Ah, what a joy it is to see the world through the eyes of a child.
I spend most of my days and nights struggling to improve myself. I plow through turgid academic tomes, pretentious newspapers, and erudite scholarly articles. I reflect on seemingly weighty issues. I struggle to write engaging prose on learned, esoteric topics. I grade an endless stream of graduate and undergraduate exams and term papers. I seek to raise my level of adult sophistication despite harboring a deep, lingering suspicion that my intellect has slammed against an immovable wall.
On the rare occasions when I can step back and see the world as a child sees it — well, that is a far more rewarding accomplishment than all the sophistication I seek.
Thanks to a little boy, I recently stripped away, however briefly, all the pretense and artifice of my life and experienced the world with pure wonder and abandon.
His name is Aswad Elisha Woodson, but I call him “Ellie.” He is my ex-step-daughter Shelby’s son, so that makes him my ex-step-grandson. No matter — ours is a fictive-kin relationship, which is a fancy way of saying that our bond has never relied on consanguinity (i.e., a blood relationship) and no longer relies on a marriage to his grandmother — she and I divorced earlier this year — but is based on mutual affection.
He calls me “papa,” a Hemingwayesque name that pleases me to no end.
When he was born on November 30, 2008, I was not on hand for the auspicious occasion. His mother had become estranged from my wife and me. Nothing erases old wounds and grievances, though, as much as the birth of a child.
I saw him a few times in his toddlerhood, but never enough. Before he was two years old, his mother had moved with him to Los Angeles, California — 2,175 miles from my house. The distance precludes frequent interaction, although I never stop thinking about him. I dedicated my fifth book, Coming for to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow, to this young man so “he might know the tragedy of the past and the promise of the future.”
It is difficult to find the time, but I see him when I can arrange it. I stopped in for a brief visit when I was in California on a business trip in September 2011, but time can be relentless. A year is a long period in the life of a young child.
I needed to see the little man again in 2012. Accordingly, I planned a trip for September 2012 specifically to reconnect with the child who seemed so far away from me in time and space.
I have visited L.A. many times and have seen most of the major sites that interest me. Rather than hang out in the crowded metropolis, I thought a road trip would be a desirable change of pace for everyone.
Thus, from September 18-21, 2012, I spent time with Ellie and his mom at Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park. It was a chance to become reacquainted in a relaxed forest where he could roam among giant trees. I found it a pleasant contrast to watch such a small boy frolic beneath the canopy of such a large forest.
He is three years old now, soon to be four, and talking up a storm, as they say. When I last saw him, he would spout out an odd word here or there, but he was not the chatterbox he would become. As I expected, he is also full of life and energy. I can measure how old I am getting by how exhausted I feel after trying to keep up with him in the morning and carrying him around in my arms at dusk.
I don’t know if he remembered me from our previous meeting — it was so long ago in his world — but he took to me as soon as we saw each other at the airport.
He is too young to form a lasting memory of this 2012 trip, but one day he will have the photographs to look at and, hopefully, cherish.
I, however, will never forget our short time together. I gave him toys. He gave me much more — he gave me a sense of wonder at the world that I had forgotten I ever had.
Ellie wears papa's hat
I can still see little Ellie wearing papa’s hat as we hiked the path to gawk at The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park. He wore a small set of binoculars I had given him. He also spontaneously hugged people he encountered on the trail that day — the child has never met a stranger — and he was a whirlwind of energy and motion.
I will never forget him standing on the trail, his head bent backward as far as possible without tipping over, as he stared at the gigantic sequoia trees through his binoculars.
I will never forget carrying him back from our hike to Roaring River Falls in Kings Canyon National Park (after we had trekked over from nearby Zumwalt Meadows) because he had grown so tired.
I will never forget his infectious laugh as we encountered a mother deer and her baby on the road outside the John Muir Lodge, where we stayed for three nights.
I will never forget his sense of wonder at the mountains and streams and vegetation we stumbled upon during our hikes.
I will never forget his joy at stripping down to his underwear so he could splash around in the cool mountain waters of Hume Lake.
Ellie and papa head to Hume Lake
I will never forget how his mood could change in blitzkrieg fashion, especially when he was cranky in the late summer afternoon as shadows snaked across the landscape. He could giggle and squirm at one moment; in the next instant, he would dissolve into tears. The joys of childhood can give way to the tyranny of infantile emotions with no warning.
I will never forget his glee when we settled down each evening to read Nugget's First Day of School, an interactive book that came with a stuffed dog that I had brought as a pleasant evening diversion. Ellie adored Nugget and the tale of the little dog’s first day of school. I came to appreciate a slim book that was not crammed full of polysyllabic pontifications.
And I will never forget our hike on the Buena Vista Peak Trail in Kings Canyon National Park as the sun set on the horizon. We watched the colors fade from blue to a burnt-orange glow to a deep, rich, inky black. A fingernail moon inched across the night sky.
Gazing off into the distance, this exuberant little soul who has become so important in my life exclaimed, “It’s bootiful!”
The world seldom gets better than it did in that moment. I gasped, and thought of the wonderful, lovely, sublime scenes that invigorate a human life. I was conscious of the breath flowing into my lungs, the blood coursing through my veins, the thoughts and emotions racing through my body and soul.
It was enough to make even a skeptic believe in truth and beauty and love and God.
My Lord, I thought. How many more times will I experience a moment as awe-inspiring as this? I am so glad to be alive.
Yes, Ellie, the world is bootiful when glimpsed, however fleetingly and imperfectly, through the eyes of a child.
Ellie watches the sunset on the Buena Vista Peak Trail