Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2010: Allan Harris

Speak like a Child

Written by:

This summer, I watched the wonderfully quirky documentary, Babies. The premise is simple. Director Thomas Balmès tracks the first year or so in the lives of four babies in four parts of the world. Two of them live in cities—San Francisco and Tokyo. One lives in the steppes of Mongolia, one in a mud hut in Namibia.

What is so compelling about the film is seeing such a familiar range of human emotions—from contentment to rage, from curiosity to boredom—animate these little people. It dawns on the Japanese girl that she can put a wooden dowel into the hole in her blocks. When she can’t quite muster the coordination to pull it off, she throws herself back and kicks her legs in frustration. The Mongolian boy sits in a clutter of toys, cringing as his brother hits him repeatedly with his mother’s silk scarf. Does it hurt? Not exactly, but it’s not pleasant—and it won’t stop.

Watching these babies adventuring through the first year of life, I was struck again at how much of us is actually present from our first moments. By all indications, we are built to feel things. Eating, bathing, moving, even just feeling the breeze on your face: they all carry a big emotional charge.

Like many poets, e.e.cummings celebrated the special—and ephemeral—knowledge of childhood: “children guessed,” as he puts it, “but only a few / and down they forgot as up they grew.” It seems to me it’s the artists who work against that amnesia. They remind us, over and over, about what it means to be connected to others and to the world through these powerful channels of feeling.

Over the past few months, I’ve made my way through a couple of hundred new books in preparation for THIN AIR. On the far side of a binge like that, I know for certain that there are very few new stories, yet I am always excited by a writer who is able to share their particular feeling of what they know. It’s not novelty but authenticity that gets me every time. It’s true of the other art forms as well. I had the uncanny feeling that I was hearing words during one of Jimmy Greene’s ethereal saxophone solos on the art gallery rooftop this August, then I realized it wasn’t language I was locking into, but the emotional contours that sit right inside it.

A few critics carped that Babies was a feel-good film, but shallow. I think they missed the point Balmès offers so delicately: no matter what social realities will be stamped upon us through the accident of our birth, each of us is precious, rich with potential, and absolutely alive with the fire of feeling.

As adults, we might be healthier if we thought about refining rather than damping down the emotional intensity we’re born with. It’s within our reach to become like a child: the artists offer us their example.

Copyright! © 2023 dig! magazine.