Beloved Strangers

Yesterday, because the sun was out, I took Stump, my three-year-old, to a park we don’t often visit. The playground area was overflowing with kids and parents, and so Stump and I were quick to move on. We moved to the sunny field for a while and then Stump pointed to the tennis courts. No one was actually playing tennis. There was just a sunny court, a few puddles, and a little girl, maybe five years old, whose mother was helping her learn to ride a bike. The moment I opened the tennis court gate, the little girl jumped off her bike and ran to us. For a moment I was confused. Was there someone behind us that she knew? Did she mistake my kid for someone else? But I didn’t have too much time to wonder, because she was already standing beside me, tickling the inside of Stump’s hand with her index finger, and Stump was tickling her back. They stood face-to-face. The little girl began tracing Stump’s forehead with her finger, and he reached up to trace hers as well. Their greeting was at once ceremonial and natural, as if they were beings from a faraway planet, one that had an intimate custom for meeting strangers.

The exchange went on for minutes as they stood there exploring each others’ faces, both of them captivated, smiling. The other mom and I stood on the sidelines laughing, not sure exactly what to do or say—I mean what do you do when your child has fallen so suddenly and utterly in love?

Eventually the little girl ushered Stump into the center of the court where she showed him her bike and invited him to check out her handlebar streamers, which were silver and purple and fluttering. She told him where he could stand while she practiced riding, and then after a few laps around the court, her mother told her it was time to go.

“I’m going to a birthday party,” she explained to my son. “Do you want to come too?”

“Yeah,” Stump said.

“That’s nice of you to invite him,” her mother said. “Do you want to tell your new friend goodbye?”

She embraced him. He returned her embrace. She kissed his cheek. He kissed her back. They were quiet and radiant, wide-eyed and giggling. They kissed each other quickly on the lips (the lips!) and then she stepped away and hopped on her bike. “Wow,” said the little girl’s mother. I shook my head in amazement. My eyes were wet and I could not stop laughing. When they were finally out of sight, Stump looked at me and said, “I want to go to that party.”

The night before, because I couldn’t sleep, I had been lying in bed considering the word beloved. I thought about who was beloved in my life, and a row of faces appeared to me. At first they were the faces you would expect—my children, my partner, my brother. But my pre-sleep brain kept going, kept presenting me with rows upon rows like a stadium, concentric circles of beloveds. I saw the faces of family and friends, colleagues and students, people I’d worked with behind a counter in my twenties, friends I’d made in summer camp and then drifted from. My waking brain was skeptical. Really? I asked myself. All of them?  Yes, all of them, my sleep brain replied. And then the rows of beloveds kept expanding until they included everyone on earth. Even Donald Trump? my waking brain asked. Even Donald Trump, sleep brain replied. It made so much sense at the time. Sleep brain took over and I finally drifted off.

There’s this moment in the book Fun Home where the narrator, Alison, is five years old and eating with her father in a diner. A woman—a stranger—walks in wearing a flannel shirt and short hair. She’s delivering boxes on a hand truck. She gets the waiter’s signature and leaves. This is the first butch woman that our narrator has ever seen and she describes the moment this way:

Like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy.

When the narrator says “I recognized her,” what she means is that she saw herself in that woman, that the very sight of her opened a door, gave her permission to become a self that she both feared and longed to be (in this case a woman who expresses gender on her own terms). On the next page, the narrator says: “the vision of the truck-driving bulldyke sustained me through the years.”

I keep pausing there. The vision of the bulldyke sustained her. It fed her and kept her alive until a moment in her adult life when she could finally own who she was.

I consider also the “surge of joy” she describes in that moment of recognition, and the surge of joy I felt vicariously for Stump when that young girl greeted him with a wide-open heart. She saw him. He saw her back. Their love filled a tennis court. It filled my whole weekend.

image credit: Sean Connors, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://www.flickr.com/

 

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102 comments

  1. Thank you for reminding us that life is such a wonderful gift. Let us live each day grounded in a tennis court filled with opportunity, wonderment and joy. Thanks for an absolutely beautiful piece of writing, Jenn.

  2. wow I loved this Jenn. The meaning of beloved and Stump’s pure experience with that little girl. And how sometimes recognizing oneself in the other and seeing the other can also trigger that word. In some of my circles we talk about lover and beloved when we talk about people in relationships- and how one is the other to the other. Shiva and Shakti. Union and balance. and your reminder that it isn’t always about romantic love but so much more.

  3. loving your image of “rows upon rows like a stadium, a concentric circle of beloveds” (what a wise meditative practice) — and this magical encounter between two young humans on a tennis court with two loving mothers holding the space as witness. — thanks for writing and spreading this love.

  4. I take my grandchildren to the city park and watch how kids interact. My grandson is autistic and those moments when he follows other children his age is priceless. Thanks for sharing.

  5. What a wonderful piece. The spontaneous affection between the two children was the capstone to your pre sleep throngs of beloved. Stump was showing us how to love – even strangers – freely, unconditionally, and joyfully.

  6. This was one of the most touching stories I was ever given to read. It makes me believe in life and love, but also wish that adults were more spontaneous at times hehe. Thank you for writing this!

  7. It really says something how we can only imagine children doing something like this, immediate contact and excitement for this connection and kisses, irrational love, love without reason or bounds. And we do the same thing again, maybe, in high school, drinking at house parties and our conscious selves dissolving to the need to find someone, anybody, to meet and to kiss. And then in college, maybe, if you experiment with certain things, the same dissolving of your ego and your reason and just an irrational, exciting love for people, strangers, places, things.
    And, as we drift off to sleep at night, conscious minds lapping down under the unconscious, noting to ourselves that, yes… even Donald Trump.
    Stranger, I like you; I shall have to follow.

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