I plop down at my post. A little corner on the edge of the sandbox. My legs awkwardly dangle over the side, and I try to ignore what might be living in there as my daughter sucks on the end of a broken shovel. I take a gulp of my now lukewarm coffee and, out of habit, I hug the paper cup close to my chest and look around. Two preschool teachers push their kids on the swings while shouting at the sea of other red-shirted and matching baseball-capped littles to stay off the monkey bars. A dad stares at his iPhone, a mom tries to capture the perfect moment of her babe going down the slide. “Smile, smile, over here, smile, MAX! SMILE!” she says. Max is unwilling to cooperate and she finally gives up, reluctantly slipping the phone back into her coat pocket. Max then proceeds to flash a big ol’ grin and blissfully slides into her outstretched arms. Too little, too late, Max. I try to give her a commiserating we’ve all been there look, but she immediately avoids my glance and rushes over to the other side of the play structure. I suddenly feel so alone. I understand that everyone needs a place to check out, and I love my alone time. In fact, I crave alone time, but it seems odd to come to a park of all places, swarming with kids and their adult counterparts and feel alone. Parks are becoming the new airplanes. Just sit down, avoid eye contact, put on your headphones and prepare for take-off. Don’t get too comfy though, because a boy just entered the sandbox with his police car that has real sirens that light up and everything, making the once perfectly adequate one-wheeled tractor now seem like a total injustice. The other kids start circling like vultures, and the parents are forced to leave their posts to intervene and mitigate the inevitable and imminent tantrums. “Look at that bird, Maggie!” I hear one parent say, attempting to distract. Another has to drag his kid away kicking and screaming because he won’t give up the quest and mutters to us survivors on the way out, “It’s rough being three, huh?” I mean c’mon, you can’t bring a new shiny car (THAT MAKES NOISE) into a sandbox with twelve toddlers and expect things to go smoothly. I get that there is a lesson in there somewhere, like you can’t always get what you want, or someone will always have something bigger and better than you so you just need to be comfortable with what you have, blah blah blah, but still, light up sirens?! You’re killing me, kid. At least it got us parents talking though, if even for a second.
I was about to submit to a lifetime of being lonely in the fishbowls we call playgrounds when I went to meet a beloved friend and her family at a park across town. As soon as we pulled up and got out of the car, I knew immediately that we were in for an entirely different experience. First of all, it was LOUD. There were kids laughing and screaming (I have actually heard parents shushhhhhing kids at a park). I counted at least four different languages being spoken and in the distance I could hear the quintessential riff of an approaching ice cream truck. It was like a cultural sea of exuberance and community and reminded me of stories that a dear friend of mine recounts from her childhood. She grew up in New York City and talks about summer days that were too sweltering to be cooped up in an apartment, so neighbors would pour out into the streets, filling the blocks with music, food, dancing, and pick-up soccer games. Kids scattered here and there and everyone looked out for each other.
I saw my friend, her husband, and her sister hanging out by the basketball court, so we wove our way through the swarm of kids to join their circle and catch up. As we were talking, a man approached us and asked my friend’s husband if he wanted to play a game of HORSE. I was struck by how this made me feel so warm and fuzzy and so sad at the same time. Why was I so moved that an adult talked to another adult that he didn’t know? Isn’t that what parks should be all about?
I then shifted my focus to my almost four-year-old son, Roman, who was pushing my 19-month-old daughter, Rubina, in a swing. A girl, who I would guess to be around 10 years old, was pushing her little brother in the neighboring swing. I heard Rubina start to cry and, feeling slightly frustrated, I had to interrupt my friend (just as the story was getting juicy) to make the trek across the park to see what my daughter needed. I didn’t make it four steps when I saw the 10-year-old girl stop pushing her brother and take Rubina out of the swing. Just like that. Now, I would have expected my first split-second reaction to be why is a girl I don’t know picking up my daughter? But, inspired by this feeling of community, I just watched as she bounced Rubina on her hip, making her tears stop within seconds. She then put her on the ground and gestured for her to take Roman’s hand and looked around. We made eye contact and a huge smile broke across her face as she motioned for Ro and Ru to make their way back to me. It was incredible. Here was a little girl who heard another child crying, knew she needed something and stepped in to help. They say it takes a village, but so often, we resist that village. My guess is that we are afraid. Afraid to inconvenience, afraid to offend, or maybe even worse, afraid to judge or be judged ourselves.
As I buckled my kiddos into their carseats that afternoon, I looked at their tired, dirty sun-kissed faces and felt alive. Roman couldn’t stop talking about an older boy who taught him how to perfect his shot by holding the basketball closer to his forehead. “Mamma, I made THREE baskets in a ROW!” he exclaimed. I felt like I too was part of something, even if it was only for a couple of hours. And in that moment, at that park, all seemed right with the world.
We all start out as strangers, but I say it’s time we step out of the Sandbox of Solitude, dust ourselves off, say hello, and embrace the village. After all, that’s what it’s there for.
MARISSA B. NIRANJAN is a quarter Italian, only child, married to an Indian who happens to be an identical twin. When she’s not chasing after their tiny hooligans, she’s saving snow leopards, using too many exclamation points or warming up her coffee in the microwave. She loves her kids, but she really misses hot coffee!!