Kindness and Ghosts

Walking my son, Wyatt, through the park to a concert he was about to play, I whipped pancakes at squirrels until one squirrel with half a tail figured out they were food. We watched it struggle to carry a pancake over to its tree, grabbing it in his teeth, then gripping it with his paws. He tripped and fell a couple times, turning the pancake around and around as if it might become more manageable if he held it at a different angle. Squirrels are geniuses, in my opinion, but evolution hasn’t fully prepared them for the pancake, I guess.

“I’ve seen ‘em wrangle slices of pizza…” I said, feeling kinda bad.

“Slices of pizza are triangles,” Wyatt pointed out. He was hopped up on pre-show jitters, as was I, because I’m his mother. We’re fairly silent people, me and Wyatt, so on a not hopped up evening, this walk would probably have been in silence. Even nervous, though, our conversation was very quiet and slow; the squirrel barely noticed us as it worked, flipping its half-tail from side to side in frustration. Nimbly, it folded the pancake in half, then attempted to push it up the tree. I was impressed. “Brilliant!” I breathed.

Wyatt nodded. “I’ve been thinking about kindness and ghosts,” he said. Note: this is a very Wyatt thing to say. He was born without the segue gene.

“Yeah?”

“And the ghosts of kindnesses.” He paused in thought. “I know kindness is important, but what is it?”

“Uh…we may not have that figured out yet.” I studied his beautiful face in the dimming light of Audubon Park. “Take missionaries, for example.”

“Sort of what I meant. People live with a lot of those ghosts. How do we keep our kindness from being bossy?” He was looking for life advice and I’m his mother, so…deep breath…been on Earth longer than him, must have something to say.

The squirrel tripped and fell on top of his pancake and we both winced. “Small, quiet kindness is generally not too damaging,” I told him. “And still real important. As long as you aren’t telling someone to be like you or think like you, right?” He nodded. “We’re all stuck here on Earth, which can be pretty hard. So we work on ourselves to make sure we’re not hard on each other. And then we take action.”

Wyatt stepped gingerly toward the squirrel. It looked up in interest and fear, eventually abandoning the pancake for the safety of its tree. Wyatt then tore the offending pancake into bite-sized pieces, which he balanced carefully on the lowest branch of the tree. The squirrel watched his small, quiet kindness, clearly baffled.

Before we crossed the street to the theater where Wyatt would play his concert, we looked back and saw the squirrel methodically gathering its mini-pancakes and scooting up the tree with them. “So we work on ourselves…but not for ourselves?” he asked. “For each other…?”

“Is that what I said?” Wow, that’s good — remember it for the other kids. “Sounds better when you say it.”

“If that’s the case, we have a lot of good ghosts to learn from.”

“‘From which to learn,’” I corrected, checking for traffic. I’ll never, ever let a child of mine cross the street alone, no matter how old they get. My arm always shoots out and knocks the wind out of them. “We have to look in the right places and listen to the right stories for inspiration.”

By the time we crossed the street to the Neutral Ground, where streetcars passed us on either side, the sun had almost set. The streetcars were glowing and full of people — some laughing, some talking, some just staring at New Orleans going by — a little, mobile cross-section of humanity. Then Wyatt held the theater door open for me. When do boys start holding doors for their mothers? 

When Wyatt met up with his fellow musicians, they greeted him warmly and absorbed him into their midst, which was my cue to disappear, just like summer camp and swimming lessons. Before I could go, though, I noticed Wyatt’s face calling me over to him in that Wyatt way, when he just sort of…vibes you to him…for another segue-less journey into Wyattland. “Yeah?” I asked him.

“Earth’s not so bad,” he said.

“No,” I smiled. “No, it isn’t.”

That night, I sat in the theater, trying in vain to absorb all the frantic and peaceful goodness that happens when people work and then take action. So many gifts here, it’s almost overwhelming. I mean, as overwhelming as all the tears and trauma, at least. Good, ol’ Earth. It’s not so bad.

I stopped trying, closed my eyes, and let it spill over me.

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23 Responses to Kindness and Ghosts

  1. Saffron says:

    You can write. And parent x

  2. Crane Anderson says:

    What a saint/sage dear Wyatt is! I am privileged to have him and you and the half-tailed squirrel in my life.
    Love,
    M

  3. vicster says:

    This has left me feeling breathless and happy, all at the same time! <3

  4. Meredith Rust says:

    Completely cinematic imagery. I watched this as I read it. Thank you for taking me on your walk. I must remember gentle kindness. The most important thing.

