About this time last year, I discovered I was terrible at Candy Crush. For months I had plugged away, crushing neon sweets after 2 a.m. feedings blissfully unaware that level 30-something was not actually an accomplishment. I stumbled on this eye-opener when our friend said in passing what level he had just finished.
I wasn’t even close, so I quit. Cold turkey.
When we bought our first house a few months later, I had mostly forgotten my Candy Crush failure and was, instead, in neighbor-overdrive. No matter that we were in Seattle, a city notorious for its icy welcome. I smiled and waved at everyone I could find, introduced myself to random moms at the park, bought Christmas candy, and pushed my introverted self to be as likable as possible.
Not everyone was as eager to reciprocate my full-throttle friendliness. And, after a while any unreturned smile or cold gaze felt like failure.
In a moment ripe with shame—that jerk of a taskmaster that tricks you into believing you are somehow both invisible and totally exposed—I put my toddler in his car seat and went for a drive. Before we could even make the turn towards Ballard, I saw a woman feeding a great mass of scraggly birds.
Her unwashed hair, and the cardboard sign tucked under her armpit, flapped in the wind as she scattered breadcrumbs along the sidewalk. I watched, unseen, until the light changed and we were headed north and she was out of sight. When we drove back, there was no sign of her. No evidence she had done anything at all, other than the invisible stomachs of well-fed birds.
On our walk that afternoon, we came across two boys on their way home from school. My son was spellbound. I pulled him out of their way, certain that these middle-schoolers would race right past. Instead, they crouched down, showed him the ball they were carrying, and then climbed the steps into their house. Through an open window, I could hear a mom’s voice asking how their day was, and it took everything within me to not follow behind them and say, “Thank you for teaching your sons to be kind. Maybe you didn’t know if they were listening, or if what you said mattered. But, it did.”
Weeks later the image of the birds and the voice of the mother came back to me, bringing with it a rush of thoughts that boil down to something like this: Perhaps our greatest moments of neighboring are small and hidden, quiet acts that obliterate that accusing voice that demands we do more, be better.
The same can be said of parenting.
Of a dozen other things that lose their joy the instant we start keeping score.
So, I am going to scale back my expectations for myself—and my neighbors—but I am going to keep showing up at the park and waving and teaching my son to be kind, and have faith that it matters more than I may ever know.
CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life. She’s not too fond of makeup (much to her mother’s chagrin) or clutter, but can’t get enough of sentences that cut to the heart and people that others overlook.