I watched as my nephew listened to The Beatles for the first time.
It was just after one of those now-rare family dinners when my sister, parents, and I were gathered around one table again in the house where I grew up. With my move across the country and my sister and her husband busy with a new house and new baby on the way, these little pockets together are increasingly few and far between. It was the kind of seemingly mundane evening that gets tucked away into a far off corner of your memory and then recalled with a certain nostalgic tenderness once you’re back in the bustle of your quotidian; alone and walking the hills of your new, strange city. It’s in those times that you bring forward the memory of that golden hour at the table around which your childhood unfolded, and you yearn for the familiar; wondering how you ever took such simple warmth for granted.
After dinner my nephew and I sifted through music on my phone and we paused for considerable length on The Beatles’ anthology. As John and Paul’s voices pepped through “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, Charlie sat transfixed. Stillness for a 2-year-old boy is a rarity, yet he sat immobilized and stared ahead of him in the direction of the dishes and leftovers strewn before him on the table – our lazy evening required no hurried clean up – but instead of truly seeing the remnants of dinner in front of him, his gaze rested deep in his mind’s eye.
He was utterly in the moment with this song.
No cell phone to distract him. No one lingering in his subconscious peripherals to text or call or blame or resent or mourn. The song came to him with no background rolodex of personal experience he could relate it to; without preconceived notions or even a vocabulary to guide him. He listened openly and intently. His face involuntarily crinkled at times, and softened at others. And suddenly as the song ended and we were left in the silent in-between before the next track began, he turned to me as if coming out of a trance. He very slowly raised his little palm and quietly whispered,
“Kiki, do you want to hold MY hand?”
As I took his tiny fingers in mine, I had to fight back tears from the vulnerability of it all, from the pure quality of his emotions in experiencing this art for the first time in his life. The natural, instinctual way he allowed it all to wash over him was a stark and quiet departure from his normal collision course routine. And I thought to myself that I could learn something from this little man.
I’ve long struggled with the practice of vulnerability. Instead of facing it head on, I’ve built my walls of protection and offered those whom I perceived a threat to my happiness only pieces of my thoughts and fractions of my truth. But here was this little person who was reacting to a beautiful moment the only way he knew how – the way we all once must have reacted before life lessons hardened our dispositions.
This little sunlit evening with my nephew came to my mind recently when someone for whom I have a great deal of respect called my character into questioning in a way that caught me off guard. My first instinct was to strike and react and blame. But remembering Charlie’s small hands I re-examined my actions and I apologized to this person who I unknowingly slighted. I offered this man my most vulnerable, open self in response to his unsettled perceptions of my actions. In return, he still chose to walk away from our friendship, and it took a few breaths for me to regain composure and sit with the pain that’s only possible when exposing your innards. Before this, I cannot remember the last time I allowed myself a moment to be still and receptive and unedited.
But the truth is that the most beautiful moments are born from our rawest selves. When we strike instead of tend, when we withhold instead of divulge, we shrink ourselves. There’s no room to expand within the confines of our protective walls.
This particular person was off-put by my genuine attempt at apology and that in itself was painful, but practicing vulnerability is just that – a practice. It may not be easy at first, and you may not always garner the softened response you desire, but the pattern worth noticing is that people who know and value you will only ever encourage and nurture the core of your being – even when you wrestle with your flaws. They won’t think you’re crazy or too much or too little. The nooks and crannies will be welcomed and if not understood, at least considered and held with love. In the meantime, as you cross paths with many types of people, people who may or may not have the capacity to receive all that you have to give, hold yourself with love.
And listen to The Beatles like it’s the first time.