–Sweetness: that which induces a slow rolling of the tongue, a gentle closing of the eyes,
and an escape from the lips of a sensuous, sighing, “ahh.”–
Two young girls rode their bicycles down Church Road coming from the direction of Rabbit Lane. Working in the yard, I looked up just as one bicycle, ridden by the younger girl, slid on a gravelly patch, and she fell face forward onto the asphalt. I ran toward the crying girl, about six years old, with my concerned children following close behind. Blood oozed from abrasions on the girl’s knee and elbow and cheek, and a tooth was broken.
I spoke to her gently, scooped her up, and carried her to the house. She continued to sob as I set her down in the bathroom to clean her wounds.
“We weren’t supposed to be this far from home, but she insisted, and I couldn’t let her go alone,” her older sister offered, an unsolicited rationalization.
The little girl began to cry louder. I tried to soothe her as I dabbed at the painful scrapes with a clean wet cloth.
“My daddy’s . . . gonna . . . kill me,” her choked words escaped through her sobs. “I wasn’t supposed . . . to be riding here.”
Renewed sobs. I smoothed anti-bacterial cream and applied bandages.
“It’s okay. Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure her. “I’ll talk to your dad.”
Her crying slowed.
With the girl calmed and her injuries mended to the best of my meager ability, I carried her to my truck and set her in the passenger seat. The bicycles we put in the truck bed. Her sister and Brian (11) hopped into the back seat. I drove the girls to their home, a drab little cinderblock box rented from a Salt Lake lawyer-turned-landlord. Holding the little girl’s hand, we walked slowly to the front door. I knocked, and the father opened the door. His face filled with anger immediately upon seeing his daughter, bandaged, by my side.
“She took a nasty fall,” I offered, “not far from here. I bandaged her up as best I could.”
The girl’s crying started up again as her father grabbed her arm and pulled her into the house. Her sister quickly followed, quietly and with eyes focused on the floor.
“She’s really worried,” I continued in a firmer tone. “She’s worried about you being angry with her. I hope you won’t be too harsh with her. She wasn’t doing anything wrong. She just fell. She’s hurt and she’s frightened.”
I didn’t know if what I had said would make the situation worse for the girl, or better. But I knew I had to say something, and said what I thought best, without challenging or accusing him. He glared at me for a long moment, then nodded slightly and shut the door. I hoped I had seen in his eyes a hint of softening as he closed the door of the dismal little house and closed me out of the little girl’s life. I hoped he would not be mean or angry. I hoped he would not punish the child for riding her bicycle, or for falling. She deserved better. I hoped.
Seeing that father’s anger reminded me accusingly of the many times I have become angry with my own children. How easily I can become angry when they call endlessly for my attention, when they leave my tools on the workbench or spill the nails, when they break the eggs in the chicken coop, when they are slow to go to bed, when they dent the walls, lose the ping-pong balls, pee on the floor, break a dish, or spill their milk. I hope I do not punish my children for being children. They deserve better. I hope I can learn to be more kind and patient, more gentle and loving, more appreciative of the beauty a child brings to the world. I hope.
* * *
Laura (5) came limping into the kitchen, complaining that her foot hurt and that she couldn’t walk. I asked her what had happened, and where it hurt. Just then her mother called to her from upstairs. I watched with surprise as she bolted from the kitchen with an enthusiastic “Yes, Mamma?” I heard her bounding up the stairs, and followed curiously. At the entrance to my bedroom at the top of the stairs, Laura suddenly resumed her limp and complained to her mamma, “I hurt my foot. I can’t walk. Can you hold me and carry me?”
Years later, Caleb (4) came to me in obvious distress.
“I hurt myself,” he whimpered, tears gushing freely.
“Where does it hurt,” I sighed, and he pointed to his arm. “Come here and let me see,” I offered.
He came to me, and I gently felt and moved his arm. He didn’t complain of any pain.
“Is it feeling better now?” I asked.
He stopped crying and nodded, venturing a timid smile.
“Yes Daddy. Thanks.”
We hugged, and he ran back out to play, his pain forgotten and a smile on his face.
Very slowly it has dawned upon me that children complaining of small hurts may not be hurt at all, not on the outside, at least. But something inside hurts, or is lonely or scared, and wants to be comforted. Very slowly I am learning to not react to the injury, to not judge the injurer, but just to accept the child’s expression of pain. This alone is often sufficient comfort, but how much better when followed with a smile and a hug.
