The curative power of little girls, ducks, and evening walks

DEARTH OF DUCKSI love working in a newsroom. I really do. The people who work there are generally quick-witted, articulate and intellectually curious, and when news big and small (and sometimes absurd) comes over the transom, the place pulses with a vibrant electricity. It’s a fun place to be.

But on days of national heartbreak – which have become too common lately, with the Newtown shootings in December, and the Boston Marathon explosions on Monday – it becomes a place where these same great people must work to do something productive with the harrowing news that we’re all receiving simultaneously. And while there’s something inspiring and impressive about this act, the consequence is that there’s no escaping the story, on our screens or in our minds, since we’re all constantly tuned in for updates and information.

So days like Monday are hard. You feel angry and frustrated, because even though the statistics still stand wildly in favor of your family’s safety, you can’t rid your mind of that infinitesimal possibility of sudden destruction and loss. (You reflexively want to gather your family in your basement and only occasionally come out for food.) Such thoughts consumed me when walking my little daughters to preschool three days after Newtown. And now I’ll feel this during my next run through our neighborhood, and my next 10K race.

Right now, people are pledging to run to honor today’s victims, wearing old race T-shirts, changing their profile pictures on Facebook, and giving (online) voice to a collective sense of sadness and fear – all of which reflects a populace struggling mightily to find a way to respond in a positive way to the violence.

And while the cynical part of me thinks these symbolic gestures will do nothing to prevent these tragedies from happening again, I have to remind myself that there’s really nothing substantive any of us can do – writing my Congressman with a request to “get Americans off the crazy-train of violence” doesn’t seem particularly useful or effective, either – and that these small acts aren’t necessarily about solving the problem, but about grieving the loss, honoring the victims and survivors, and reflecting on the value of life. And most of us would rather do something than nothing – so we run, we pull on a shirt, we update our status, we virtually rend garments.

Still, as the clock inched toward five o’clock on Monday, I locked up the house, as I do every day, and I walked down the sidewalk toward the girls’ preschool.

Once I got there, things were chaotic, as usual – Neve was crying and desperately pulling me toward the door that leads to the playground, while Lily was throwing every item from her cubby onto the ground and obsessing over some “bracelet” she said her teacher was supposed to put there – but as unpleasant as this push-and-pull phase of multi-child parenting can be, the girls’ micro-drama nonetheless forced me to focus solely on them, solve (or at least distract them from) their problems, and exist only in the exact time and place I was occupying.

That’s something you hear a lot about if you practice yoga – being present and all that – but there really is something to it. In yoga, it’s because if you’re not focused on what you’re trying to do, and how you’re approaching it, it won’t happen. You have to focus on various parts of your body and the teacher’s voice. And that’s one of the main things I’ve always loved about the practice: it gets me out of my neurotic little head for an hour here, an hour there, and then everything else that worries me doesn’t seem quite as tragic or awful.

The same applies to small children. They demand your full attention – in fact, you get the sense it’s never quite ENOUGH attention – and while this can be exasperating, it can also, on days like Monday, be a blessing.

For after the initial drama at the girls’ preschool, we walked home; and as Neve toddled toward the garage, wanting to excavate a trike to ride on, we all spotted two ducks, a male and a female, waddling around our backyard. (Though a nearby park has a creek where ducks gather, we’re still a ways from that space, so seeing ducks behind our house gave us all the dizzying sense that we were witnessing something magical.)

Neve kept walking toward them in the grass, pronouncing “duck” with a hard-as-she-can-muster K sound, and they waddled away, while Lily asked if the duck couple could stay in our yard. But as the novelty eventually wore off, the girls went into the house with me to check out our newly re-carpeted basement.

The girls descended the stairs into the space for the first time since early January, when our basement flooded and we had to have everything removed (including the carpeting and padding, much of the drywall, and most of the toys the kids’ had). To mark the occasion, I’d picked up some small toys for Lily and Neve on the way home from work – so they happily unpacked them and started playing in the otherwise-completely-empty space.

After Joe came home, we had dinner; I got Neve in her owl footie jammies; and we all went for a stroll around the block as the sun went down. I put Neve to bed, did the dishes as Lily played in the kitchen; and had a weird moment with Lily as she tried to kiss me goodnight in the intimate style of Wesley from “The Princess Bride.” (That’s a whole other post.)

But as Lily kissed me goodnight and went up the stairs with Joe, I realized I hadn’t thought about Boston once for a few hours. That the helplessness and anger and sadness I’d been feeling had been eaten up by spending time with my young daughters. I wasn’t stuck in the time when I’d heard the news, and I wasn’t stressing about not being able to do anything to prevent similar attacks in the future.

Instead, I was just with them, enjoying them, and trying to do all I could to keep them healthy, safe and happy in each moment as it happened.

And maybe this was just a symbolic gesture, too, in the end, for it won’t keep anyone safe in future from terrorist attacks. But giving those you love most your undivided attention for a while seems the best, healthiest way, in times of tragedy, to spend the time that we’re given – time that suddenly feels like a delicate, precarious commodity.

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