This past Saturday was the classically beautiful Chicago spring day that comes with a mandate: go outside and play! So my son and I took a basketball to a park near my house to shoot some hoops.
As we approached the basketball courts, we saw a group of kids running and yelling and pushing each other around under the net: they were playing by street rules, today. My son recognized one of the players from his school.
“Can we take this end?” I asked. The oldest of the bunch nodded, but the group huddled, made a different plan, then invited G to join them. He agreed, I agreed, and then I hid behind a tree. I had some serious doubts about my son’s basketball skills in a "real" game and was afraid to watch.
You wouldn’t believe how uncomfortable it was to lend my son to the world for that hour. My irrational Mom-fears had their way with me, picturing scenario after scenario in which my kid was mocked for his tendency to airball his shots after double dribbling down the court using both hands. He’s safe in my world, but I can’t vouch for the safety of the world-at-large. (In fact, I’m a little wary of that world if we're being honest.)
But every time I peeked around the tree I could see he was in good company with his amateur status. I finally surrendered him to a game with strangers.
I hadn’t brought my phone, so I was forced to just sit on the park bench and watch the world do its thing. I was humbled by the beauty from my vantage point.
It was an afternoon of families and gossip and colorful head garments. It was soccer balls and shin guards and ill-fitting shoes. It was about light skin and brown skin, dark brown skin and black skin. My son was like a white period at the end of a very long brown sentence written across the green grass.
I kept thinking, If there is a God, this is it. What I’m seeing is exactly how life….IS.
I want to try to paint for you a word picture of the beauty and the joy and the freedom I witnessed in the Chicago Park District this past Saturday afternoon, though I know I will fall short. Here goes:
First - picture those aerial views of roaming buffalo and giraffe we often see in nature films. The herd is moving and morphing and meshing: an endless fractal. The mass entrances and exits and breakaways feel simultaneously random and choreographed. Any communication between the beautiful beasts must take place in cellular code or body movements or maybe whispers from their collective soul.
A drone camera above the park would have produced a similar video with groups of children running and pausing and hiding and breaking away with no rhyme, or reason. Groups of five boys and three girls would morph into two boys and one girl which eventually found the other two girls after having replaced the two boys with two other boys. It was creative flow on a community scale
There were no strangers among them, save the sole white woman on the bench who kept looking over her shoulder at the basketball court.
“I know you!” a ragtag group of young, sweaty and breathless kids squealed at one of the mothers camped out on the picnic table nearest me. She, like most of the other women and young girls enjoying the day, was adorned with a head covering of some sort.
(I will not dare to presume I know what kind it was or its significance for it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter that she was even wearing it. I only point it out because most every woman and young girl at the park were adorned with a colorful headpiece of one kind or another which tripled the number of colors splashed against the green-grass canvas, and I promised you a word picture.)
This Mom was a “keeper of the snacks:” her two plastic shopping bags were disemboweled, with their chip bag guts and juice boxes strewn across the table and on the ground around her. She nodded to the boy, never skipping a beat in the conversation streaming from the speakerphone in a language I couldn’t understand.
She was one of several guardians of this galaxy. The Adults, mostly women, were scattered around the perimeter, all sharing equal responsibility for the youth on the scene.
One juice box, vertical on an adjacent picnic table, was open and patiently waiting for its kid to return. A boy karate chopped it into the air and onto the ground next to its fallen kin. His posse applauded and screamed with delight.
After taking a lap, the kids returned to the karate-chopped juice box. A little girl pumped the box with her palms like she was giving it CPR. Her posse applauded and screamed with delight.
The third time around, a young boy pantomimed that he created the juice box spray with his pee. His posse applauded and screamed with delight.
An older boy claimed to have “caught” a squirrel that had run up the tree next to the juice boxes. He lamely tossed a stick in the air towards the squirrel resting at the top of the tree. The woman on the phone gave him some thoughts on the subject and he stopped throwing the stick.
While the group’s necks were craning to see their new and temporary pet, a young girl walked past holding the greatest treasure of every park district in America: an ice cream cone. The ball of melty ice cream fell to the ground, so she picked it back up and plopped it back on to the top of the cone and kept walking. I applauded and screamed with delight.
I know the neighborhood. It is not a wealthy area, and there were sociological clues everywhere that mirrored this truth - no screens, generic branded snacks, and ill-fitting clothes: Poverty Garanimals. So many sweatpants, so few pairs of socks.
It didn’t matter. It was a non-issue. The source of joy for those kids was their community.
I watched this pageantry much like I do most things in the world: from the outside looking in. I was so glad the world had reached out and asked my kiddo to play on Saturday. For If I could give my son anything at all - more than the toys and clothes that fit and a decent education and any other modern amenity I can offer him - I would want to give him ease in the world-at-large.
How do you give to your child what you, yourself, don’t have?
I guess for starters you go to one of the parks in the Chicago Park District on a Saturday afternoon.
That's my piece, and that's my peace. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my silly words. It truly means the world to me. Carry on...
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