“The wagon broke?”
Just two minutes ago we were happily caravanning down the long dirt road that leads to the Rio Grande. We were camels. Pema, Ruby and Francis were in the back, in the wagon. I was in front, but I wasn’t really pulling. My legs were backed up against the front of the wagon, trying to prevent us from careening down the final leg of our journey, a steep grade of road that leads directly to the river below. Pema and Ruby were sitting quietly, when Francis, who cannot tolerate a moment of silence, spontaneously burst out the first word of a favorite song, “Bismillah.” Thusly, in Arabic, he invoked God.
Spfff, the front end of the wagon hit the dirt. Pema and Ruby giggled. It quickly grew infectious. As I turned around and stared for a few dull seconds, all three giggled in that uncertain way that children do, no one really sure what they were laughing at, only laughing because someone else was laughing, and then laughing uproariously because it was funny to listen to each other laugh. Being a human is funny. Or a camel, for that matter. I chuckled.
The wheels were splayed helplessly on the ground. Our camel had broken a leg. Maybe two. Silence reigned again for a moment, till Francis, uncertain, struck up again, “Bismillah…”
I lifted the wagon to inspect the damage. The bar connecting the front wheels to the steering mechanism was completely sheared in half. The wagon was hopelessly broke. The mirage of our adventure slowly began to dissolve into reality. We were no longer camels. Now we were three children under the age of five and one adult, more than a mile from home, in the middle of a dirt road with a broken wagon.
We had been traveling for a couple hours, stopping to climb the waterfalls near the top of the canyon, to have a snack, or whatever occasion presented. Along the way, the kids had intermittently climbed in and out of the wagon, helping to push or simply walking alongside. Mostly they sat in the back, burrowed amongst our bags and buckets, a sacred space of wagon all to themselves. It was a mile and half to the river. We had the time.
“The wagon broke?”
Good question. But first things first. “Alright,” I said, “everybody out. Let’s get off the road. You see that flat spot over there? Let’s walk over there and figure out what to do.” Dutifully, Pema, Francis and Ruby climbed over the side of the wagon and made their way, while I dragged it on its rear wheels. Pema and Ruby quickly climbed into a large juniper tree. As I inspected the wagon a little further, I saw Francis out of the corner of my eye, pants down, sort of squatting. “You peeing?” I asked. “I’m poopin’,” he said with a great volume of smile. Clearly we were doing okay.
The wagon is not a child’s plaything. With a steel mesh frame and sides, this wagon is designed for hauling wood and construction materials. It has four squat, pneumatic tires, which we had remembered to inflate before we left. Each of the kids got two pumps, and I finished. On prior occasions, I had loaded this wagon with firewood as high as I could stack it, leaning heavily forward just to get it to budge. It was Francis’ father who turned it into a joyride, giving the kids rides down the gravel driveway and back, past the horses, to the pond. I had been a wheelbarrow sort of father. But this was to be a major expedition, and the large, flat cargo area was an ideal space for the three kids, with plenty of room for our stuff. There was even room to jostle around a bit and jockey for position. Perfect.
It never even occurred to me that the wagon wouldn’t make it. But maybe that was wishful thinking. After all, one tire had made an uncomfortable snap as we filled it with air, a crack in the old rubber spreading from one tread to another. I pushed on it with my thumb. Ruby placed her hand over mine. “What do you think?” I asked. “Yeah, it’s fine,” she said, mimicking the casual certainty she’d heard from her parents and other adults countless times. It’s amazing what that sounded like to my ears - just enough of a cosmic “sure” to take things for granted, to assume the best. The tires were so thick it probably wouldn’t matter. Anyway, there were three others.
“The wagon broke?”
Yeah. Why? Now safely on the side of the road, I was ready to talk shop. “Well, Francis, I guess you could say that we were too heavy.”
“Well, there’s a piece of metal that broke and, well, it just wasn’t strong enough to hold us.”
“Well, it wasn’t big enough.”
“Well, they didn’t make it that way.”
“Yeah. Good point.”
Francis is two and a half. He has reached that vocal stage where he basically can’t stop talking, or screaming or singing. It’s a bit of a challenge sometimes, especially to the girls, to whom Francis will walk up and scream, repeating, “Hi Pema,” or “Hi Ruby,” over and over within an inch of their face. He’s perfectly unaware that they dislike it.
Our trip today was largely meant to bond us as a group, something that’s needed. Francis is too young to really understand that other people have needs. He’s still in a place where the world, and its people, are a part of him - or something like that. He honestly just can’t discern that he’s bothering anyone. It’s not on his radar at all. So, you can’t exactly blame him.
Pema and Ruby, of course, are more aware. They often team up to purposefully exclude and provoke him. They make a game of rejecting him. They’re faster and bigger, and Francis can’t follow them. He’s constantly appealing to me, “Where they going?” He’s blissfully unaware - except that, chasing after them, he tries to be part of the game.
