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.
“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.