Abbie is the 7 year old little sister of my goddaughter, Hannah. (See above for a picture she drew of us both – she’s the bigger, smilier one). She has a propensity to ask me difficult questions whenever I’m least expecting them:
At 7am, she clambers into my bed, asks me why I’m at university, then says: ‘but Emily, what are you going to be when you grow up?’ (At 7am!)
Or when I arrive after a day’s studying, take my coat off and sit down with the girls who are eating their tea: ‘Emily, who are you going to marry?’
And how abut over breakfast: ‘Emily, when Mummy and Daddy die, will you just look after Hannah or will you have me and Rebekah too?’
This morning, it was ‘Emily, will you pierce my ears for me?’
I just came across something I wrote for my blog last year about Abbie and an event called Summer Sizzle. Somehow I managed to forget to post it, so here it is. Better late than never…
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“What’s she lobbying for?” the grumpy old man asks me, looking grouchily down at Abbie with her handful of leaflets and enthusiastic smile. “She’s not lobbying”, I say, “she’s inviting”. On cue, Abbie looks up at this man who wouldn’t have given me the time of day and, with disarming 6 year old charm, starts to tell him about the delights of Summer Sizzle:
“It’s Summer Sizzle which is just down the road at that church there. It’s a free bbq and free afternoon tea and there’s facepainting and a bouncy castle. In fact it’s all free apart from the icecream and the candyfloss, you have to pay for that. And you can bring your friends. Can you come?”
Several older people say they may bring their grandchildren along so Abbie decides to weave this into her pitch. This makes me a bit nervous as I know that she’s not yet old enough to discern the difference between a 20 year old and a 60 year old. Sure enough, she cheerfully invites a girl in her mid-twenties and suggests she bring her grandchildren along. I apologise for this but the girl doesn’t seem to mind.
In fact, no one seems to mind. If it had been me by myself I would’ve faced a barrage of blank faces and averted eyes, a fusion of embarrassment and rudeness. Now the very people who’d have passed me by, catch my eye and smile warmly at me when Abbie invites them along.
Not only does she not offend the mid-twenties-non-grandmother, but she doesn’t even annoy the Muslim guys for whom a pork sausage during Ramadan is wrong at so many levels. But what would have been offensive from me, who should’ve known better, doesn’t seem to bother them. If anything offends here it’ll be the message not the messenger, for no one could miss Abbie’s genuine excitement about Summer Sizzle and her desire for everyone she meets to be invited.
And it literally is everyone she meets. With no discernment, she marches up – with her leaflets and her smile – to each individual who comes along. And in South Harrow it’s a pretty mixed bag. She walks up to young and old, black and white, tired and happy, rich and poor, Hindus and atheists. The lot. She tells them about Summer Sizzle and asks them to come.
The great Summer Sizzle has now started and I don’t want Abbie to miss out so I explain to her that we can stay out inviting people for as long as she wants to but that we can go back and join in the fun any time she wants to. “Can we do that house first?” she implores. “I know that they have children and it’d be nice for them to come.”
We approach the house and sure enough I hear screaming children inside. My heart sinks thinking that our knocking on the door is probably the last thing they need. Abbie, on the other hand, stops and grins up at me. “Listen, I told you they have children!” And she invites them. And then we cross the road to other neighbours. “Do you know these ones too?” I ask. “Not yet, but it’d be nice to meet them and for them to them to enjoy Summer Sizzle too, wouldn’t it?” In response to this cold-calling she gets an unexpectedly warm reply: “We were going to go somewhere else later, but seeing as you asked…”
Finally the strong pull of the burgers and facepainting compels us to return. On our way down the road we bump into neighbour Rosie who we’d called on earlier that morning. In response to Abbie’s invite she’d got up and dressed and was making her way to church. We walk back with her, chatting en route, and as we turn into the forecourt, where the bbqs are just getting going, Abbie breaks into a run, “Mummy, mummy, look! Rosie’s here! She’s come to Summer Sizzle!” An exuberant welcome.
Biting into my burger, in between painting tigers and butterflies on children’s faces, I look up at Abbie flinging herself happily around on the bouncy castle, doubling up with laughter and full of excitement at being six and being at Summer Sizzle. And I look around at others who are there because she invited them, others who – unless she’d have asked them to come – wouldn’t have known about it and would be missing out.
I am left reflecting on the message and the messenger and on the way that I’d have nuanced my words according to the people I’d met, bringing in layers and layers of assumptions based on culture, appearance and so on, to which Abbie had been totally oblivious. I think about the fact that most wouldn’t have listened to me anyway because at some point in our lives we decide that it’s acceptable just to ignore someone with leaflets on the street, even though instinctively we know it’s still a bit rude as was evident in the way that most people politely gave Abbie the time of day even if they had no intention of accepting her invitation. I’m thinking too of the way that our invitations are often just a matter of putting the information out there but forgetting to ask if people would like to come, assuming that they probably don’t. And, seeing Abbie’s bright enthusiasm, I wonder if I forget the excitement of what I’m inviting people to and lose the joy.
Yep, I realise that somewhere in the past couple of years I have forgotten a lot and lost a lot. Yet I realise that I have learnt a lot from the hour spent with Abbie; this joyful, childlike, people-loving and zealous Summer Sizzle evangelist. I imprint this moment on my mind and pray for the restoration and ripening of more love and more joy.
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After this weekend’s visit to Abbie and her family, several months after writing that, I think the lesson still applies.