As school ends and parents furiously map out ways to keep their kiddos occupied over the summer, I think about Owen.
Owen is a 6-year-old on my son's T-ball team. I'm an assistant coach, an odd fact given that I never played baseball, don't watch baseball and don't even really like baseball. If I'm the embodiment of "those who don't know, teach," then Owen is the embodiment of "our kids teach us more than we teach them."
Earlier this season, he was in right field. He says he likes it out there because he gets to play in the grass.
A ball was hit toward him and it rolled swiftly past his left foot. He was preoccupied looking at the ground to his right, and despite the exhortations of his coaches — "Owen, get the ball!" — he stayed put and another player had to run out, fetch the ball and toss it back into the infield.
When the inning was over, I hustled onto the field and met Owen as he trotted toward the bench.
"Hey, buddy," I said, gently. "When you're out there, you really have to pay attention, because you don't want a ball rolling past you, right?"
He looked up at me incredulously and said, "But coach, I was looking at my shadow!"
That stopped me. I was kneeling in powdery orange clay in the middle of a baseball diamond, a 6-year-old staring at me with a look that said, "You idiot, why on earth would I pay attention to a stupid ball when I've got a perfectly good shadow to keep an eye on?"
I had no response. I stood up, patted him on the head and said, "Well, that makes sense." And off he went to the bench.
The game went on, but my mind flashed back to my childhood in Florida. When I was little, I would wander into the backyard on any given summer day and sit at the base of an orange tree. Its leaves, when pinched, released a fragrant smell, and I'd busy myself savoring the scent and the shade, worrying about nothing.
My mother used to say I reminded her of Ferdinand the bull, from the children's book "The Story of Ferdinand" by Munro Leaf. Rather than mucking about with the other bulls, Ferdinand had a favorite spot under a cork tree where he would sit and smell the flowers. The story ends with a wistful "for all I know he is sitting there still," and the final line: "He is very happy."
I was very happy. I was a kid who had time to explore and romp, or to just sit and wonder why orange leaves smelled so glorious.
Owen, staring at his shadow, was happy too. He didn't need the game going on around him, just as most of our kids don't need all the things we set up to keep them busy. We have day camps and sports camps and art camps and sleep-away camps and music lessons and play dates and family trips.
Much of that is good, and it allows us, as parents, to work and do what we must, but Owen reminded me that there's a point where we should stop and let these small people do what they want.
I'd guess that most of the time what they want is to play in the grass, run around in a wholly disorganized fashion, mess with toys they haven't touched in months, set up an economically unfeasible lemonade stand and, quite possibly, just drag a stick around and see what they can find to poke.
We're busy. That's what happens when you grow up — we don't get time to stare at our shadows.
But our kids do. And we need to honor that.
We need to give them the chance to be truly, innocently, almost accidentally happy.
Like Ferdinand sniffing the flowers. Like me under the backyard orange tree. And like Owen and his shadow, blissfully content in that marvelous patch of outfield grass.
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