Fires and Fish

Fourteen years ago I ripped a page out of Newsweek that had an essay entitled, Doing Nothing is Something, written by Anna Quindlen. I pasted it into a book that I kept the summer Nate and I drove out to South Dakota, looking for the very best pie along the way. In that same book is another essay with the title, Free the Children; subtitle: Summer should be a time when rules can be bent and boredom is a state of grace. No date or author on that one, but the same idea; summer is a time to do not much of anything; it's time we realized that we're stealing our kids' childhoods by structuring and scheduling the bejeezus out of their days.

It's very, very easy for me and others of my generation to wax nostalgic about the summers of our childhood. And that's because, quite frankly, they were pretty great. There was nothing fancy at all about them: I didn't know anyone who went to camp; no one played team sports in the summer or took lessons. When we were young, it seemed like our whole life was camp: we were outside all the time, making things up, riding our bikes, sleeping in someone's backyard in a tent. We went to the library and if the ice cream man came down the street and we were there and we had money, then life on that particular day was pretty near perfect. 

When we got old enough, we worked. Everyone I knew had a summer job. Here are some of the things I did during my teenage years: I babysat. A lot. I waitressed, and I helped other folks out when the busy August racing season in Saratoga got underway: for a while I delivered papers in the early morning when our usual paperboy was out of town. One summer I helped the wife of one of my teachers clean houses. 

As a mom, now, I'm happy to report that my kids' lives are not that different than mine, in those regards. My sons, this summer, are washing windows all day. They get up, many mornings, at 5:30 and spend the entire day moving with their crew from job to job. It sounds kind of glamorous because sometimes they're hanging off of tall buildings with ropes and stuff, but mostly it's just hard work. Coco, who is 11, is not enrolled in any programs or camps. And, she's not building churches in Botswana or perfecting her free throw either. She's been cooking a lot. And swimming.

I find her, quite often, sitting still, with the 50-yard stare of a person waiting for the bus on her face. Lost in thought, not doing anything. And it makes me very, very happy.

"All our efforts to guard and guide our children may just get in the way of the one thing they need most from us: to be deeply loved yet left alone, so they can try a new skill, new slang, new style, new flip-flops. So they can trip a few times, make mistakes, cross them out, try again, with no one keeping's not just about relaxing, it's about rehearsing," wrote the now-forgotten author of Free the Children.

Coco is already covered with the bruises and scrapes of summertime. From falling out of the hammock and wrestling with her brothers and walking in the tall weeds and slipping on the rocks in the river. 

Earlier this month, on the night before Nate graduated from high school, I attended his Convocation ceremony. It was held in the chapel at UVM, which made it feel even more important. The not-quite-graduates filed in in their red gowns and parents and grandparents jockeyed for the best seat, hoping, I imagine, that their son or daughter would be called forth that night to receive an award.

At first it was great, and then, as the night wore on, and we were well into the second hour of award-giving and some kids had gotten multiple awards, it started to feel wrong. Some of the kids had accomplished truly mind-boggling things. They had started non-profits and done relief work in remote parts of the globe and organized political rallies. 

When it was all over, I found myself feeling kind of sad and thinking, "Wait. Those are things adults are supposed to be doing. These are kids."

When and why did we start robbing our kids of their right to simply be a kid?

Nate was a straight-A student for his entire school career. He played sports and spent one of his school breaks doing Habitat for Humanity work in the south. He was a member of the Honor Society and he built a pair of skis from scratch for his graduation challenge. In my day, Nate would have been considered an overachiever. He would have walked away from graduation with an award; maybe more than one. But in today's world, Nate is just an average guy, and that should give us all pause.

When we are gifted with spaciousness in our lives, when we are forced to fill up nothing with something, lots of great things happen. We dream, we imagine, we invent, we putter. Tired of jumping off of ledges into the river the other evening, Coco and her two friends decided to build a rock wall in an attempt to divert the flow of the water. They worked hard, they cooperated, they were proud of what they accomplished, but they're not nearly done and they plan to work on it all summer.

Many years ago a friend of mine told me one of the greatest stories I had ever heard: his neighbors had a lot of kids and one year they decided to start digging a hole in their front lawn. And that's what they did, every day, they dug. And their parents let them, which is probably the best part of the story. I can just imagine what went on during those digging days. Did they think they would find dinosaur bones or maybe dig their way to another world? Did they uncover hidden treasure with clues to who may have lived there before them? Did they encounter the kinds of creatures that like to live down deep in the earth?

My brother tells stories of riding his bike, with his friends, miles across town, fishing in the creek and then cooking what they caught over a fire they built. Our mom most likely didn't even know where they were. They were probably about 12 at the time. Maybe not even.

The world needs so much, most days I don't know where to begin. But I think it would be so great to start with this: more river rock wall building and more digging in the dirt and more fires and fish. Please.