“Kill him!” Malcolm shouted. Malcolm is four years old. He was standing on the edge of a small stream, holding a stick. Five other kids, aged four to six, including my own daughter, Pema, were huddled close by, staring intently at the surface of the water. Each held his or her own stick, in some cases long, forking branches that reached far into the water and were capable of delivering powerful blows. Patrolling the water’s edge, they made occasional volleys up or downstream, in pursuit of their victims: skeeters, as they called them. Water bugs.
I first met Malcolm a month or two ago. He is a relatively new addition to Silke’s core group of “Earth Children”, the name she bestowed on her outdoor kindergarten, which I assist twice a week. A sweet and tender child, I took to Malcolm immediately. He has that enviable confidence that proves, beyond a doubt, that he is loved by devoted parents. Quick to make friends, he enjoys making the rules, but he also understands the subtleties of social grace and inclusion (no mean task at four years old). He ends almost every statement with, comma, “right?”, looking for some sign of agreement. “We’re bandits that make chocolate soup, right?” he said to me the first day, as we muddled around some pots of wet dirt. “Yeah,” I thought, giving him a nod, “we’re totally bandits making chocolate soup.”
Wham! Malcom’s stick struck the surface of the water, sending a spray of drops in every direction. In the small pool that had formed behind some broken sticks and detritus in the river I could make out two little skimmers, the kind of six-legged water bugs that scoot along the surface of the water on their feet like magicians. Dodging the blow, the bugs scurried around, looking for a new spot to settle, but instantly the becalmed water churned into a rage as each child rained blows with the ferocity of several hundred million years of evolution. The bugs, like two canoes on a tortuous sea, scrambled for safe harbor. Fortunately, the kids’ aim was poor, but those bugs, those little moments of life, doused again and again by waves that flooded and towered above them, were waterlogged and tired. This had been going on for half an hour.
“Ugh,” I thought, sitting on a fallen limb some yards away. I had already had a conversation with Malcolm and Griffin, who were leading the death squad that day (which was unusually large because the cabal of girls that had initially taken up the animals’ defense had, somewhere along the way, converted into part of the attack). As I blundered my way through a rote lecture on the value of life, Griffin, who was at least willing to listen, spent the time parrying my weaker arguments while simultaneously stabbing a small stick into a parade of ants making their way down a juniper tree nearby. I wanted to kick him.
I’ve been through this a thousand times. How do you teach a child not to kill bugs or rip plants from the earth? How do you teach a child, just barely gaining his own sense of control and power, not to stoop over a chicken, shout threateningly, and then kick? That is, how do you do it without resorting to the same means - by grabbing them, shouting at them, or, perhaps more subtly, plying them with guilt? I am not hesitant to speak sharply or physically interfere when the situation truly demands, but I don’t draw the line at every bug. I have to let some go. Poor guys. Odd, in a way, to admit that, but the death of those creatures is a casualty I have to live with. Somehow, as these children develop, they have to cycle through and directly experience the power at their command. I want to guide the kids, to help shape their nascent sense of life, but I can’t take that exploration away from them simply by enforcing the rules. They have to do it themselves.
Still, it’s hard to sit by a group of children and observe their rituals of life and death. They can be beautiful, flowering children one moment, and downright cruel the next. Coupled with the innocence of such a tender age, it brings all kinds of shadows and pain to my own heart. After all, I am not so different.
The kids, having lost track of the skeeters in the maelstrom, had spread out along the shore of the river. They were acting and thinking like a hive now, and when Alaia, a sweet and mild girl, located some bugs a short distance upstream (surely different bugs, but it hardly mattered) all the kids ran in a frenzy toward her. The game was in full swing. For the moment, I had given up. Lacking any real leverage into the structure of the violence, I reverted to observation. In the meantime, I gave horse rides to several of the other kids, who, thankfully, weren’t interested in torturing the poor creatures, only me.
“Do you want a boring horse or a bumpy horse?” I asked Little Bear, who stood on the fallen limb, arms raised to grab my shoulders. She had a huge smile on her face, a rare sight, which delighted me. “Bumpy horse!” she shouted, her body shimmying with excitement. “Really?” I asked, hefting her onto my back (she’s by far the largest of the kids, a good sixty pounds). “Don’t you want a boring horse that’s, you know, kind of boring?”
