That Crack Will Break Mama’s Back
We went to the park today. This is not unusual thing—we go somewhere pretty much every day of the week and the park is a particular favorite. Seeing as it was one hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit, I have no idea what possessed me to choose an outdoor location for our excursion, but, apparently, I wasn’t alone. There at the park with us was an extraordinary number of mammas, daddys and sprouts (come to find out, the local schools had the day off for an in-service day. That probably explained it). Playgrounds are marvelous. I mean, they consist of equipment for which there is no manual. A swing can be used as a swing, or, you can lay yourself out on two of them and pla “Dead Man”, a game whose orgins I still wonder about. Tunnels can be tunnels or they can be hiding spots for a game of “hide and seek.” Jungle gyms can be something to climb, or a mountain of slippery ice you’ve been challenged to climb. Monkey bars can be benches. The lack of playground equipment instructions means that your imagination and creativity rule; there aren’t limits. What freedom! Indeed, there have been times within the past seven years since Breathe’s birth that I have wanted to go to a playground by myself and play. I thoroughly enjoy them—particularly with my girls.
Today, however, the grown-ups that all the children and I were surrounded by were interrupting my playground joy. It seemed every two or three minutes, I’d hear a grown up say in a very no-nonsense, very grown-up way, one of two things: “Come on,” or “Let’s go.” Now, I bet I hear at least one of these phrases every day of my life and, before today, it’s never launched my brain into one of its infamous, seemingly-never ending “the world is coming to an end” spills. I mean, I’ve even said both of these things to my girls more than once. And I wasn’t even in a particularly reflective or somber mood. No, I was trying to enjoy being in the limitless, creativity rich environment known as the playground. But as I went down the slide with my four year old in my lap, I heard a tall, strong, confident man say, “Come on, Kiki, let’s go.” My eyes slid to “Kiki” and I saw a toddler, probably two years old, toddling a couple hundred yards behind the man. My seven year old called for me, and my attention was redirected to the seasaw. I hadn’t even made it to the seasaw when the same man said to the same girl, “Let’s go.” Again, I glanced at the girl. She was still walking, but, it was true, she wasn’t in much of a hurry. That made me smile before my attention was re-directed. Again, I tried to submerge myself in playdom. Again, a couple seconds later, I heard the same man tell the same two year old child to “hurry up.” By now, I was getting ill.
My playtime was being interrupted by clueless grown-ups. I couldn’t enjoy the game of Tag the girls and I’d started because I was being told “hurry up” every other second. Another parent told another child to “come on, let’s go”—this child was older than two, but younger than Breathe, and he’d decided to check out something on the ground. He was bent over whatever it was and was asking his mom, the clueless grown-up, to come see. She refused and instead told him to “come on, let’s go.” I went from being mildly irritated to moderately annoyed. I started feeling like I was in the movie theater, sitting behind someone who was constantly talking out loud to his friend or on his phone. It’s not like you’re trying to listen to their lives, but you can’t help it because they are being so loud. Maybe it wasn’t that these parents were being excessively loud, though. Maybe it was the location that made it all the more stark for me. We were at a playground. Isn’t the point of going to a playground to play? That led me to wonder, “What is play? Isn’t it supposed to be an exercise of the mind, an exploration of the curious?” Didn’t all these grown-ups understand that?
Also, have you ever stood beside your child in front of a full length mirror? If you have, you’d have noticed how short they are, how short their legs are. If you tell a four year to take a giant step, then tell a grown up to do the same, then measure both giant steps, you’ll find that the grown up’s giant step is a heck of a lot further a distance than the four year olds. They physically can not keep up, unless they run or, at least, speed walk. And if they speed walk or run, they miss whatever was interesting on the ground. Now, have you ever been told to do something that you physically either could not do or that was very challenging for you to accomplish? What was your first reaction to being issued the challenge—did you leap at it with open arms and say, “YES! Something I can’t do! Bring it on!” or did you meander reluctantly into the dare? That’s what you do when you tell a kid who cannot walk as fast as you can to keep up with you.
Did you know that a child’s brain is overwhelmed with environmental stimuli? You might not care what a leaf smells like—but the kid is fascinated by such a discovery (if you don’t believe me, ask a child what a leaf smells like and find out). A dead bug is just that to you—a dead bug. To a child, however, that dead bug presents a perfect opportunity to see a bug up close and personal (this is the way we’ve discovered countless factoids about insects: by examining dead insects). A crack in the sidewalk is totally outside the range of your brain. To a kid, however, that crack is a big deal: it just might break your mama’s back. They see everything.
I have news for you.
If you put me inside the world’s largest library, and filled it with books that appealed specifically to me—you could tell me to “come on” or “hurry up” or to “go” until you turned purple, and I’d still take my sweet time. What about you? What if I put you… I don’t know… at a live concert with three or four of your favorite, all-time performers who were lined up to sing all your favorite songs. What could get you away from that? What if I told you that you had a credit card with unlimited funds on it and you could spend it on whatever you wanted, then put you inside the Mall of America. You think you’d be going anywhere else in a hurry?
