My niece Abby is three years old. Last week I was staying with her, her parents, and her newborn brother at their home in North Carolina.
I have taken to calling this little ball of blond activity and opinion “my sweetpea,” which she currently does not like. She’ll correct me every time.
“I not you sweetpea,” she’ll say, chubby hands on her nonexistent hips. “I Snow White.”
She is sure she is Snow White. She loves that Disney movie, with its rigid gender roles, implausible plot and annoying songs. She’ll sing those songs — “Someday My Prince Will Come,” a big favorite — while wandering the house with her stuffed doggie.
I’ve taken to mashing them up. “Someday my niece will come,” I’ll sing back at her.
“No! That not how it goes,” she says, pointing a perfect little finger at me.
“… And I’ll read her stories at night …”
“It goes this way! ‘Someday my pince will come …’ “
“ … And I’ll get to turn on her night light …”
She’s smiling now. She keeps up the front of the protest (“No no no! When we get home, I go put you in time out!”), but she likes my song. It has her in it, not some fool prince.
Mommy plays the songs from that godforsaken movie while they’re riding in the car, and Abby sings along. She does her own mashups, too.
When I’m not whistling along to “Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho,” I notice that what her mom says about the song is true. The little girl’s words are “I hope, I hope, it’s off to work we go.”
I hope, I hope.
On my second day at my sister’s home, I suffered a personal crisis of a pretty banal kind. It’s the same one everyone else has suffered: Abby’s Grandpa got it too, and many of my friends, and millions of other people in this country.
There are no good words to describe how it feels to be out of work, how lonely and frightened and useless you suddenly are. You are on the other side of everything good. It feels like falling through a trap door, like once again being the understudy in God’s Angry Improv Theater. You wonder why you ever maintained the pretense of caring about anything at all.
But then the interviews come, and the chorus begins again.
I hope, I hope.
You know, Emily Dickinson was right about that bird. It may be the dumbest bird in the human aviary, but it is the one that stays with us to the end, when our fair-weather friends have left. It builds and breaks the heart again and again, ever singing, even into the worst darkness.