The Sand Pile

Pema, Francis, his mother and I were sitting in the shade of a big cottonwood tree in a pile of wet sand. The sun, now well above the mountains, was crisp and bright, and as I leveled the sand in front of me I could feel the damp, cool grit between my fingers. It had rained last night. Pema had excavated a hole nearby and was busy filling it with grass. Francis, who had been complaining to his mother about the lack of shovels, finally took notice of Pema’s progress and promptly set his fingers in the sand at her side.


“No, stop…” Pema whined, drawing the “o” out in each syllable. She looked up at me with pleading eyes, while Francis, who had now found his passion, began tearing into the side of the hole with relish. Receiving no immediate response from me, Pema turned to Francis, placed her hand firmly in front of his, and said, this time more forcefully, “No, Francis. Stop.” With the edge of her palm, she drew a perpendicular line in the sand. Francis, who had stopped momentarily to listen, looked up with a dull, determined face.


The four of us had been traveling the circuit of New Buffalo since early that morning, the kitchen, the garden, the chickens, the mud pit. Along the way, I had stashed two eight-foot posts, a large sign and some tools in the rear of a borrowed car. With the backseat down, the posts, stretching from the trunk to the front seat, left just enough room for two car seats, a driver and a few snacks. Ada was due any moment, and as soon as she arrived I planned to whisk her and Pema off to Lama, where I hoped to install the sign, or at least set the posts, while the girls played nearby. Francis would stay home with his mother.


But Ada wasn’t here yet. In fact, she was late, and I was growing more and more anxious. “How’s the waiting?” Francis’s mother had chided me moments ago after a trip to the kitchen. I had been sitting on my haunches by the compost, peering down the long, gravel driveway, expectant like a gargoyle. Pema and Francis, playing happily in the rotten food nearby, had discovered two dead, swollen worms in a puddle that had formed in a crease of the tarp that covered the compost. “Ugh, gross,” Pema said, poking at them with a stick. Francis, eager to commiserate, shouted, “I hate worms!” His mother sidled up to us and laughed, relaxation in her every movement. I hated that. “Is it like razor blades in your flesh?” she asked, poking fun at my impatience. Ugh, friends. My internal clock is rarely off by more than two minutes, and, if I guessed right, which I was trying not to do, it was almost ten o’clock. I had planned to leave at nine.


Now, as we sat in the sand, a modest journey from the compost, I was starting to wonder if something had gone wrong. “I should check my phone,” I said, my nervousness spilling into twitchy, erratic movements, which I was attempting to contain by putting my hands to the damp earth. I wasn’t so much concerned about Ada and her father. I had already blamed them for setting me back an hour, ruining my day, possibly my week. Now I was busy scurrying about in my mind for a resolution, trying to figure out a way to make up that hour by the evening. I hate changing plans.


“Francis won’t stop digging in my hole,” Pema said, now with a hint of exasperation, that old familiar tone. She looked up at me with the same pleading eyes, but I could see she was now on the verge of tears. She was still composed, just barely, but I could feel the change in her muscle tone, the floppy recklessness that is a telltale sign of floundering. I looked at her, observant but uncertain.


Two years older than Francis, Pema has every possible advantage over him, but she’s not assertive. Francis, on the other hand, has no hesitation to assert his will. This has raised a persistent conflict, because Francis, who straddles the border between toddler and small child, is still mostly governed by the early developmental sense that everything - his mom, Pema, the sand, the hole - is his. After meandering uncertainly around the sand pile for a minute or two, he now had his eyes set on Pema’s space, which, after all, she had arranged so pleasantly. It was beautiful, and, as humans are wont to do, he set about taking the beautiful thing for himself. We all pick flowers.


But even more than this, Pema is the queen of Francis’s youthful heart. “Can I be here?” he asks constantly, looking to Pema for approval. “No…” Pema will whine, softly pushing her foot or wrist toward him, grasping for some kind of boundary. “How about here?” he asks, having moved back in some incremental way. He simply wants to be near her, to emulate her, to touch her, to hold whatever she does, to laugh at her jokes and disdain what she hates. Ugh, those worms. But rarely does he discern the effect all this has on her. Whether the two are playing joyfully, Pema is wilting, or, as the case may be, they are facing down a standoff, Francis is by and large enjoying himself.


The result is commonplace - Francis expresses his love with violence, while Pema, feeling invaded, falls apart. Parents with siblings see this all the time. These two, single children growing up in community, are much the same. Most of the time, to be fair, it’s harmonious, but we cross this bridge several times in the course of a day. And, children being the capable animals they are, they draw upon every possible resource at their disposal, including me and the other adults.


“No!” Francis shouted, with that gravelly, throaty quality by which he meant to establish his gravity of purpose. He reached decisively over Pema’s hand and, fingers dragging through the earth, drew back a large clump of sand. Excellent move, I thought. This was precisely what I was trying to teach Pema. “Look, you can’t hit,” I had told her several times in the last week, “But you can speak clearly. No Francis!” I had shouted, sticking my finger out to demonstrate firmness, “Whining isn’t effective.”


