Playing with Fire

The other day I went to fetch Rio from our friend Jeff who had been looking after him for a few hours. We met at a local biodiesel plant where Jeff has an office.

As Jeff and I caught up, I heard a loud noise coming from the corner of the grassy field where Rio and Jeff’s son were playing. My eyes landed on Rio throwing rocks at a building that housed one of the plant’s offices, complete with big windows and solar panels. Jeff had actually built it. Just the kind of structure you don’t throw rocks at.

“What are you doing?” I asked Rio as I approached.

“Throwing rocks,” he said.

I looked closer to see that a rock Rio had thrown had pierced the glass of one of the windows, creating a small hole with a web of fracture-lines emanating from it.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I asked.

I listened to his weak answer and then lectured him for a few minutes before calling Jeff over. “Yup, we’re going to have to replace this window,” Jeff said calmly. “It’ll probably be between $100 and $200.” I thought I heard Rio gulp.

Rio knew he was in deep. At one point he asked if there was such a thing as a “jail for kids.” I thought about my options. I knew I could punish Rio by taking away movies and playing with friends, or I could think of something that related more directly to his crime and that actually enhanced him in some way.  Because my wish is to have Rio learn from his mistakes instead of being haunted by them. This meant giving Rio some dynamic consequence he could work in his hands. In my politics I’ve long favored restorative justice over punitive justice; here was my chance to apply a grand idea to my own little court case.

First, I knew Rio had to acknowledge his mistake and apologize to the people it impacted. I had Rio apologize to Jeff, since he had built the house. I also told Rio we’d come back during the week to apologize to the women who work in the office. He’d have to look them in the eyes and say he was sorry. Finally, I told Rio that he would have to do community service to earn the money needed to pay for the window. I imagined asking friends to think of menial but skill-building jobs they’d be willing to pay Rio a little cash to do: Sorting recycling? Sweeping? Weeding? All the proceeds of course would go toward the window.

Rio seemed dismayed by the idea, which was a good sign. I think he intuited that this punishment would be much more taxing than losing a few privileges. “It will probably take you three months to pay back that money,” I told him.

Then his face lit up with an idea. “I know! I’m just going to go home, grab two hundreds from the Monopoly game and give them to Jeff! It’ll be over in about five minutes!”

Oh my, this was going to be a long three months.

As we drove home, I thought about my own childhood mishaps. One hot July day when I was thirteen my friend Rob and I were bored and starting wondering if inflammable paint was less dangerous than flammable paint. You know, like invalid is the opposite of valid? We decided to pour a little of both kinds of paint on piles of dried leaves to find out.

We quickly learned inflammable paint was very flammable! The two of us cheered as the flames crackled with technicolor. After 30 seconds or so, we beat out the fire with sticks and then moved on to the next pile.

On the fourth try, we laughed and frolicked a little too long, and when we tried to beat out the fire, it was too late.

“Get your mom!” I yelled.

Rob ran up to the house. “We started a fire!” he blurted.

“Oh Robbie!” his mom snapped, running into the house to call the fire department.

Rob and I raced back to the scene of the crime, only to find a greater inferno and a new witness: Mr. Pickering, Rob’s neighbor and my future high-school English teacher, who was trying to douse the fire from his side of the fence. He knew we were the culprits but would not deign us with a look.

As the fire inched closer to Pickering’s yard, the firemen finally arrived, hosing down the fire to black smoke in mere seconds.

As the fire trucks readied for departure, the chief pulled us aside: “You two are lucky — this whole block could’ve been up in flames!”

That evening Rob’s father, an Episcopalian minister, came home and calmly took in the news. In his car on the way back to my house, he offered to come in and explain to my mom what had happened. I accepted his offer immediately, knowing my mom’s reaction might be tempered by his mellow nature.

Reverend Rankin and my mom talked in private for a few minutes and then he bid a kind adieu. My mom sat down and looked at me. “Today is Friday,” she said. “By next Friday I want a ten-page report on the subject of fire, with a table of contents, a section defining words like “flammable” and “inflammable,” and a bibliography with at least six sources in it. I want the whole thing put in a three-ring report folder and in my hand by noon.”

I think I remember this event so clearly not because of the error I made but rather for the path my mother laid out for me in the wake of it. This is the beauty, and the labor, of restorative justice. It would have been easier for my mother to punish me through a grounding than to administer her rather complicated plan. And surely it would have been simpler for me to endure the loss of a privilege than to delve into encyclopedias and check out books from the library for the damn bibliography. But then there was that memory, guiding me as I stared down Rio.

At the Funeral in the Woods

This Saturday Rio went to his fifth funeral in four years. It was a very sad but beautiful day: our good friends’ third child had been born still, and they had gathered us to honor their baby girl and bury her remains. The service’s most heartbreaking moment came when their three-year-old daughter broke into sobs as the death of her sister became indisputably final.