Don’t get me wrong.
I know there are valid reasons for being in a hurry. If one of my family members were suddenly ill, or involved in an accident, that would be a legitimate reason for being in a hurry. Or, you know, a service man or woman was due home from being deployed—legitimate reason for rushing. I’ll even say that if I was at the playground with one child but another child was due to be picked up from school, and it was approaching the time she was to be let out—legitimate reason. But I also know that, most of the time, the reasons parents are “in a hurry” is because they’re going to be late for a grown-up appointment, or “it’s time” for _________. They are in a rush because of other responsibilities that have been imposed on them. I’m not saying those other responsibilities aren’t important but…. well, are they?
What’s it really going to matter if you’re an hour later cooking dinner?
What’s it really going to mess up if you’re a little late to work, or for that date you have?
What’s it really going to matter if you have to sit in traffic because you didn’t leave ‘early enough’? Who’s going to really care if you don’t have time to stop at the bank today, but have to go in the morning instead? And, even if someone was going to care—if the alternative allows your child a few extra moments in his favorite world—isn’t that worth it?
I lead a busy life.
I always have.
When I was in college, I took as many as 23 hours of classes and still signed myself up to volunteer with five organizations, simultaneously. I was so busy with things that were important that I overlooked the important stuff. I worked so hard to “make a difference” that I forgot to see the things that were right with the world, with life and with myself. Even today, I am always on the go. The girls and I never stop playing, or visiting some cool treasure in our city. In the seven years since I’ve been a parent, though, they are the ones who have taught me the most valuable lesson of all: the mundane is exciting; the ordinary is spectacular. I lived in the world before, but I didn’t see it. Mud was icky and to be avoided—now, I actively try to make it just so I can know what it feels like as it gloops through my fingers. When Breathe was two and three, we would collect leaves with which to make a collage. Breathe felt sorry for the leaves that had spots on them because the spots meant they were ‘sick’. I know what a leaf smells like, too, now, whereas eight years ago, I wouldn’t have thought to care. Dandelion dust means someone’s just made a wish. A week or two ago, the girls were already asleep in their beds. I was sitting down to write, glanced out the window and saw the absolute brightest moon to ever shine. It was so bright, in fact, that it made me want to go outside to see it better.
So I did. The air was humid, dry. But my neighborhood was so quiet. And, in the sky, there were hundreds of stars. I was absolutely taken. So I walked back into my house, grabbed a pillow, and returned to the front lawn where I lay down on the prickly grass and stared up at the stars. Had my daughters been with me, I probably would have immediately suggested making a wish but the notion felt silly for me as a grown-up so, instead, I just lay there. Flies kept landing on my face, but I didn’t care. Neighbors probably think I’m loco—but I didn’t care. I don’t know how long I lay there, listening to the crickets and counting the stars, until finally, I couldn’t resist and made a wish on the brightest one I saw. It made me happy. But I know I would never have done it had my girls not first taught me to savor the inconsequential. My ten or fifteen minutes on the grass didn’t change the world—but it made mine happier.
Playgrounds are gemstones, locations where the real world can, and should, be put aside for leaf-and-stick sandwiches, for finding perfect rocks, a place where the biggest dilemma is deciding which slide is the fastest. I don’t always succeed—I have, once again, been the parent to tell my girl “let’s go”—but I make a conscious effort not to go to the playground or the park unless I know that I have time, that I don’t have somewhere to be or some obligation to fulfill within the next several hours. If my girls get there and want to leave in ten minutes (which, true story, has happened), then we leave in ten minutes. If we get there and they want to stay two hours, we stay two hours – even if the heat is about to kill me and I was ready to go an hour earlier. What I’ve found is that this attitude hasn’t only given them fond memories of multiple playgrounds—it’s taught me that slowing down is as important as changing the world.
Parents who rush their children forget that it is in the exploration of the ordinary that miracles happen. A couple years ago, I came home to find a flower growing in the middle of my concrete driveway. I was amazed, touched and humbled by a miracle I probably would have overlooked before my girls were born. I only saw it because they had taught me to slow down and to take note of the things that are easily taken for granted. When I learned to do that, the sky was brighter, the grass was greener, the wind was softer, the insects more tolerable. When I realized that my grown-up problems were actually quite small in relation to the earth’s magnitude, breathing suddenly became easier. When I realized that playing dress-up with my daughter was just as exciting and memorable as taking her to a new museum, my own home became new and filled with possibilities. If she’s deeply involved and connected to her imagination, bedtime can wait. Bathtime can wait. Dinner can wait.
I found myself wanting to tell the parents at the park all of this today. I wanted to remind them that, while they might have had a legitimate reason for rushing, they probably didn’t. And, anyway, the child was walking. I watched the children walking and thought to myself, “it would take her maybe an extra ten minutes to get to the car, if allowed to go at her own pace.
What in the world couldn’t wait an extra ten minutes?