To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether hitting was okay or not. Overwhelming someone with outsized force is, surely, regrettable behavior. But I often wonder whether our culture forgets the value of forceful touch. Animals communicate with their bodies. It’s how dogs learn, how chickens establish pecking order. As adults, we rarely encounter situations where we need to speak with the force of our limbs. Our voices carry enough potency. But children, who need to develop and progress through the full range of emotion and communication, live in a much more physical world. It had confounded me that Pema, almost twice the size of Francis, with a compliment of words and social devices to match, would not resort to her evident advantage. How could she be so often overpowered by a toddler? Francis, of course, is dear to me almost as my own child. I wasn’t looking for Pema’s advantage over his loss, but I was curious to see the two establishing some sort of fair play. In other words, I wanted them to work it out for themselves.


“No!” Pema shouted back, surprising me a bit with her vehemence. She looked at me again, but I gave no sign of interference, nor approval. I was waiting. She slapped her hand uncertainly across Francis’s, grasped a modest amount of sand and pulled back. Francis’s mother, who was only a couple steps away, sat still. Social encounters are complex, and while she and I have a tremendous amount of trust and admiration for each other, inevitably we have different thoughts and strategies at any given moment. I was curious how this would play out. I think we all were.


“No!” shouted Francis, who set his hands down in the sand, roughly halfway between the two, looking up with determination. How blissful to be so focused, I thought, so clearly purposeful. Then Pema began to waver. Her face pealed back into a hiccup and cry, searching me out. Her limbs were becoming rubbery. She wanted her space, but she hesitated at Francis’s determination and she was waiting for me to step in. But I didn’t.


Then Pema, to my surprise, set her eyes with full-blooded anger at Francis and, piercing our ears, shouted, “Nooooo!” with the kind of high-pitched squeal and force that leaves no uncertainty. I’ve been there before. She was digging in. But before Pema had even completed her breath, Francis took up the same cry and, I could see, his hand was rummaging on the ground for a handful of sand. Things were escalating. This was war. I sat, not two feet away, transfixed.


I have stepped between many conflicts between these two, and many other children as well. There are times, surely, when it must happen, but I often wonder whether my interventions are best. There is a certain violence I impose with my big limbs and rational language. Even the power of soothing words is a sort of imposition. I have held children against their will. I have rescued those in distress. Salvation, resolution itself, is a sort of violence, where the adult’s agenda takes over. The crux of it isn’t the perfection of my arbitration. The crux is that I want the kids to develop their own strength, not rely on mine. I want them to have the opportunity to learn from their experiences, their strengths, their weaknesses, and, yes, their mistakes. I want them to have the opportunity to be assholes, without me swaggering in with all the tools of a modern ape.


Francis pulled his hand, now full of sand, into the air. Everyone, including Pema, could see that he was about to throw it. Then he hesitated. His mother and I watched. For half a second, no one moved. It’s easier, in some sense, to watch your child try to stick up for himself than it is to watch him take advantage of another child without interfering. “Francis, I think you will regret that,” I said, calmly, but without moving. The moment for bluffing over, he threw the sand at Pema’s face. Bullseye. You can’t really miss with sand.


I fully expected Pema to dissolve into crying at this point and to come rushing to my arms. Francis throws things at her all the time. It doesn’t really hurt, but it does invade her space. Instead, Pema, reaching down, grabbed a handful of sand and threw it directly back in Francis’s face. Score! Francis blinked, a little surprised, and immediately retaliated, while Pema, egged on by the flood of emotions, flung two, three handfuls of sand in Francis’s face. It was great.


Ten minutes later, we were on the road. I had failed to check my messages all that morning, only to find out that, when I did, Ada’s mother had sent me an email at eight o’clock. Due to a recent bout of illness, Ada wouldn’t be joining us. I was waiting for nothing.


“So, Pema,” I said, halfway up the mountain to Lama, “How are you feeling about throwing sand and all that with Francis?”


“Fine,” she answered. She was calm and spoke plainly.


“Do you want to talk about it, or say anything?” I asked.




“Well,” I answered, “can I say something?”




“Well, pup,” I said, “First of all, I don’t think throwing sand is a good idea. It’s never really nice to throw things or hit people.” I paused.


“I know,” she answered, matter-of-factly.


“But, you know what? I was glad to see you stick up for yourself. Francis really loves you.”


“I know,” she answered, just as plainly.


“He just wants to be near you, and share things with you.”


“I know.”


“Problem is, he just doesn’t know how to stop himself. He’s too young.”


“I know.”


“Yeah,” I said, the dust kicking up around us as we traveled the dirt road.


“Pema?” I asked.




“Love you,” I said. “I don’t know…that’s all.”


“Yeah, me too.”


I got home later that evening, spying Francis and his mother next to compost pile. Pema and I had had a full afternoon, digging holes and setting the signposts, wandering the trail between the lower parking lot and the workshop with a wheelbarrow full of tools and, at one point, a two-hundred pound slop of cement. Afterward, I had dropped her off with her mother.


“Where’s Pema?” Francis asked, eyes wide with excitement, as I walked over to say hi. This is his usual greeting.


“She’s up at Lama with her mom,” I answered.


“She’s with her mom?” he asked.




Francis’s mother smiled. “Did you get the sign up?” she asked.


“I put up the posts, but I decided to let the concrete set before attaching the sign.”


“That’s probably a good idea.” She said.




“Where’s Pema?” asked Francis, who often repeats this line of questioning two or three times.


“She’s up at Lama with her mom,” I answered.


“Yeah,” he said, knowingly, then added, “I hate worms.”