My nine-year-old daughter came to me on Sunday night with tears in her eyes. And when I asked her what was wrong she could only shrug her shoulders. She pressed her lips together as I got down on my knees to give her a hug, but she couldn’t hold in the cry for very long, and soon she was sobbing onto my shoulder. When she could speak, I asked her again what was wrong. Still she didn’t know.
“Well, what are you thinking about,” I asked.
“Luc’s hands,” she said.
Luc is her older brother. He’s got long curly dirty blond hair and likes to boast that his ankles and wrists are double jointed. He gets mistaken for Shaun White ridiculously often, and loves to snow and skateboard. And pogo-stick. But he’s got pretty average hands.
“What do you mean ‘Luc’s hands?’” I said.
“After dinner tonight,” my daughter began, “when we turned out the lights and you lit the candles on his whoopie pies*—”
It was Luc’s birthday. We had had a lovely lazy family day—ummmm… rather unusual for us!—and then dinner and dessert of Luc’s choice.
My daughter continued. “When you brought out the whoopie pies, Luc clapped his hands together and held them there.” She looked up at me with those teary eyes again. “He clapped his hands together once and held them there,” she said again, slowing down the words and staring at me, and I could tell that she desperately wanted me to decipher what she was getting at. “He looked—happy,” she concluded.
I got it. I got it immediately. Oh man, I got it. She was talking about that tiny window into a person’s humanity. The utterly vulnerable real person shining brightly through that transparent spot. Luc was pure happiness in that moment. He was himself, with no filters, no coping mechanisms, and no self-judgment. His hands pressed together gave him away.
My daughter got that. And I sort of couldn’t believe that she got it, but then after I thought about it I decided that most children get it. They might not register it the way she did, and they might not attempt to wrestle with it or articulate it, but they get it.
I can’t think of a more critical reason to make sure our stories include those tiny gestures and small details. They reveal the real person. They are the light that flashes from that person straight into the reader. They are connection and empathy and hope. And kids get that.
By way of example, I just finished reading Jo Knowles’ book See You at Harry’s. Run out and read it, if you haven’t yet. It is gorgeous. Funny, devastating, real and gorgeous. And it is full of tiny gestures and small details. Check this one out. Fern, the main character in the story, wants to comfort her older brother, Holden:
I watch the curve of his back rise and fall. I want to touch him and feel his breathing, but I’m afraid I’ll feel the hurt. And it seems like a private thing he doesn’t want to share.
Watching someone simply breathe—in and out, up and down—can be a window into that person’s emotions. And writing about a character watching someone simply breathe allows the reader access to that same window.
Kind of cool. Kind of amazingly cool.
*Uh yeah. Whoopie pies. My kids constantly challenge me on their birthdays with their dessert requests…