I saw you today, at the copy store. I don’t think you saw me—you appeared busy, and then you were on the phone, and then you were gone, so I didn’t get to say hi. I like seeing you around, though. It’s a friendly thing. If you’d come over to say hi I would have shown you what I was working on, a series of botanical illustrations for a variety of projects. I’m not sure if I’ve shown you my botanical drawings before.
Anyway, after I finished at the copy place I went shopping and headed home, but even so I ended up running late, and it got dark as I biked along. I had a good view of the sunset and a sliver of new moon. I run late a lot, in part because “late” keeps getting earlier as the year ebbs. In part because I just run late a lot.
I may have been running late more often than usual recently, I’m not sure. It’s been a hard summer, for whatever reason, and the inside of my head has been messy and disorganized and I think the rest of me may be following suit. Are you surprised to hear me say this? We don’t normally discuss such things, and usually when you see me I’m cheerful, if a bit squirrely, but I do sometimes have bad days. Lately, I’ve been having a lot of those. I’m never quite sure what will set me off. On Saturday I got all bent out of shape because I was running late and I knew Chris was expecting me and I just felt awful, really all out of proportion to my “crime.”
That day I did see something interesting on the way home, at least. I was biking past the skate park next to where they hold the farmer’s market when I heard an odd sound, a child screaming.
“I can’t feel my arm! I can’t feel my arm!”
The child had apparently fallen while skating. He had two adults attending him, but after a moment’s consideration I walked over and offered my services as a bystander with a little training and a cell phone. They more or less ignored me. The adults did not seem to have any training or medical know-how, but the boy quickly calmed down. He kept complaining of pain, but he could move his arm and hand and had no visible deformation, apart from an abrasion near his elbow. I decided there was no reason to insist on helping where I wasn’t wanted and I left.
But the thing is, the woman with the boy was almost as panicked as he was. She wasn’t really tending him, leaving that to a man who seemed to be a levelheaded bystander. Instead, she wandered around wailing.
“See? This is why I told you to be careful,” she said, ostensibly addressing the children in her care but actually speaking to the sky, loudly. She seemed to want everyone around her to know she’d done her part. “I begged! I pleaded! I told them to be careful!”
She was worried about herself, more than about the child. As she explained, again not clearly addressing anyone specific, she was not a relative of the boy. Instead, she was the grandmother of a friend of his. She’d taken the two boys to the park to skate, and I imagine she was now terrified that other people would think she’d behaved negligently with someone else’s child. Maybe she was worried the boy’s mother would sue her, or at least be very angry. So here she was, wailing, instead of doing anything practical to help the injured boy.
My immediate thought was that this boy and his friend might shortly find their freedom badly curtailed. We can’t have children getting hurt, after all. Humph. I mean, I get it; the idea of a kid getting hurt is seriously scary. But if a kid never tests his or her body and mind against real difficulty and danger, how is that kid supposed to grow up properly? But clearly this grandmother hasn’t gotten the memo, and if the mothers of both boys haven’t gotten the memo either the kids may find themselves parked safely in front of TV and computer screens from here on out, where they will not run any risk of broken bones or dislocated shoulders and can slowly develop diabetes and depression instead.
So, I was thinking that evening about how children develop physical courage, or don’t. I suspect physical courage is easier to learn if you get injured a lot when you’re young and feel immortal. I had no really serious injuries when I was a child, so when I finally did land in a hospital just before I turned twenty, I was old enough to learn I was vulnerable and I had no memory of surviving close shaves to fall back on. So I got really scared and to this day I’m super-conservative when I ride my bike. So that’s physical courage, or lack thereof.
But since then I’ve been thinking about moral courage, too. I mean, for one thing that woman clearly needed to get a grip. The boy needed her. What right did she have to get distracted with worry for herself? So what if somebody thought she’d done something wrong? For that matter, so what if the kid’s parents decided to retaliate afterwards? Someone had to take care of the kid, and somebody has to stick up for kids’ right to be human beings even in the face of risk. Somebody needs to pay more attention to the real needs of kids and less attention to the possibility of adults being blamed or sued. So that is what I mean by moral courage—the willingness to do the right thing, even though someone else might get upset or aggressive as a result.
More and more, I am aware that the whole idea that ordinary people should be courageous has been lost somehow. Collectively we lionize firefighters and soldiers and so forth, but in so doing we set them apart as heroes rather than identify with them as men and women. When someone shows real physical or moral courage our admiration carries a distinct whiff of surprise. And at other times we say oh, of course So-and-so made other people’s lives difficult and unpleasant for no good reason; he or she could have been sued otherwise, and we can’t have that.
Oh, come on, world—put on your big-kid undies and quit excusing cowardice.
I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing on and off for months. I think you know why. The news isn’t quite public knowledge, but even if you don’t have all the pieces of the story yet you might be able to infer the main points of the tale based on what’s missing. Either way, I’m not going to go into detail here.
It’s been a hard summer. The inside of my head is squirrely and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it. But today, at least, was a good day. A friend of mine and I met in the park, ostensibly for lunch, although neither of us actually brought any food. The sky was this gorgeous clear blue, streaked with clouds in places, and at least four different species of maple tree flamed up red and orange and yellow and what looked like a whole class of art students painted in the open air against tall wooden easels.
Having no lunch to eat, we decided to walk around a bit, one of my favorite activities in the world being to walk around outdoors with a friend and talk, and so we crossed the swinging bridge and looked out over the roil of water at the foot of the dam. And we saw a bird, standing there in the water on the other side of the river, a small oval of animal almost invisible in the alternating glare and shadow by the base of the dam.
We crossed back over to get a better look at it. It was brown with white spots and streaks, about the size of a chicken, and clearly some sort of heron or bittern. My friend looked it up using some sort of smart-phone app and decided it was a juvenile night heron. I’d heard of night herons, but I hadn’t been entirely sure they were real, since my primary association with them is a one-line reference in the fantasy novel, Willow. But this one was quite real. It stood still, for the most part, looking morose, and then scratched its neck with one foot for a moment. We watched it for about half an hour, until my friend had to get back to work. Anyway, it made me think of you.