To have real leverage with the kids, I have learned to weave myself into their world. I have to understand their games and their intentions, no matter how small, violent or ridiculous. I have to be there, inside the game. Otherwise, I’m just a spectator, or, at worst, an enforcer. But in order to do this, I have to truly enjoy myself. I have to be authentic. If I’m not, and I’m just half-heartedly playing “for the kids”, then the whole experience feels empty, like work. The children pick up on this, our interactions grow increasingly schismatic and demanding, and I grow resentful. So I don’t play games I don’t want to play, and I don’t just suffer whatever is going on. I try to be actively involved in structuring the play to my own liking, and I spend a fair amount of time discovering my own joys. In other words, I’m not just there for the kids. I’m there for myself.
As I toppled through the forest with Little Bear, pretending to fall over (bumpy horse), I kept an eye and an ear on the others, now running back downstream, sticks brandished mightily. I was looking for a way in.
The next morning I was outside feeding the chickens in the dark, half an hour before sunrise. A storm had blown in the evening before, rekindling the winter chill, and, to my surprise, dumping six inches of thick, wet snow overnight. “Blech,” I thought, slopping through the slushy snow in the winter boots I had, thankfully, not yet put away. An image of Pema came to mind, snuggled deep under the warm blankets inside.
As I opened the gate to the chicken yard, I had to lean over to duck under the wires, strung above the chicken yard to distract wild birds from flying in, which now hung low with the weight of the clinging snow. I watered and fed the birds as quickly as I could, hunched under the wires, and was making my way out when suddenly the whole world lit up an eerie blue-green color. Automatically, I turned toward the source of the light, behind and to my right, and saw, to my horror, that the long-distance power lines, only a hundred yards away, were sizzling with sporadic arcs of electricity, releasing a thundering “zsszzap!” that quickened a panic in my chest. Momentarily confused by the wires over my head and the posture of my body, I shuddered with fear and ran for cover.
As I walked back through the courtyard, I saw, to my surprise, the white Christmas lights draped over a large houseplant in the sunroom. We still had power. Then another arc of electricity lit up the snowy buildings and the lights went off. I reached the door and felt the cold of the metal handle seep into my fingers and palm. I wasn’t eager to begin the day. The evening before had been stressful, and I was grumpy. I turned to look up at the sky, absolutely black. Not a break in the clouds through which I could see even one star. A few flakes of half-snow, half-rain fell on my face. Turning to go inside, I stomped the snow off my boots, and resigned myself to a grumpy morning.
I was already tired from the day before, which, after a long, but joyful day at school, ended with me fighting the advancing storm and wind in the park. I had intended to finish a mailing for work, looking forward to the cheerful atmosphere under the budding willow tree Ada and Pema had playfully christened “the office”. Organized methodically, my bare feet in the grass, I would listen to the children and the birds as I finally crossed this project off my list. Instead, when I arrived, gray skies were forming overhead and the wind was picking up. I opted for the shelter, pulling a red picnic table into the lee of a large pillar. I hoped to escape the brunt of the wind, which, after a warm morning with the kids, was getting colder and colder. I put my sweater back on, wishing I had brought a jacket.
“You know, most people wouldn’t do this,” a friend said to me, smiling at my predicament. She had come to help, and was now sitting cross-legged on the table, patiently holding a stack of paper firmly in her hands as I attempted to cut them in two. An array of envelopes, stamps and papers were spread around us, with various paperweights I had accumulated - heavy stones, a tape dispenser with a bulky, sand-filled base, and a mason jar with soup (my dinner). I grew more and more anxious and irritable. But even as the wind grew to a tremendous force, raising clouds of dust so thick that the air all around looked smoky, I didn’t stop.
After that I spent an unproductive hour chasing Pema and Ada in a busy restaurant while trying to help a friend with some bookkeeping. Finally, we gave up, and after stopping at the post office and buying groceries I headed home -tired, hungry and grumpy. On the way back, as the rain turned to snow, I called Megan. She didn’t answer, but I left a message on her voicemail. “Hey Megan,” I said, exasperation in my voice, “It’s raining and snowing down here, which makes me think you’re probably getting snow up there. I’ll probably leave early tomorrow, to be there at eleven, but please let me know about the snow. I’ll walk if I have to, but I’m tired.”
As I walked into the kitchen, the microwave beeped, and the LED display came on, casting a mild green glow over the dishes nearby. The hum of the refrigerator came alive, and the digital clock of the toaster oven lit up, flashing 12:00 in clear red numbers. I breathed a momentary sigh of relief. Then it all went out again.
Two hours later, I turned off the highway onto the long dirt road that leads to Lama. It hadn’t been plowed, but several trucks had already come and gone and I was able to travel up the middle of the road by keeping my wheels in their tracks. “I just hope no one comes the other way,” I said to myself. At least, I thought I did, but then Pema said, “What?”