Adults suffer the same hurts. Many of these injuries we have carried, unassuaged, since childhood. Other injuries are new, and remain fresh. We ask for comfort with tears. We ask for reassurance with expressions of disappointment. We reach out to touch, hoping that we will be touched in return. We ache inside and want healing. I think that most of us don’t know where to find comfort, don’t know how to find healing. We carry an increasingly heavy burden of hurts inside of us. How fortunate the man or woman, how blessed the child, that has people in their life that know how to give comfort and offer love. Now turn this around. How fortunate and blessed the man or woman that offers comfort and love and healing. Advice is frequently hollow. A listening ear is often best. A smile and a hug are often enough.
A simple smile is unlikely to earn one’s fortune or to garnish power. But the virtues of kindness and tenderness, quietly expressed in a smile, will yield hope in the heart, create energy in the mind, and spark passion in the soul, transforming first individuals and families, then communities, institutions, and nations. A sincere smile can turn a hundred frowns and lift the human spirit.
At church one Sunday morning, John (4) balked at going to his primary class. When he got to the door, he turned toward me, puckered up, and burst into tears. His resistance and fears annoyed me, and I showed my angry reaction.
“I just want to be with my family!” he explained plaintively.
His sweet expression of love instantly softened my heart. I knelt next to him and hugged him, talking softly with him. We decided together that it would be alright for him to go to Laura’s (8) class. She held his little hand in hers as they walked into her class together, his heart comforted.
* * *
I leave the house one morning to find the world covered in fresh powdery snow, six inches deep, brought in during the night by a north wind blowing over the Great Salt Lake—“lake effect,” people call it. Only a few cars had braved the unploughed roads. My boots cast up puffs of powder with each step. Though the snow is light and airy, each step requires an additional effort, and my pace begins to lag. Despite my growing fatigue, I stay in the untrodden snow, refusing to follow the ruts established by other travelers. Cows and horses huddle in the poor lee of leafless trees, flanked with white snow and facing away from the cold wind.
Dropping my adult resistance, I yield to a growing urge to plop myself down in the powder to make a snow angel, waving my arms and legs to form the angel’s wings and robe. Lying in the middle of the road, I feel my muscles begin to relax, and the tension from my trudging begin to fade. I know no cars will come from either direction for at least the minute or two that I recline in the snow. As I gaze up into the thin gray snow clouds, a partly-obscured passenger jet flies high over me, heading south. Closer to earth, a Downey Woodpecker flaps northward over me and swoops up into a bare Elm tree growing in the ditch bank. I hope he can find a few life-giving grubs hibernating under layers of sloughing bark.
Turning toward home, I hear what sounds like the anxious ticking of a too-fast clock. In the frozen alfalfa field, the 42-foot-long wheel-line pipes vibrate quickly up and down between six-foot-tall wheels. The air is moving at just the right speed and angle to create a resonance, playing the pipes like violin strings—not with singing, but with the clicking and creaking of frozen aluminum joints as the pipes bounce. I remember the remarkable film footage of the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge swinging and bouncing in resonance with the wind that played it until it crumbled and fell into the river flowing beneath.
Closer to home, I cross the road to walk in the footprints I made on my outward journey. I wonder at the merits of where and how I have walked previously in my life. Have I walked well? Has my direction been true? It can be hard to know the answers to these questions. I think that we have to trust that if we walk the truest path we know, it will suffice.
My walk ends as I step onto the porch and into the laundry room to fill a bucket with hot water. A half-gallon each for the pig and chicken buckets, to melt their frozen drinking water. Carrying the bucket toward the chicken coop, a Red-shafted Northern Flicker calls at me from the volunteer Russian Elm tree, then dives away, showing his rich-orange primaries. I step through the chicken coop door into a swirling vortex of 200 House Finches flying madly and noisily above me in the 8×12 coop. Having taken shelter inside the coop from the cold, where they also pilfer $17-a-bag lay mash, the sparrows form a panicking swarm searching for the way out. The chicken wire that I have stapled against the eave cracks, to keep out unwanted critters, was just the right size to allow the sparrows to leisurely squeeze their way in. But in their hysteria, they can’t think to squeeze back out. As I stand astonished in the open doorway, a few of the braver birds whiz through the inches between the frame and my head, brushing my hair with their wings. I pour the hot, steaming water onto the block of ice in the rubber basin, in the center of the vortex. One by one, the sparrows begin to push through the cracks and holes through which they entered. I pull away a section of chicken wire to ease their escape, strangely pleased that my coop houses a sizable sparrow flock in addition to my small brood of hens. Throughout, the hens sit calmly on their winter roosts, either oblivious or uncaring. Yesterday’s eggs lay frozen solid and cracked in the straw-filled brooding boxes. I put the eggs in the scraps bucket for the pig.