And then there’s sharing things, like the one and only tricycle. One way or another, the dynamic can easily degrade until someone, usually Francis, cannot prevent himself from pushing or pulling or hitting. The girls are more subtle. They understand this is not acceptable behavior. But they also know that, if Francis starts it, the rules are looser. Self-defense is sort of justifiable. They almost force him to hit them, and then, somewhat triumphantly, shove him to the ground.
We, the parents, find this relationship confounding. And it’s new to us. It’s easy enough to reprimand a clearly flagrant behavior, but our attempts are often hopelessly ineffective and don’t address the larger picture of what led up to the encounter. But how do you teach all this? How do you even observe it?
Part of the challenge is that Francis is new to our environment. Though Pema has long been friends with Francis, he has only recently become old enough to really engage with as an independent person. But more importantly, he is new to New Buffalo. New Buffalo is where we live, a community of about ten of us, where we live and share space. Ruby and her father live next door and are basically part of the community. She and Pema have been playing together many days a week since we moved here over a year ago. They’re very bonded. Francis’ parents are good friends of mine, but only a month ago did they move to New Buffalo. Now Francis is a regular playmate, and to Ruby and Pema it’s a sort of invasion of the sacred space that used to belong solely to them.
As the parent of an only child, the primary challenge for me has always been to provide meaningful activity and organization to our day. Now, suddenly, there is a sort of sibling relationship going on, and there are regular conflicts. This is very new to me, and to all of us as parents. All of us are parents of only children, and none of us have the time-honed skills of managing or redirecting the energy that sometimes erupts. That adds to the confusion, because not only are the three kids trying to figure things out, so are the three sets of parents.
On the suggestion of Silke, my mentor, I had embarked on the day’s journey as the sole caregiver. “There should be one person in charge,” was her advice, and I aimed to test that out. We had five hours, more if we needed it. There was nothing to do and plenty of time. We could easily work through conflict if and when it arose. I was quite prepared to focalize us if that was needed. Being outside on a journey, I had hoped, would be an aide. Plus, we had a wagon. There’s just something about a wagon.
“The wagon broke?”
Pema and Ruby were still in the tree. I got out some snacks while Francis and I repeated our interview. Fact is, the trip had been stellar so far. We hadn’t had one conflict the whole time. It was, as I had hoped, so fun that the general atmosphere had been light and inclusive. We were a tightly knit group of travelers, bonded by our common adventure. This was exactly what we needed, particularly Ruby and Francis, so that they could begin to bond in positive ways.
Having decided the wagon was kaput, I decided to stash it behind the juniper tree Pema and Ruby had climbed. If you leave things on the side of the road in New Mexico, people take them. It’s not really stealing. I do it too. People just assume if something is left on the side of the road it’s up for grabs. It usually is. Besides, the wagon now looked like a piece of junk, another common roadside attraction. So, I had to hide it. Turns out, I should have done a better job, but I had a lot on my mind. We had about a half mile to the river, or a mile back home. The river was downhill, but home was up.
As I was lifting the wagon behind the tree, I heard Ruby say, “Not like that Francis.” I turned to look. Ruby took the water bottle from Francis, and, to my surprise, managed to get the screwcap off. She handed it back to Francis, who took a big gulp and coughed. He smiled. Ruby took the bottle from him and set it down in the sand, and then took Francis by the hand and helped him climb just a step or two into the tree. Pema sat on a limb high above, singing softly.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning.
“Okay guys,” I said, nudging the wagon to its final position. I put the question to them, “Should we go to the river, or head back home?”
Eight hours later, I was sitting in my room on my computer. Ruby had gone home hours ago, and Pema was with Francis and his father. I was trying to get a couple hours of work done, when Kerim, an aging hippie of Turkish and Cuban descent, with long white hair and several missing teeth, burst loudly into the sunroom outside my bedroom door. He’s my neighbor, and we share this wing with a young woman of mild demeanor. She and Kerim are best of friends.
“Well Joe, we got the wagon,” Kerim shouted. There was adventure in his voice. He had been driving his red pickup. “Some guys had it in their truck, but we chased ‘em all the way to the highway.” He was shouting, laughing. He loves this kind of thing. “Me, Pema, Francis and his Pop. They were gonna take it. You should’a stashed that thing behind some bushes.” He was high from the excitement.
“I did. Shit, I’m sorry dude,” I said, “I hid it the best I could behind that juniper.” I felt bad, and it came out as excuses. “Sorry you had to do that.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Kerim smiled, “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t want to. But if we had been just two minutes later we would’a lost it.” He smiled his toothy grin, revealing the gaps between. He loves being the ragamuffin.
Later, Francis’ father recounted the story. “We got there just as it was getting dark. A truck was pulling away as we drove up. I got out and looked around but couldn’t find it. I yelled to Kerim, ‘follow that truck.’” He was laughing. “Kerim just took off. I held the kids in both arms.” I’ve driven with Kerim before. I had a sense of how that went.