  5. Laura says:

    The connection between mom and kid can be huge, and sometimes they turn out to be these old souls we really oughtta recognize for our own good, as well as theirs. This is a great, thought-provoking essay, gotta say.

  6. Justin Beach says:

    The squirrels here don’t tend to hide much in trees. They hide food on the ground, in piles of leaves or buried in the dirt, or carefully stashed in other places. This year, around Christmas, we had an ice storm and the winter since then has been pretty cold. So I’ve been feeding our squirrels because most of their carefully hidden stashes are buried under a layer of ice. I’ve fed them all kinds of things that would normally have gone in the compost and no matter what it is, they seem to manage ok. (Though I haven’t tried them on pancakes yet.)

    At any rate, your kids sound pretty amazing based on this and the regular updates to your Twitter/Facebook feed. You’ve done your job well. I’m looking forward to seeing what they decide to do in the world.

  7. Justin Beach says:

    To extend my already too long “comment” – I always tell first time parents that raising children is the ultimate art form. You’re given a lump of DNA and biology and over many years you add hundreds of tiny brush strokes a day and then, long before you think it’s finished, what you’ve created walks out the door and begins to self modify in ways you never expected.

  8. Sharonn says:

    What a beautiful story to share!

  9. scott says:

    this gave me goosebumps. thank you.

  10. Michael Grabowski says:

    This erstwhile English teacher says correcting grammar is the ultimate in unkind bossiness & telling someone how to think. Even if a prepositions is a bad thing to end a sentence with. I still do it, though, even in the math classes I teach now.

  11. dunderhead says:

    this made me cry

  12. Pete Whiteman says:

    I love the line ” we work on ourself for others, not for ourself” words to live by.

  13. Kate says:

    wonders, have u seen this girl elisa lam, I thought it would make a great movie or concept album
    im bi polar myself, im not making fun of anyone here….just seems even in death no one loves her enough to admit the truth, and make up all these stories to explain lack of love in her life….

  14. Tim says:

    “We work on ourselves but not for ourselves, for each other!”
    You teach your children well and you live in the moment, absorbed, and ever changing the moment as well. You’re an inspiration on this good earth! Thanks

  15. Andy says:

    Wow that was beautiful, sounds like hes already grown up to be really intelligent and self aware, and your writing was sublime, Kristin, you have a natural gift at stringing words together, whether its a story or a song, you cannot go wrong. (that rhymed, totally unintentional, i swear :P)

  16. Sophia B says:

    This is one of my favorites! It is absolutely wonderful!

  17. Mark says:

    Last Friday on Radio National (Australia), I heard you sing, listened to you speak, heard your laugh,and your honesty. Now I have read your words….
    Your adversities, it seems, are now our gifts.
    Enjoy Australia Kristen, with our love.

  18. M Kelter says:

    “Squirrels are geniuses, in my opinion, but evolution hasn’t fully prepared them for the pancake, I guess.”

    Okay. My favorite sentence in a very long time. You, your mind: pure awesomeness.

  19. Steven says:

    Lovely! But (I’m sorry, I can’t help it — I’m a copy editor): a little tweak:

    He was looking for life advice, and I’m his mother, so…deep breath…been on Earth longer than *he*; I must have something to say.
    (If you wrote out what is unspoken, you would say: I have have been on Earth longer than he has been on Earth.)

    Listening to “Krait.”

  20. Jason says:

    Had a nice mental image of that going too. Tend to go in a little hard and fast on advice, old occupational hazard. can be a deflection from self, noted ;) Wyatt is a boy-genius

  21. david says:

    in the silent kindness of unconditional knowing is earth’s music embrace

  22. Laine says:

    “I know kindness is important, but what is it?”

    Some see another’s gain as their personal loss, while others edify. Generosity of spirit supersedes mere molecules, thriving on justice and recognizing love. Kindness is love personified. Love is energy held captive by our flesh for a short span. Love, a peculiar principle, coerces the bar higher than we mere mortals can strive to attain. We are individuals, though, really, a soup, an atom soup, tethered by energy that will not die. When this energy flits away, we fall to dust. Our words impact one another. They escape our lips. Words are powerful, sentences, worn on our necks, are visible. Love carries no weight, it lifts any burden. The strong lift those who are less strong. Gifts are received and then passed without loss. The soup is enhanced by kindness. There is no loss. Kindness proves this.

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