Monday, September 15, 2014

Why I'm Gentle Today

When I was between the ages of 4 and 9 my family lived in a suburban neighborhood on the site of a former pine forest, meaning that pine cones were a plentiful resource.

We made things with them, holiday decorations, bird feeders, and other crafty things, but over the span of time I lived there, by far the number one use of these pine cones was as projectiles. I suppose there was some spontaneous hurling, but what I remember most were proper "pine cone fights." We would begin by stockpiling our weaponry, not by the mere armful, but by filling up the farmers market baskets our moms kept in garages.

Most of the pinecones we found on the ground had wound up there according to the natural order of things: they had ripened, opened, released their seeds, then fell to the ground like leaves do in the fall. Sure, these had some pokey bits, but for the most part they were relatively light weight, unlikely to raise more than a minor welt when they made contact. There were always a few pine cones, however, that had fallen before their time, compact, sappy and hard as rocks. Chuckling evilly, we would gather a few of these as well, burying them at the bottom on our baskets with the idea of saving them for "dire" moments. 

Of course, those dire moments never came, no matter how intense our battles, attacking and retreating in hails of pine cones. Indeed, there were moments when I had one of those last resorters threateningly in hand, but I don't recall anyone ever actually throwing one, at least not with the intent or velocity to cause injury. There were no adults around to "be careful" us, there was no threat of punishment if we did, yet we kept those potentially harmful missiles in hand. In fact, even when we threw the regular pine cones, I might have had to duck and dodge to avoid being beaned, but I was in no fear that anyone was intentionally aiming at my head where there were eyes and other soft parts about which to worry. Close range throws were always directed at the body, where it might well sting, especially if they connected with unclothed arms or legs, but not likely to cause any sort of debilitating damage. And we all instinctively knew to "take something off" our close-range throws, particularly when a younger child was involved.

No adult told us any of this: it was built into the game. Why? Because we knew that if someone got hurt, the game was in jeopardy. When one of us did take a shot to the cheek, the game froze, genuine apologies were quickly offered, even sometimes sympathy, and we all hoped for no sign of blood or bruising. And the injured party was in it with us in hoping for the injury to be sufficiently minor that we could avoid adult intervention, because we all knew that would mean at least a temporary end to our game. We had already lost backyard tackle football for a whole week when Ralph Cozart took a black eye from John Sain's knee.

This is what's called self-regulation or, as it was phrased as a data point on our report cards, "self control." Even within an apparently wild, intense activity as pine cone fights, we found ourselves in a constant, rapid-fire assessment of risk both for ourselves and others, driven by the desire to keep the play going. We practiced setting aside our own minor discomforts, to keep it going. We strived to adhere to our own self-imposed, largely unspoken, safety rules even when feeling angry, afraid, or frustrated, to keep it going. We learned to care for the minor pains and emotions of others without the help of adults, to keep it going. 

In all our years of pine cone fights, there were many scrapes and bruises, and we always knew, going in, there was a potential for tears, but we kept right on playing. I imagine that if any of us today have pine cones on our playgrounds, pine cone fights are not permitted just as they weren't on our school playgrounds, because that's how adults tend to solve these "problems." But at least we had those hours after school, where we got to play without grown-ups always there with their greater "wisdom." 

Those pine cone fights, perhaps more than any object lesson in caring for others, are why I'm gentle today.

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