What is Always There: Four Ways We Can Remember to be Human

1. Oak insisted on pulling his wagon along the side of the road on our walk through the neighborhood. His pace slowed me and Robby into more steadfast attention as the labor of his small body led us to tend more carefully to often-overlooked bumps in the sidewalk, patches of mud, slight rises and dips on the path. The tedious work of hauling the empty wagon only delighted him. We meandered slowly but happily - there was nowhere else to be. Dusk settled as we completed the last leg of our little journey; flying bats overhead raised all of our eyes to the darkening sky, where we noticed the first star of evening. "Bat." "Dark." "Star." Our boy echoed each revelation with syllables that sounded like an ancient tongue resonating in his tiny voice. My heavy belly stirred as the baby within stretched. I murmured reflexively, "Being human is pretty wild, isn't it, Oakie?" His silence was a perfect reply. The three of us sang together as we walked, "Twinkle, twinkle, little star - how I wonder what you are..."

2. Early this morning, Oak and I went to play in Big Rock Park. The only other person there was a man in a button-down shirt and dress pants, walking with a plastic bag, bending every few steps to pick up another piece of trash. The place was littered with styrofoam cups and paper and bottles. His silent pilgrimage came to a close near the playground, where we caught one another's eye and smiled. I said with feeling, "Thank you." He told me that he enacts the same ritual every morning ("They try to keep it nice, I know, but it's hard to keep this place up."). He said the park always looks the same when he arrives, that he never thought "No littering" signs would be necessary. He lamented the many unused trash cans around the park. There was no trace of despair in his voice, only gladness to share with a stranger. When I repeated my gratitude for his kindness, he replied with a genuine smile and conviction, "It's the least I can do. Enjoy this place." I wondered how he spent the rest of his day. My boy waved as he drove away.

3. We spotted a robin tugging a worm out of the dirt, stretching it thin like a rubber band. His thick neck thrusted back several times to fully extract his breakfast, which he tossed back quickly. Oak inched closer and closer, watching intently; instead of flying far out of reach, the bird simply fluttered in short distances around the park. Soon they were playing a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, or boy-and-bird, across the large expanse of grass. Why didn't the bird leave the arrangement altogether, or my boy sit down and abandon the chase? Neither party seemed confident they would catch up to one another, but that did not deter my boy's enthusiasm or the bird's measured retreat. The inevitable end of this futile pursuit was that nothing of any consequence happened - nevertheless, the untempered energies of the young human and woodland warbler lent themselves to an unproductive but intriguing flight of wing and spirit. After a time, the robin perched on a branch over the creek where we watched him until he sailed across the water and out of sight.

4. Tonight, we made another loop through our neighborhood in the dark and wet. Oak pulled the empty wagon, Robby led the dogs on their leashes, and I held Oak's hand. As we walked the last stretch, our little one craned his neck to look up at the cloudy sky and pointed. "Dark, star," he remembered. Shortly thereafter, he dropped the wagon handle and ran with joyful squeals to hug Robby's legs. "Dad! Dad!" he proclaimed with spontaneous delight. His father laughed in surprise and bent down to embrace him, saying, "I love you so much!" Oak then reached out a hand to both dogs - "Dogs!" - then rested his head on each of them in turn. "Mom! Mom!" he said, turning back to me; we squeezed each other tightly. Finally, he embraced his wagon in sweet abandon. Robby and I laughed in contagious happiness at his unselfconsious affection. We all held hands and finished walking the rest of the way home. Cast under the spell of spontaneous gratitude, the moment accompanied us like another, familiar companion, refreshing as rain on an upturned face. The wordless lesson hung in the air like mist. Our feet were washed clean by wet grass. We ascended our front steps and walked through the door.