Sandbox paradox

The careful observer will note: that’s no shovel, that’s a mirror. Atsa my monkey!

The other day my sister’s son and I joined my daughter out in her office, a place known to others simply as the backyard sandbox. She received us with barely a nod, so engaged was she in her work filling and emptying her bucket. And then filling it again. I like to think this sort of engagement helps prepare her for productive work in other offices in the future.

My nephew and I found ourselves some space and set to a game he often played with his brother and his mom. In it, the one party buries an object — any object — in the sand whilst the other party covers her/his eyes. Then when all’s ready, the burier sits back and watches the other party dig around and try to find the hidden treasure. It is the burying party’s option to provide the digging party a hint, as needed.

We went through several rounds, in which my nephew tipped me off as to the general quadrant in which I might find the object. In rapid succession, pretty much on the second or third shovelful of sand, I exhumed first a truck, then a car, then a motorcycle. Finally my nephew got tough and buried a small plastic figurine and described an exceedingly wide swath of territory in which it might be found.

He watched as I dug, and dug, and dug, and dug. Then he confessed: “I don’t know what’s worse. Watching you dig and not find it, or watching you find it too quickly.”

“Ah, my dear boy,” I said to him as I continued to fruitlessly paw away at the sand, “you touch on the most central organizing concept of life, the paradox.” A quiet moment ensued. “Do you know what a paradox is?”

He shook his head “Nope,” but his eyes did not glaze over. He’s an exceedingly wise nine year-old, after all, and the prospect of an abstract conversation with his garrulous auntie daunted him not a jot. Bear in mind, though, that for the past two years — two years exactly, this past weekend — he has been grappling with about the hardest dilemma any nine-year old can grapple with: the death of his older brother. More than most kids his age, he is aware that making sense of complicated abstract dilemmas is food. It is not optional.

Not that there is any sense to be made of his brother’s death, of course. It is an event far, far outside sense. But some kind of route across the ocean of grief needs to be plotted, even if only on General Principle. Even on journeys one has no expectation of completing — or perhaps especially on such journeys — one needs a map, and the stars, and a keen sense of how to make use of the tiniest of breezes. My nephew is Odysseus, exhausted from the Trojan war, and Ithaca is a long, long ways off.

He picked up a twig and began to absently draw swirls in the surface of the sand.

“Do you know what a concept is?” I ask.

Again he shakes his head.

“It’s like an idea. Do you know what an idea is?”

Ah, yes, a nod.

“So a concept is a kind of an idea. It’s something that tries to explain how things work, but it’s not so much about how things work physically, like gravity. It tries to explain how events work. How life is.”

He’s still with me. Maybe a little distracted by the fact that I’ve slowed down the work on the little Olduvai Gorge I’ve created in the sandbox. But he’s a gracious person, and doesn’t say anything.

“A paradox is when two things that contradict each other exist side by side. The one thing should make the other thing not exist, or not be true anymore, but it doesn’t. It just sits there. They both sit there. So like your wanting me to find the figurine, on the one hand, yet not wanting me to: that’s a paradox. The both things are equally true. Or a rollercoaster ride, which can be scary and fun at the same time.”

He nods, rollercoaster connoisseur that he is.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I am relentless in my commitment to speak our collective grief about his brother. Even about grieving generally. He simply can’t feel isolated by its dominating presence in his young life. So quite naturally I hop directly to the other obvious paradoxes lapping up at the edge of the sandbox.

“Another paradox is how much joy I feel that your baby cousin was just born, and yet at the same time how much sadness I feel now that Maxie died. Or when she was born,” and I gesture to the lil’ monkey, who may or may not have just unearthed a kitty poo. A Baba has got to keep her priorities straight, so I tell myself it’s a piece of tanbark and return to the tutorial. “I was so happy, and yet just six weeks later Kay died, so I was terribly sad, too. I feel those things both at the same time. I’m happy you and your mom are visiting; having you near makes me happy. And yet at the same time I still feel so so sad that your brother isn’t here with us too.”

I think of, but keep to myself the paradox I see in his mother’s face as she holds her infant nephew. The first boy child in the family after her son’s death. The lil’ peanut smiles up at his auntie, and his love darts fly directly into her soft center, both salt and salve to the wound there. Elation and sorrow live in the exact same place.

My nephew looks up from his designs in the sand. “But sometimes you can feel the good feelings, and the bad ones go away. Don’t you think?” Bless his optimism. Bless the impulse in him that seeks it out.

And I am confronted with a conundrum: agree, and underscore the cheery part of the message, or tell him what I believe to be true, particularly now. Which is that whatever it is you’re feeling, elation or sorrow, It too shall pass. Again and again and again. Sadness will pass, and be replaced by joy, and be replaced by sadness, and be replaced by joy. He’s Odysseus a long way from home, and he needs a map that’s true.

Into my head pops the last lines of The Cat in the Hat, which I’ve just re-read to the lil’ monkey the night before. After the day of debauchery, and just before the mother returns, the little kid narrator challenges the reader to examine her own honesty. So:

Should I tell him about it?
Now, what Should I do?
What would YOU do
If your nephew asked YOU?

10 thoughts on “Sandbox paradox”

  1. Dude, you should know there are three cats in the households that share access to the sandbox, and even more felines in the neighborhood. Not that this should scare you off a perfectly workable strategy.

