The Fifth Element (3-minute read)

Recently, while running errands with my son, we passed a shoe store and my son unexpectedly stopped to look into the window. This is unusual for him because he has just begun to walk and explore the concept of forward motion. And so, he is usually running on his tiptoes, shrieking in delight at his own locomotion. My son is of a very sunny nature. He is cheerful, curious, fun, and very present. This latter trait forces me to drop everything and be just as present as he is. What he is not, is someone who stops in his tracks to look at something, whilst processing an impression that he can’t apprehend yet.

Gwendolynmasin and ysaye saint gervais Gwendolyn Masin

He was staring at a huge poster of two children, back to back, smiling at the camera on an exotic beach. Both were wearing colourful shoes. The boy’s were yellow, the girl’s pink. I pretended to gag for the amusement of no one in particular (that is the loneliness of being an adult with a toddler for company and having no one to share a sense of irony with). He stood completely still, his face full of wonder and incomprehension, his mouth faintly open, his eyes somewhere between swimming in amazement and faintly dulled.

It is perhaps not until your child, someone you teach, someone you feel responsibility for in some way, or an idea that you hold close to your heart becomes completely absorbed by an advertisement, or some blatant marketing tool, and tries to make sense of it that you become Milla Jovovich's character Leeloo in the The Fifth Element. There’s no doubt that all parents have this experience, but watching my son stare at a huge poster of two children beaming on a beach whilst wearing gaudy rubber footwear stops me in my tracks as well.

In this moment, I am a person watching mankind fragment into many, tiny, little disjointed pieces as humans lift themselves away from the earth, from nature and from genuine understanding toward artificial goals and the worship of false icons. Leeloo says, “Everything you create you use to destroy.” Suddenly I am a mother, an activist, an angry citizen, and a concerned example of how things should be, but are not.

That latter observation is written for you, presumably an adult, reading this, with some sense of self-irony. Of course, I am not an example for the population at large. But, for my son, I’m one of the few examples he has in his formative years; and I am quite sure that I would like him to be discerning, as I like to think I am.

One could argue that I’m overreacting and presumptuous. I can’t reasonably ask my son why he has stopped to look at this poster. He’s a little too young to be able to formulate clearly what he is thinking. But, I wonder: is it seeing other children whom he doesn’t know that fascinates him? Is it the beach? The sunshine? The unexpected piece of nature in a sea of urbanity? The colours in the image? The (heaven forbid) gaudy shoes? Or worse, the association that the smiley faces of the children, emitting a sense of contentedness, are somehow related to those awful shoes?

I come to. “Hey baby! Let’s go look at what is on the other side of the street,” I say. With a song and a dance, I manage to draw my son’s attention away from the poster, bringing movement back into a world that he shortly put on hold. I sing one of the Hungarian children’s songs that I share with my son – he sings the tune back to me with words he makes up. “Dada dada dadaaaa! Mama mama mama, gagaaaa!” I smile wryly. At 19 months, I know I don’t need to take my son’s lyrics personally.

Essentially, of course, I have no idea what it was that stopped my son in his tracks. It is my own misgiving vis-à-vis marketing and advertisement that has led me to a sense of concern when my son sees an, objectively seen, message-less picture of two children.

I cross the street, continuing to sing and dance, chasing after my quick-footed child as he speeds down the cobblestone streets. Not noticing one skew cobblestone, I’m caught off guard, stumble and fall — without much grace — flat on my behind. Briefly stunned, I experience yet another new thing: my shock at falling. The scuffs and bruises of it melt away immediately as I consider whether my son is about to go belting across the street, blissfully ignorant to the concept of traffic. I look up and see him smiling at me. He runs to me, strokes my cheek. I melt some more. His eyes take on a twinkle and before I know it: he’s trying to steal my glasses. Surprised and nearly instantly blind, I burst out laughing at this unexpected turn of events.

And then I remember. Leeloo. "Me fifth element — supreme being. Me protect you."

Indeed. Lest I forget: my son will teach me a lot.