Widening the Boundaries

On a recent early August morning, I set out from my house and walked east. I didn’t have a destination in mind but I’d suddenly needed to be outside my house, moving and breathing in different air, (call it Sudden Onset Pandemic Sensation). After 5 or so blocks, I spotted a kid up ahead. He was crouched in the middle of the road and he skittered back out of the way as I drew closer. When I arrived at the place where he’d been, I saw a neatly folded paper with a pine cone on it.

“Oh hello,” I said. “Is this a secret message?” The kid stepped from behind a car in the driveway and nodded solemnly. He wore a ratty orange animal costume with a tail and behind him was a tow-headed sister. She wore a pink dress and gripped a little Black baby doll under one scrawny white arm. Under the other, she had a stack of neatly folded papers like the one on the street. His hair looked like it hadn’t been combed in some days and hers looked like she’d recently cut it herself. I’d apparently stepped into a Flannery O’Connor short story populated with scrappy, threadbare characters.

I put the pine cone in my pocket and unfolded the paper.

“The ink was green, but we don’t have a color printer,” the kid said apologetically. “Also the bird’s head got cut off.”

“It’s beautiful, though.” The page was covered with the letters BLM. “You guys are just setting these out as people pass, so that they get the message?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” the kid said.

Something about this encounter felt otherworldly. Like a connection that could only happen once on this otherwise empty street before the portal closed again.

“Hang on, ” I said. “I’ll be right back.” I ran to my house and gathered some picture books, a couple of blank sketchbooks and 2 watercolor sets. I put these into a brown paper bag and hurried back across the field. The morning had been taken over by a distinct purpose and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity for an exchange. Back at their house, I set the items out on the sidewalk and then stepped back so they could inspect what I’d brought. They came upon the pile keen and bright-eyed, studying each item before putting it back in the bag, and hollering thank you as they hustled inside.

I finished my walk thinking about how life is full of sad parts layered over exquisite parts, over and over again. Some of what the kids revealed, their names, insights into their existence, I won’t write here. Some of it made me blue and some of it left me feeling hopeful. But the prevailing sensation I experienced was gratitude for the encounter, for their gift. The pine cone in my pocket reminded me of a story Pablo Neruda tells of a random and magical exchange of gifts through a fence when he was a child. Neruda suggests that to be in kinship with our loved ones is a wonderful thing, but that it is something even more powerful to “feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us…that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

Today as I brace myself for a fresh round of terrible headlines and do what I can to support the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m also remembering the worn-out animal suit, the baby doll and the earnest faces watching as I stooped to receive their message.

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