  2. I am typing this with tears in my eyes.You are right. The children in our lives do deserve a map that is true. This piece reminds me to be more mindful when I answer the questions that will provide guidance. One of the amazing things about children is that they are almost always capable of handling the truth.

    My stepfather died last 4th of July…the same day my son celebrated his 5th birthday. Our initial reaction was to tell Miguel that his papa died on July 5th to protect him from the pain. In reality, we wanted to protect ourselves from his pain. We told him the truth. He cried, he felt horrible and he accepted it. I think we are all better for it.

  3. “One of the amazing things about children is that they are almost always capable of handling the truth.” Yep. I have to agree with you. And when you say “In reality, we wanted to protect ourselves from his pain,” you touch on the crux of Adrienne Rich’s legendary essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes On Lying.” (Anyone who hasn’t read it ought to before nightfall, or the end of next week at the latest. It’s reprinted in On Lies, Secrets and Silence and Arts of the Possible.)

    I tend to think a gentle honesty puts more wind in their sails for the long haul. Even if it might feel, in the moment, like it knocks the wind out.

  4. LD, I know that you know the three essential nutrients of childhood are love, physical safety and truth. I know because I see your commitment to them for your kids and their cousins and their friends and on… I know because I see your flashes of anger or action when one of those nutrients is compromised for a kid in your presence.

    A lot of times a lot of us spend a lot of energy (and that’s a lot of lots) worrying and fretting about our kids schools, their friends, their clothes, their toys. In the end these things we fret about seem to have little lasting effect, as hard as that is to believe in the moment.

    I have the good fortune of knowing a lot of people who are happy and successful in life, and I know a few who are lastingly unhappy and don’t consider themselves successful. Through all my conversations with all kind of people I have never found a correlation between success and ‘good schools’ or happiness and no TV as a kid. And yet every time I’ve come to know someone who has struggled since childhood with their demons, I find an experience where they weren’t physically safe, didn’t know parental love or were lied to.

    I care about the schools my kids go to and I don’t let them watch TV (well… not much). As I do this, I try not to fool myself that these are the critical pieces of parenthood. I can’t imagine not letting them know how much they are loved any chance I get or ever letting them be physically threatened, those both come naturally to me. The hard part, and the part that I hope will give them the most lasting benefit is always telling them the truth. Some times the truth is “I’m not ready to tell you about that yet” but it’s the truth. I know that they’ll know if I don’t, and they’ll pay. I thank you for shining a light and leading the way.

  5. LD, soon I will become a parent (some time in the next six weeks, unbelieveable, really). I read your posts and look forward to each new posting. You are so eloquent, so insightful, so full of strength and love. I hope I will have the strength, I hope I will find the words, to give my little one such honesty in his life. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words and heart.

  6. I knew there must be a reason you are the Know It All Brother In Law and it’s pretty clear after this comment.

    “…every time I’ve come to know someone who has struggled since childhood with their demons, I find an experience where they weren’t physically safe, didn’t know parental love or were lied to.” I don’t think I have ever read such a brief, yet complete, explanation of life’s scars. As I reflect on my own struggles…well…let’s just say you saved me a load of therapy with your insight. Thank you…

  7. We have a friend who is about to leave this world and her two young children. It’ll be any day now. We were there yesterday to help in whatever way we could. Heart-wrenching. There’s really pretty much nothing positive I can say about the whole business. Nothing positive. There were a lot of incredibly sad juxtapositions that I suppose you could call paradoxes: tricycles next to oxygen tanks, the number for hospice tacked next to a flyer for Studio Grow. I know you and your family are all too familiar with this growth-and-life-in-the-midst-of-death business. Oh, boy, it’s sad. I suppose just plain death in the midst of death is sadder, but thankfully I’m not as familiar with that.

    The City happened to plant a street tree on our parking strip on the day A’s cousin died 5 and 1/2 years ago. We named the tree after her. I’ve been thinking of planting a tree in our backyard this spring and I expect it might end up happening right around when our friend dies. This will ensure the juxtaposition continues for a long time to come. As I guess it always will.

    Oh, sigh.

  8. I would tell the truth (and saying this I realize I’ve not been completely truthful to my own these past few months – tyring to sheild both them and their ill grandmother from pain – and not really succeeding.)
    I would tell the truth for two reasons:
    The first was so eloquently put by the KIABIL I have not a word to add.
    And the second is that in this specific case, I think that in the long term the truth of “this too shall pass” is one that provides much more comfort than pain. Even if you reassured him that the good feelings make the bad ones go away – what would happen when, in two days or three months or that very evening – the bad feelings came again? Would he feel guilty, or weak, or wrong because he couldn’t make the bad feelings disappear? Telling him about the constancy of change will, I think, make him feel less resposible for the bad, and ultimately more able to embrace the good (and deal with all those times and feelings which are both bad and good.)
    The truth that this too shall pass is ultimately what makes life not only liveable, but joyful. And that it something it is never too early too teach – in one form or another.

  9. This is a stunning piece of writing. Just stunning.

    Some truths are harder to tell than others. My great nephew was abandoned as an infant by his mother and raised by his paternal grandparents, my brother and his wife and his father. We lied. We lied like dogs. As far as I know, we are still lying. Great nephew is in his teens now, happy and well-adjusted. He has a relationship with his mother of sorts and his maternal grandparents. I honestly don’t know what I would say to him if he asked me about this now. I’m just not sure there is an age that is appropriate to tell someone, “Your mother locked you in a closet and walked away.” without inflicting damage.

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