I used to get my feet buried in the sand. When I worked at the preschool, I sat on the railroad tie side of the sandbox and one of the kids would take small hands and scoop sand over my feet. We would inspect rocks and sticks, and talk about where trash goes, or how cars go.
The last two weekends, I had nieces in town. Three of them: a baby and two toddlers. The baby I held through our whole visit to the aquarium. It’s been a long time since I’d held a baby so long. I forgot how soothing it is. Holding a warm, snuggly baby to your chest is like snuggling yourself. I walked slowly through room after room of the place, silver flashing fish, still, theoretically alive starfish waiting to be jabbed by kids’ fingers, tiny seahorses bobbing, sloppy, fat green eels ogling. Probably because I had done a vigorous round of yoga the night before– lots of downward-facing dog– and my arms started to ache. I didn’t mind. She was warm, and her wiggly lips set into a funny twist as she fell asleep, and you know how nice it was to kiss the top of her head and smell her smell.
The following weekend I was with one of the toddlers. I learned a great deal about her, mostly from her. She’s a real verbal type. Her favorite animal is a neigh-neigh. Her favorite color is blue. She would love to talk to Dora the Explorer on the plastic phone we found in the lip gloss aisle at Wal Mart. She would like to show me the spooky tree in the Halloween aisle. The black cat in the Halloween aisle is just like her cat, Sammy. While we visited an amusement park, she wanted to go on a ferris wheel, although she didn’t know what a ferris wheel was.
I recalled how many lies are told to two-year-olds. Our party told the poor child such untruths as: you can’t take flying animals onto airplanes. No, there is no more ice cream. Your neigh-neigh is not allowed on that ride. He needs to stay out with Grandpa and protect him from the bad men.
Sometimes she was a mouse, and she squeaked. Sometimes she was a butterfly, particularly after we bought her some wings at said Wal Mart. After seeing a staged train robbery, she decided the feet sticking out of the ground at that show were the feet of the bad men on the shooting gallery ride. Thus, she wanted to ride that ride over and over, so she could shoot the bad men and kill them.
It was delightful, and would have been exhausting except that adults outnumbered the niece, seven to one. At one point, she had four adults painting her nails, one for each hand, one for each foot. I don’t know how her parents are managing her now that she’s back in her regular life.
My students are close to adulthood– most of them are sixteen. The kind of nurturing I do with them is more likely to be discipline than affection or shared silliness, although there is some of that.
When I visit my grandma, who is old and ill, I feel tenderness for broken people, and my own lostness and weariness, and being with my sweet nieces, I feel tenderness for my naivite– I know I still have some– and my unkillable optimism and playfulness, which leads me to send out more essays, and flirt, even after many discouraging experiences of rejection.
The world is as new to me as it is to my nieces, if I am seeing it clearly. It is a place where anything can happen, where past events do not point to any particular future. Self-definition is still possible, and simple rest and affection are possible.