It’s 10 o’clock on a sticky morning in late July. I arrive to babysit in a T-shirt and a pair of worn-out denim shorts that I have had since I was in eighth grade, nearly a decade ago. The girls immediately greet me with a showering of compliments.
The 9-year-old, M, gushes that she loves my shorts and asks where I got them. My cheeks flush pink in slight embarrassment, and this only serves as a reminder that I am still not good at accepting praise.
The 3-year-old can’t stop stroking my fingernails. I painted them a summery coral the night before after an anxiety attack in an effort to feel more myself. As the morning goes on, we decide to hold our own art competition. M chooses anime that she Googles on my phone for us to look at and freehand onto notebook paper.
She wants to be an actress or a filmmaker when she grows up, and she unashamedly loves the music from Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton, although she is too young to have seen either of them. While we draw, she jumps from obsessing over the way I’ve copied the anime cat to vividly describing the short movies she and her cousins compose every time they’re together.
I wonder when I stopped considering myself to be an artist and started worrying about things that are far out of my control.
It’s 5 o’clock on a Saturday evening in mid-February. The girls are dressed in all black jumping up and down at the window when I arrive. Their mom tells me they’re playing spy. Mikayla has on a pair of red heels that add three inches to her height and bring her to only a few inches shorter than me. There’s an elaborate briefcase with detailing of Paris on it that holds our clues.
As I force myself out of the cruel, tangible, sensible world I live in to engage with their happy, wild, imaginary one, I am prompted to wonder when I traded imagination and play for rigor and work. I wonder when an old telescope was no longer a spy gadget and became a useless toy. When a dollhouse ladder used as a decoder became something to throw away. When the universe of childhood was exchanged for a more harsh one that doesn’t allow for playing make believe and turning an ordinary afternoon into a heist.
We finish our game. I put a pizza in the oven. Mikayla says, “Do you think I can have ice cream for dessert? I’m making this the best day ever! I have Miss Bailey. I’m watching a movie with my sister, and we’re having pizza!”
I wonder when the best day ever went from such simple joys to things much more complicated.
It’s 7 p.m. on a still evening in early April. I carry a case of beer, a bag of tortilla chips and a tub of guacamole into my friend’s backyard for our weekly dinner. One time I wrote that I like drunk people better but that isn’t really true. I like honest people better. I like people who drink on Tuesday nights, who talk about the hard things, the good things, the hilarious things and the things that just make you cry.
It’s half an hour after, and we all agreed we had to leave to get back to life as regularly scheduled—final exams, papers and projects are all sneaking up on us, and no one can afford to do poorly with graduation less than a month away. Yet, we are still sitting in a circle as blue skies give way to black and the sounds from the nearby street turn from voices to cars passing by.
I listen to my friend talk about a man who came into her life as a wolf in sheep’s clothing—how he promised he would take care of her mom and her four children but walked out without explanation years later—and her upcoming wedding.
I have no advice to offer. No prayer to send to the heavens, but I’ve learned that a lot of the time, showing up is all we need. We stay for another hour sharing thoughts, tears and laughter. It’s well after 9:30 before I get in my car to drive home.
I wonder when I exchanged my cynicism and self-doubt for my newfound wonder and optimism.
I have learned to celebrate the simple again—to revel in sunsets outside my window, lightning strikes as I drive, new music on Fridays, the perfect latte, the blue of the sky in September, fireworks on the Fourth of July, road trip playlists, pink shoes, driving by homes dimly lit at dusk and a cold drink on a hot day.