Word fashions come and go: what is “awesome” was once “marvelous,” what is “great” was once merely “good.” What we value changes too: what we deem awesome today—a tiny car that gets high mileage; a good bottle of Washington wine—would have deeply puzzled our great-grandparents.
There’s one word I bet our great-grandparents used more often than we do that I’d like to bring back. Curiosity. It’s not gone for good, it’s just fallen into disuse. You could call it a value, and you might mean that in a good or a bad way, depending on your “values” with a capital V. Or you could call it a character trait. But doesn’t it roll off the tongue? Curiosity.
We readers are likely to link it in our minds to books, beginning of course with Curious George, the monkey whose endless curiosity got him into endless scrapes. (“Scrapes:” there’s another rich old word, connoting a scrape along the outer edge of good behavior or the law or life itself.) But with George there was always an underlying moral along the lines of: Better not to be too curious. It was a moral well-suited to George’s heyday in the middle of the last century, when our elders worried that curiosity might lead us to flirt with communism or beat poetry or other interests that would cause us to stray from the proper paths of college, marriage, corporate employment and home ownership.
Poor George: whisked from the jungle to a wondrous new planet called Manhattan and then chastised every time he wanted to rappel off the fire escape for a little curiosity-fueled tour. What child sentenced to spend their days fidgeting at a school desk could not relate to his pain: the torture of a curious soul, caged and clamped down?
How thrilling then, the glimmers of hope for the curious offered by the good books that came after George–Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, Swiss Family Robinson—and by the occasional good teacher. Mine was Mrs. LaCrosse, second grade, who preached not only reading but writing as the key to a rich and curious life. Writers could ask questions, think thoughts, take imaginary trips any time they wanted. What an anarchist’s vision, what a revolutionary dream!
It was 1964 and conformity abounded. A solid majority of my little-girl brain wanted what Sleeping Beauty wanted: to be carried off by a handsome prince, dressed lavishly and taken care of, like a Chinese princess with bound feet, forever. But Mrs. LaCrosse had wedged open the door to a back brain closet. Inside, the rogue. The beast: curiosity. Thank God.
I do thank God, because I believe my curiosity saved me. I was not princess material, at least not in my world, which was a northeast Seattle neighborhood where if you didn’t wear bright new Bonnie Doon kneesocks, you were shunned. Add blue cat-eye glasses to your rubber-banded, hand-me-down socks, and you were doomed. For a brief and happy while, aka elementary school, I didn’t understand just how doomed; that came later with the cruelty of junior high school.
What got me thinking about the saving powers of curiosity was a book I plucked from the bargain table at Elliott Bay Bookstore: Martha Gellhorn’s memoir, Travels with Myself and Another. You may remember her as one of Hemingway’s wives. But that was but a brief episode in her long and curiosity-fueled career as a globe-trotting, conflict-seeking journalist. In her memoir, she reflects on what she calls her “horror journeys,” her worst travel nightmares, and how they never seemed to stop her from wanting more: more adventures, more challenges, more danger. (She is a hilarious practitioner of the wry understatement, as in this comment on travel in China in 1941: “Time resumed its frightful habit of standing still but finally we were gasping through the last night.”) Of a brief wartime break from her travels, she writes, “I was going into a decline from hearing about the war on the radio instead of being where I wanted to be, with the people whose lives were paying for it.”
Gellhorn was a great believer, as a journalist and as a human being, of the importance of seeing it for herself. How could she write about China without going there? If she were alive today, I suspect she would find our insta-access to information a marvelous convenience, but no substitute for first-hand experience. A good thing, but not a great or awesome thing. Curious people like to look stuff up and then go where their curiosity leads them. That’s when good becomes great, and marvelous, and awesome.
Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.
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Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.