Adults are obsolete children.
– Dr. Seuss
A few weeks ago, on an uncharacteristically warm early spring day, I broke free from the forced domestic bondage of winter and drove to a local park for some fresh air and exercise. I feel like a heel, driving three miles to a park to take a walk, but my home is nestled amid several farms, and if I attempted to stroll down the street this time of year – which I regard as official Deere season – I would be tilled into the earth like a remnant cornstalk. I realized this danger back in the fall when I was nearly threshed and baled by a tractor. My husband said he simply didn’t see me there.
Flushed from the thicket of my parcel, I have grown comfortable with the similar solitude afforded by the park. I might be in the process of desocializing. To wit, a 30-second interaction with an unfamiliar little girl in the park last month still has me in the throes of self analysis.
It was a busy day in the park. The walking path encircles two ball fields, one empty and the other being spruced up by a team of adults – this constitutes a crowd scene. The outside edge of the path separates the park from a row of small, private homes with deep back yards, so the structures sit back from the path and fields. In one of the yards, three young girls were playing, and I noticed them only because they were there. I had already walked several laps under the anonymity of my sunglasses and visor, physically in the park but mentally engrossed in the podcast streaming from my earbuds, when I realized that the smallest girl was speaking to me as she approached the easement where her yard meets the path.
I stopped and removed my earbuds to hear her, but the voices that reached me were those of her elder sisters, ineffectively calling her back as they eyed me skeptically. “I’m sorry?” I asked the little girl, whose age I would guess is about five. She patiently reiterated, “Will you give me a hug?”
Dumbfounded, I removed my sunglasses. “You want me to give you a hug?” She nodded as she continued advancing and began to reach toward me with her arms. I glanced worriedly at her sisters, who gauged my response from the lower limbs of the large tree they were climbing. I don’t need to expound on the potentially horrific danger of this scenario if it involved another type of person, and I surely didn’t want to be perceived as a threat I’m not.
On the other hand, if I rebuffed her, would that become some random rejection that would affect her life years from now? We all have those weird childhood moments that, as adults, we cannot fathom why we recollect, much less with great clarity and profound impact. Was it my place to counsel her on the somber risks of addressing strangers? Should I say no, or just ignore her, and walk away? Did I look like someone she knew and she mistook my identity? Was I overthinking this?
This is a very small town where almost everyone knows who everyone else is, if they don’t know them personally, and maybe because I frequent this park, she had seen me and felt like she knew me. I looked at the sisters in the tree again, smiled as sweetly as I could at the littlest girl, bent down, and lightly hugged her. She wrapped her arms around my sides and I felt her hands rest on either side of my back. I withdrew and stood up, replaced my obviously feeble “I’m not really here” accessories, and continued on the path while the girl bounded back into her yard, never looking over her shoulder.
Clearly, she had no second thoughts about what was to me not only a thought-provoking interaction, but an emotional one as well. It was terribly frightening from a child safety perspective, and no matter how I might have responded, I would still be second-guessing whether I did the right thing. Factoring in feedback from friends and family, the results of my self-scrutiny remain inconclusive.
I can tell you, though, that if I brush away the poison of unspeakable headlines and horror stories, the jaded adult in me felt almost sanctified by this random and completely aberrant interaction. It’s as though the purity of her faith in people has rubbed off on me, and right now it still feels indelible. This seal has given me passage back to the kinder, more trusting place I used to inhabit before the occasional mean-spirited or conniving adult yanked me into his or her own harsh reality, where the expectation existed that I might engage on their scorched earth. No thanks. They can be denizens of whatever realms they choose. That said, they are free to choose my playground so long as they leave their agendas in their briefcases or pillboxes and take a lesson from that kid. Because in her heart, she’s got it right.