On my second night babysitting, the youngest of the three wraps herself around my leg and stares up at me with a jack-o-lantern grin.
“I love you,” she says, eyes huge and fixed on mine.
I smile back, but am surprised to find myself uncomfortable at the toddler’s love-declaration. I’m not ready for this yet.
“I’m glad to be here,” I tell her. She goes on grinning and staring, too little to feel any sting.
My intellect knows that she is right. Love is the default state for humans in proximity. We don’t need to know each other well to love one another. Young as she is, she understands this implicitly. She loves freely, with no thought towards protecting her heart. Time and maturity will take this from her, just as it does from all of us. As we grow we deaden our instinct to love automatically, transforming love into a formal exchange between committed parties– family members, the truest of friends, romantic partners who have put in some requisite number of months together.
But we had it right, were wiser when we were tiny children. Before we learned to defend our spirits’ connection sites, we understood that love bonds could be transient. That the giving and receiving of love was no weighty milestone. A one-time babysitter, the new kid in preschool, a puppy walking down the street– each of us once understood the joy of instant and simple connection, and offered it freely and widely to anyone who made us feel good.
But grown folks will do what grown folks do. Confronted with this child’s wise and open heart, I refuse to meet her in simplicity. Some part of me reads an imaginary contract in her words, her eyes, her smile, and rejects her instinct to trust.
I have spent a lifetime learning how to complicate the simple.
Is it too late, now, to uncomplicate it?