The other night I attended a potluck barbecue hosted by my new friend, Jess. It was one of those perfect Pacific Northwest summer evenings when the blue fades to gold and the air takes on a shimmer that seems to promise the season will never end. Jess was the loveliest, most gracious hostess and spent the evening refilling glasses of sweet strawberry sangria, praising her friends’ cooking, and making sure we all had a chance to play horseshoes or corn hole.
It was while I was playing my first round of corn hole that I first noticed Nina. Perched on a stool, brown eyes sparkling, she giggled with a friend and offered commentary on our game. Now let’s be clear about something: I am not good at games like corn hole. (Or darts. Or bowling. Or mini golf.) True, sometimes I’ll have a night when I get the bean bags in that hole again and again and again (this may have something to do with what Jess referred to as the “beer-in-one-hand” balancing system). But not usually. Most of the time, I am consistently, objectively bad at these types of games. One friend recently said “you’re very precise…you’re just not always accurate.”
Life lesson there, perhaps?
Anyway, the night of the barbecue, I was very precisely lobbing my bean bags up into the air and onto the grass just short of the corn hole board. And sparkly, giggly, seven-year-old Nina was bouncing up and down on her stool, offering us encouragement and occasionally bursting into song.
“Oooohh….you almost got it! So close! Toniiiiiiiiight….weeee are you-uuuuung! YEAH! I’m gonna play the next game and I’m going to be on YOUR team.” She grinned right at me.
Was she for real? Was she mocking me? I couldn’t be sure. But in the face of her bright-eyed, Fun!-singing youth, I felt decidedly uncool. And old.
And was I really comparing myself with a seven-year-old? I turned my focus back to the game.
Later, I noticed Lee, another lovely new friend, talking with Nina in conspiratorial tones. As I got closer, I realized Nina was schooling Lee on all things Nina. And she wasn’t just telling Lee – she was inviting her to engage with her, to evaluate her, and to guess.
“What is my favorite color?” (Turquoise)
“What is my favorite thing to do?” (Put on makeup)
“What is my favorite fruit?” (Watermelon)
She was so joyful, serene, and confident that we all wanted to know her, to delight in her. I laughed. She was delightful! Of course we delighted in her. And yet…her confidence made me uneasy. How was it, in the face of this buoyant, beautiful child, I could feel so threatened and insecure? Was I really comparing myself to a seven year old? Again?
In retrospect, I realize I spent a lot of time that night comparing myself and my own perceived inadequacies against the strengths I saw in pretty much every other female at the party. I was on high alert – we had just moved across the country, to a new town. These women were the wives of my husband’s fellow Army hospital interns; I wanted to make a good impression but was in such a funk I felt certain to fail. One woman entered with such beauty and grace she could have been a celebrity. And I thought, Gosh, I feel so frumpy and clumsy. How does she just glide around like that? One woman told me about juggling kids and a new pregnancy with the responsibilities she has as leader of one of the Army’s Family Readiness Groups. And I thought, Gee, she is so selfless and giving and speaks about her life with such humility. Why am I not involved like that? Others manned the grill (why can’t I cook?) or laughed easily with strangers (why am I so introverted?).
By the time twilight descended I had decided I was the least interesting person at the party.
All self-pity and social anxiety aside (because really, that’s what this was), I had also decided that Nina was the most interesting person at the party. She really was. That kind of confidence and joy is magnetic.
After tiring of the questions game, Nina picked up her colored pencils and began to sketch a portrait of Lee. Portrait Lee had long eyelashes, strawberry blond hair, sassy earrings, and eyes that twinkled. In short, it was Lee. Nina, the child artist prodigy, then turned to me and said, “Ok, Erin, you’re next.”
We often laugh about the incisive honesty of children, but much of the time, we don’t like to recognize what they see in us. In their art, we may end up with crows feet or a hunchback or dressed completely in black with hair coming out of our noses.
I was terrified of what she would see in me.
But Nina was gracious. She sketched me warm and open and kind. She saw through my insecurities to the genuine delight I found in her sweet spirit and chose to focus on that. In that moment, as silly as it may seem, it felt I had made a true friend.
And it makes me wonder: how much simpler would life be if we saw through to the heart of people, and that’s all we concerned ourselves with? If we saw them as a child sees them? As God sees them? As the best version of themselves?
What if we saw ourselves that way? What if we could wake up each morning and walk confidently knowing we were designed to be exactly the way we are…and that despite our imperfections (anxieties, habit of playing the comparison game), know we are worthy of delight?
I’m not sure it’s possible, but it’s certainly worth a try.
Here’s to Nina, and here’s to all of you childlike spirits who’ve graciously seen the best in me, even when I couldn’t.