April 8, 2011 § 10 Comments

Oliver's first snowstorm.

This afternoon, after Gus was down for a nap, Oliver tiptoed into my room. “Mommy,” he whispered. “Do you want to play Mr. Dealership now?”

“Of course!” I whispered back and he grinned and hurried down the stairs to the playroom. Mr. Dealership has become our new game and often this time is the highlight of my day. I don’t have much time alone with Oliver, so Gus’ naptime is kind of like a standing date for us. Today I went down to the corner of the playroom, where my “dealership” is. I sat with the basket of clean laundry that needed to be folded while Oliver loaded up his car carrier with Matchboxes and drove them over to me. “Mr. Dealer Manager?” he asked me, “Do you need some monster trucks?”

“Absolutely,” I said in my best used car salesman voice. “And some car parts too.”

The “car parts” were just Gus’ alphabet blocks that also got loaded up on the truck. Oliver used a Lego front loader truck to hand them off to me. “Here’s a C box,” he said. “That’s the carburetors. And here’s an M box. Wait, it’s a W box. Hey, it’s an M and a W. Cool.”

That’s what I love about kids. They are so open. Their wonderful beginner’s minds are so full of awe. To me, an M is never a W. It is only an M. A man is never a woman. A McDonalds is never a Wendy’s. A malasana is never a warrior II. When I start something new, I don’t think of it as cool. I think of it as hard. I think of it as strange and difficult. My own beginner’s mind forgets that it’s a beginner’s mind. It thinks it should know everything already, even as all around me, the world is made new again.

Obviously, spring is the season to flower and take flight. For me anyway, this spring is about taking risks as surely as this winter was about embracing the darkness. Taking risks. Letting go. Oh, there is so much I can let go of: the stories I tell myself, my tight grip on every minute of my day, my fear.

Today, Oliver reminded me of another spring 20 years ago when I was a sophomore in college. That year I qualified for a spot on the US Cross Country team as a junior, which meant I could run in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships held in Boston that year (1992). A few days before the race, there was a massive snowstorm that buried Franklin Park. The weather stayed in the 20’s and the wind came through the city like a freight train. Still, we showed up to run the course the day before the race, all of us bundled into our US-team GoreTex, sick of the snow and wishing that the race was held in another country, like say, Morocco or Mexico. As we trudged up Bear Cage Hill, we heard a lot of yelling and laughing. Whooping. We came around the corner and there was the Kenyan team, dancing around in their green and red sweats. They bent down to the ground and then pointed at the sky. They laughed and yelled things at each other in Swahili. Runners in general are a pretty neurotic bunch and I wondered if maybe they were doing some good luck ritual.

“Hey,” one of the US runners yelled to the Kenyan team’s American translator. The translator waved back at us. He too was grinning. “Hey,” the US runner yelled again, “What’s going on?” The translator loped over to us, and the US runner asked, “What are they saying?”

The translator looked over at the Kenyan team and then turned back to us and shrugged, his palms up. “They’re not saying anything,” he told us, smiling. “They don’t have a word for snow.”

We all stood, silenced by that. The Kenyan team was still jumping around and laughing, pointing at the snow and touching it, as if it were alive. Sometimes they grabbed each other’s hands and put snow in their teammates’ palms and watched it melt. We watched for a while, until finally, one of the US guys lowered his head and started to run again, up that hill. We all followed, quiet for a while, humbled and in awe. “No word for snow?” someone asked after a few minutes. “Did you see how happy they were?” someone else asked.  I felt such a love for those Kenyans then,  dancing around with their big joyful hearts.

The next day, on the starting line of the race, it started to sleet. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt under my singlet and my bare legs were slathered with olive oil to stay as warm as possible. Before the race, my college coach screwed 3/4 inch long spikes into my racing flats so I wouldn’t slip on the ice. Next to me was the Kenyan women’s team. They were shivering in their nylon shorts and singlets and their toes bounced up and down on the white snow. They were running barefoot. For most of the race, I followed the bloody footprints they left behind.

Arguably, Kenyans are some of the most efficient distance runners in the world. To them, running is not just sport, it’s culture. It’s transportation. They are masters at running fast for a long, long time, yes, but they are not masters of snow. I would have bet that day in 1992, in Franklin Park in a snowstorm, the Kenyans wouldn’t have run their best. And that would have been OK because after all, they don’t even have a word for snow. And those words are so important, right? Don’t we need the label to define our experience? Don’t we need the story to explain ourselves?

Or maybe we don’t.  That day in Franklin Park, the Kenyan teams won every race.

Tonight, as Oliver as going to bed, he looked up at the glow in the dark stars on his ceiling and asked, “Do you know what the brightest star in the night sky is?”

“No,” I said, curious to see what he was going to tell me. “What is it?”

“It’s the nut star,” he said solemnly. “If you get lost, you can follow it.”

Nut star? “Do you mean the North Star?”  I almost asked, but I bit my lip. Who cares, I thought, stopping myself. Nut or North. M or W. Scared or brave. Beginner or master. Better than or Worse than. Who cares. I think of the way the Kenyans opened up their hands to that crazy foreign snow. I think about how my son just wants to soak in experience. We’re all just out here dancing in the snow. We’re all running uphill on our bloody feet. We’re all just trying to find our own nut star.


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