The undercarriage of my Toyota Corolla dragged noisily through the snow, but my snow tires were performing laudably. I’m familiar with these conditions, and I’m a hell of a driver in the snow, but I knew this was the absolute limit of what me and this car could do. “I don’t know, pup,” I said, “I’m not sure we’re even going to make it to the s-curves.”
“Then what, Dada?”
“Then we walk.”
Coming around the first sharp turn, about a mile in, I passed a truck off the side of the road. For a second I thought someone had just left it there, a common practice when the snow comes in heavy, but as we passed the hood, I saw a man stooped under the bumper with a shovel in his hand. I stopped, letting go of the momentum I knew I needed to keep moving up the mountain. This would be as far as I was going today. I put the car in reverse, and rolled down my window.
“Hey,” I said, “You stuck?” The man, dressed neatly, had on a thin jacket and no gloves. He looked at me with a nervous smile. I didn’t recognize him.
“Yep,” he answered, trying to act casually, but I could feel the longing stare of his eyes, even through his thick glasses. “But I just need to get it out of the ditch, and then I can back up and turn around. I’m not going any further.”
“No, you’re not,” I thought, reluctantly sizing up the situation. I didn’t want to help. But I didn’t want to just leave him there on the side of the road. He obviously didn’t know where he was.
Pema sat in the car as I grabbed the snow shovel from my trunk and began digging out the underside of his truck. The problem was, he was well off the road, in a wet and muddy ditch. The snow, about a foot deep, had fallen after several weeks of spring thaw, and the ground was no longer frozen. It was a muddy, sloppy mess, and the snow was hardly the problem.
By now, I knew for sure that I wasn’t going any further. I hadn’t made it half as far as I had hoped, which meant I’d have to walk about three miles to meet up with Megan, maybe two if I opted to go off the road and bushwhack my way up through the sage and snow. Pema sat patiently in the idling car, and I decided to leave the man to his own devices for a minute, to move my car off the road in case someone else came by.
As soon as I finished carving out a space for my car off to the side, where I knew it wouldn’t be an obstacle to the plows, a neighbor came by in his orange tractor. It was Nat, an old friend, his long, red-orange hair a great match to the bright orange paint of the tractor. He had an eager smile on his face, and I could tell he was enjoying himself. With wheels as high as my head, he had no trouble getting around.
“You going up to Lama?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. “At least, that’s what I was thinking. I thought I might make it to the s-curves, but I think I have to walk from here.”
“It’s going to be terrible,” he said. “The drifts are really high. There’s no way Pema can walk through it.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’ll have to carry her most of the way.”
He looked at me a little incredulously as he put the tractor back in gear. But he kept smiling. Slowly, his massive black wheels turned toward the man and the truck in the muddy ditch. The two of them would figure it out. Besides, there wasn’t much I could do, and I had a long journey ahead.
Two hours later, Pema and I walked up the steps to the porch at Lama. They had been shoveled once, but the slumping snow from the roof had poured down on them recently, forcing me to step carefully over the mangled clumps. I lifted Pema off my shoulders and set her down in the sweeping motion I’ve grown accustomed to. Megan, catching us through the kitchen window, came out to greet us. “You made it!” she cried joyfully, looking first at Pema, then me.
“Yeah,” I answered, visibly fatigued.
“Oh, look at you,” Megan said, laughing and smiling at the same time, with that patronizing sort of sympathy that I’ve come to appreciate when, truth be told, I’m exhausted.
She ushered us inside, where an array of foods were prepared and hot water was in the kettle. “You know, I’m really grateful,” Megan said, after Pema and I had eaten a hefty lunch.
“Yeah,” I said. “But, you know, I didn’t have to come. I could have just stayed home, or I could have turned around at any point. I can’t really pretend like I did this for you. I guess I’m just…you know me. I can’t stop.”
“Oh,” Megan said, skillfully cheering me up, “You’re just the best Dada in the whole world.”
On the way down the mountain, rejuvenated by the hot food and the warmth of being together as a family, I thought about the day before. It had been warm and sunny. Most of the kids were in t-shirts, and the water, splashing on their arms and legs as they swatted the water bugs, had felt cool and comfortable. Silke, passing by at one point, had asked me, “Have you said anything to them?” She had heard their cries - “Kill him! Get them!” - just as I had.
“Yeah,” I answered her, “But it didn’t really go anywhere. I wasn’t able to really get through. I don’t know. Sometimes…” and I trailed off.
I expected Silke to step in and say, with her unique sort of mastery, something exquisite, something that guided them to a blossoming understanding of life, the life they threatened with each forceful blow. Instead, she just nodded knowingly.