cast-off blouses and skirts till I found white lace and eyelet (no chiffon to be had). Then, having inherited none of my maternal grandmother’s arts with a needle, I went to the craft store to purchase fabric glue, and on several December evenings, I measured and snipped and glued my son’s dream for Christmas morning—a dream that I can now say we share: to live openly and honestly without fear. And unlike lots of other Christmas presents my son received over the years, Mary Poppins in white eyelet was a gift that stuck around. It must have been six months later—an early summer afternoon—we went to the park for a bike ride. On a smooth sidewalk circling a manicured green, my son rode, white lace flowing behind him in the winds of his own momentum.
So… to Sir Tom’s question—though my perspective is admittedly limited, I would venture a guess that we are born honest, if nothing else, and unwittingly corrupted into the lies of profiting institutions. Thank goodness for the children who throw us life jackets with their inability to be any but who they are.