There is no part of me that wishes to shield Rio from death. Even before his first funeral, he’d encountered the death of countless living beings, from the flowers outside our window to the dead deer we once found in the shallows of the river. He naturally inquired about what happened, and Annie and I answered as best we could: that death was sad but also a part of life, and that its arrival does not necessarily mean the end of life but rather the evolution of it into something else. When Annie’s father Bill passed away, we comforted Rio with the notion that Bill lives on in the sky, in the flowers, inside of us. Rio thinks the same about his great-grandfather Joe, his beloved aunt Mary, and Cubie, our neighbor from across the street.

For Rio to understand the cycle of life, he needs to see death, not by peeking out from behind our backs as we tried to protect him from tragedy but by taking it in with a good, clear view. When we paid respects to Annie’s sister Mary, Rio and all the children sat on blankets in the very front row. Two of the funerals he has attended featured open caskets, and I felt no hesitation as I paid my respects to my grandfather and Annie’s dad with Rio at my side. He’s young, but he loved those men and deserved a final look just like the rest of us.

We have taught Rio to embrace the unknown; that he can’t know who will win a card game, or what a walk around the neighborhood will bring, or if a character in a book will save the kingdom or falter along the way. So why should we treat the Great Mystery any differently? If we sit around fearing death, aren’t we teaching Rio to fear the unknown, which of course is life too? After all, nothing is certain.

About two years ago, Rio and I were walking in Bynum and he said, “Papa, I don’t want to die.”

“I know, my love, but everybody dies,” I said.

“Even you?” he asked.

“Even me.”

“Well I won’t die!” he declared.

“Rio, you know lots of people who have died: Baba, Grandpa Joe, Cubie…”

“But they’re not gone!” he insisted. “They’re still here. Cubie’s still here!”

“Where?” I asked.

“Up there in the trees,” he said, pointing to a giant oak. “She’s up there! HELLO CUBIE!”

Today I asked Rio what he was thinking on Saturday when he watched our friend stand at the podium and give, through tears, a beautiful eulogy to her daughter. “I felt sad, but I kind of felt happy too,” he told me. “You’re always sad when you’ve lost something, but you’re also happy you had it.” To think how less nuanced his view of loving and losing would be had we shielded him from the dark side of life.

The Edge of the World

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Rio wears a helmet every time he rides a bike. Since all the kids these days seem to do the same, he doesn’t say a word about it.

This is a lot different from when I was growing up, when so few kids wore helmets that those who did were relegated to the teasing bin.

I’m glad Rio’s head is protected, but there’s something a little sad about it too. I think of what it feels like to ride around with your hair blowing in the wind: that locks flying, safety be damned kind of day when life seems a wide horizon to glide through.

We often eschewed safety as kids — I remember jumping off roofs, bouncing around in the back of a pick-up, even starting little fires in piles of leaves. But I also remember the dark side of these unsupervised adventures: I fell from my ten-speed bike on a busy boulevard and slammed my helmet-less head hard into the cement, probably just avoiding a concussion and being hit by a car (sorry Mom!) My friend and I once lit a small fire that became an inferno that almost devoured his entire backyard before the fire department came.

As a parent, I’m committed to Rio’s health and safety, but I also try not to become so obsessed with it that I squelch his freedom to soar. I think this is why I don’t mind Rio climbing trees: dense ones with many limbs that literally falling out of is hard to do. There are two such trees in our yard that Rio climbs regularly. I’ve always had one rule on the subject: I won’t help Rio down (unless he’s truly stuck). This means he has to grapple with his own fears and his own abilities as he makes his way up the tree, because he knows it’s hard to get back down. If he doesn’t heed the voice that says “enough,” he risks being stuck up there for a while. He has learned to, branch by branch, climb to the top of these trees. To date he hasn’t fallen and we haven’t had to save him; he’s careful, discerning, and fairly nonplussed about the whole affair. He doesn’t feel scared even though he’s aware of the real physical dangers.

As the writer Carl Honore said in an interview that Annie conducted with him last year, “The common instinct for parents is to wrap their kids in a cotton ball to make sure they never get hurt, but kids need the space to unleash their curiosity and let it roam in every direction rather than have it pulled in and directed at every turn.”

Last year, Rio and I went to the Appalachian Mountains. I wanted to take him on a hike that ended at a high spot with a beautiful view of a waterfall. Another parent I met along the way said he wouldn’t take his daughter down there with him because of the sheerness of the cliff. I respect that. I knew from experience that it was indeed a dangerous edge — if anyone fell off they would die — but I was also aware that the ground and trail near it were completely stable. I wanted Rio to see the view, but more importantly, I wished for him to understand the reality of ledges, to see danger for what it really is as opposed to never meeting it and thus having only a theoretical understanding of it: poor equipment to have on hand when he inevitably faced the real thing.

I was stern and serious at the ledge, staying many feet away and requiring Rio to hold my hand and listen to my every word. Rio followed my lead and stuck by me, huddling close as we sat on our secure rock pondering the grandness of the scene before us. The waterfall was stunning, but what I cherished most was the trust that had bloomed between us.