Are you safe where you sleep? This dominates my thinking when I scroll through the prompts for yet another writing challenge—this time 100 Days of Summer Writing . The first photo I encounter that comes from James Mollison’s book, Where Children Sleep, captures Alex, 9, from Rio de Janeiro offering his wide, green-eyed stare, serious countenance, and tousled shorn curls to the camera, full-faced and beautiful. Next to it, the place where he sleeps (I’m assuming): a holey, beaten sofa, behind it a wall built from weathered planks and behind that a sheet and perhaps a cover, pinned to a clothesline. It’s an open space, not most people’s idea of cozy. I pass it by, not yet moved to write. Then I find the second from Mollison’s collection, a photo of Bikram, 9, from Melamchi, Nepal, dark-eyed, hair neatly side-combed, shirt buttoned to the top, next to an amber-lit corner, a pallet covered with a quilted blanket, surrounded by baskets, an adobe (I think) wall, a spotted small and narrow mirror resting against it. I think cozy; I think home.
Now I am moved. The only thing that matters when children sleep is that they are safe, that whenever they surrender to vulnerability, they can dream protected. When I see and pass judgment, am I not assigning a value to what is my ideal bedroom? What does the child feel upon lying down to rest?
When I lived in Cali, Colombia, I met a talented photographer Mercedes Rasmussen, who, at the time, was working for National Geographic. At her home she had mounted a photograph of two little kids, a boy and girl, maybe five and three, who are standing inside a wooden packing box, eating from a sleeve of cookies, crumbs dotting their smudged faces. As they look into the camera’s eye, more than anything else, they are curious, “Why are you interrupting our game?” is how I see them. That’s not how my eighth graders, most from affluent homes and manicured play spaces, whose parents put them in a raft of scheduled activities to keep them safe, respond when I share the photo with a bit of background. They begin talking about poverty and sadness; I don’t see that.
Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Nikki Rosa” captures this societal blindspot best. Not all the secure places shine with post-Fixer-Upper perfection (the obverse is also true); not all declare that love is wealth for the world to see.
As I write this, I worry that I’m insensitive, that I’m ignoring what might be dire. Photos only show so much, don’t they? And they are as subject to incomplete interpretation as is everything else. I want to ask Jame Mollison what he thinks when he creates this collection. Is there judgment? Of course there is more to any frozen moment than meets the eye. I want to know, when these boys arise, have they the peace and possibility conferred by sweet-dream suffused sleep?