A few days ago my seven-year-old son Rio and I walked down to the river for our daily summer swimming ritual. We passed a few guys chatting by their cars in the parking lot and made our way to our favorite swimming hole. There, Rio spied a fishing tackle box and asked me whose it was.
“It probably belongs to those guys we just walked by,” I said as I took off my shirt.
Just then Rio spied two men upriver and called out, “Hey guys! Is this your tackle box?”
“Yeah,” one of them yelled back. “Thank you!”
Rio turned his attention toward me. “You said it belonged to those guys in the parking lot. You were wrong.”
“You’re right, bud. I don’t know everything. I’m a human being just like anyone else.”
He eyed me and nodded. “Yeah, you don’t know everything. I mean, you don’t know, for example, very much about . . . bunnies.”
Photo by Anna Blackshaw
The boys from next door always show up at the back door unannounced. Jack and Liam wander over like pieces of driftwood through the patch of bamboo separating their house and ours.
“Is Rio home?” they ask.
If he is and he hears their voices he comes running, abandoning whatever he was doing. In seconds they are outside, riding down the hill all three of them piled onto a tricycle or making a fort over by the weeping cherry tree or, if it’s hot, stripping down and jumping into the tiny inflated pool I have almost hyperventilated blowing up. Once I overheard Jack exclaim, “Let’s destroy something!” And they all whooped and hollered.
The point is, they play — mostly without rules, uniforms, toys, or structure. I watch them from inside and wonder where and how I lost this facility. I’ve sought that sense of play in everything from drugs to the Internet to sex to work. Cheap-ass substitutes.
And then they ask me to play. Their request is the nudge I need to leave the cell I sometimes sit in and surrender to their worlds, my own suddenly larger. I’ll never forget the feeling last winter when Rio and I jumped on a sled and raced with some other kids down the icy hill our street had become. As the cold air whipped across my face, a sudden, loud, and primordial yawp arose from deep inside me that indicated a true return to that particular childhood freedom. The moment was so large, adult anxieties had to no room to snicker and niggle. Children can sense this; I remember once a few years ago some kids I was playing with asked me, “So, where are your parents?”
Outside our house in Bynum, we built a big tire swing under the oak tree; at its apex a rider can rise to thirty feet above the ground. Sometimes, after pushing the kids till they finally say enough, I’ll ask a strong friend to push me way up there. I close my eyes, and there’s something about riding the slow but steady arc that flicks the worries out. It’s as if play rearranges my existential furniture.
I’ve fantasized about putting a sign out front that reads “Adults are free to take a ride.” But then I start to worry about insurance.