I went to visit my friend Isabelle the other afternoon. All smiles, she kissed me, grabbed a slice of bread and rushed into the yard. Before I could stop her, Isabelle was on her back, hurling tidbits of bread at the sky. Isabelle, I cried, What are you doing?
Feeding the birds, she chortled, as the crumbs rained upon her.
I had to laugh. Really, what could I expect? Isabelle is only 2 years old. Still, despite her tender age, she is much more than a friend. She is also my teacher.
You see, I have long been intrigued by Christ’s statement, Unless you change and become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. And as I’ve examined various holy books, I’ve noticed the same advice pouring from the lips of Zen masters and Christian saints.
Buddhists call it enlightenment. Christians call it the heavenly kingdom. And they agree that you can’t enter these magical realms with the heavy, serious gait of an adult. You have to step lightly and freely. You have to imitate the heart of a child.
At first blush this advice seems impossible to follow. Especially for someone like me, who doesn’t have children. Might as well try to imitate a frog as a child.
But that’s where Isabelle enters the picture.
One afternoon, my little teacher and I went for a stroll. Spotting a bright batch of pansies, she gently stroked their velvety heads. And then, before I could stop her, she ripped two flowers from their stalks and tucked them behind her ears. I was tempted to reprimand her. Tempted to impart a homespun lesson about the necessity of looking rather than touching. But Isabelle was marching along so triumphantly and smiling so radiantly I stopped myself. I tried to recall the last time I had acted so spontaneously. Without consulting a Day-Timer or a to-do list.
Moments later, Isabelle plopped down in the shade and upended a burlap sack filled with a menagerie of plastic animals. Under her watchful eye, toy elephants tangoed, horses sang and zebras flew.
I sat down beside her. Suddenly I remembered spending hours playing horses and men as a child. But now the plastic horse lay lifeless in my hand. When had the miracle run dry?
We adults search for miracles in temples, churches and mosques. We light the candles and chant the prayers. Isabelle smiles at a butterfly and God smiles back.
We know Christ told his disciples over and over, Fear not. But we run ourselves ragged trying to squelch our seemingly endless fears.
We install elaborate security systems in our homes and glaring lights in our yards. And still we are fearful.
Fattening our I.R.A.’s and savings accounts, we try to nail down the future. But secretly we fear we’ll never have enough.
We spin our own webs of fear. Envisioning horrifying scenarios of germ warfare and nuclear explosions, we stockpile gas masks, food and guns. And still we lie awake at night.
Isabelle, like any child, has her share of imaginary fears. She’s heard about the big bad wolf and the grim monsters of fairy tales. She’s seen the way moonlight paints faces in the dark. But she also knows her father’s hug can banish a battalion of leering monsters from beneath the bed.
One day, Iwent to the grocery store with Isabelle and her mom. As we stood on a busy street corner, surveying the growling stream of cars, Isabelle’s mom admonished the little girl to be careful.
The cars are dangerous. Isabelle paused for a moment and cast me an impish smile. Then she reached for her mother’s outstretched hand.
Still, I worry about Isabelle. At some point, she’ll head to school where she will learn how to color within the lines. She’ll have to sit properly, one ankle crossed over the other. If she squirms, she will be reprimanded; if she giggles out of turn, she will be hushed.
Before long, she’ll cross the border into adulthood, and the zebras will stop flying and the horses will grow mute. One day she may awaken from a long dreamless sleep to find herself like metrying to imitate the heart of a child.
I hope she will always remember the day she threw bread at the sky, the day she wore pansies in her hair. I hope she’ll remember her friend who visited now and againthe lady who marveled at Isabelle’s world. And took notes. The lady who realized that imitating the heart of a child is the hardest thing in the worldand also the easiest.
You have to leave your Day-Timer at home once in a while. Enjoy the snazzy flowers waving on green stalks. Wink at the butterflies and treat the birds to a feast. Laugh when things are funny. Cry when things are sad.
And, above all, when you wander into dangerous territory, you have to trust that someone much bigger than you has everything under control.