It was a beautiful May afternoon. Three unschool moms and an unschool grandma (that’s me) sat on the grass while the kids happily played under a tree nearby. They were laughing, playing tag, occasionally hanging off a tree limb, tickling each other with a branch.
And then an elderly woman walked up to the kids and told them….wait for it….”Trees are not for playing.”
And just like that, the laughter stopped.
I was so shocked that I didn’t say anything to her. She sat some distance from us, watching, talking to her two elderly friends, shaking their heads, probably talking about kids these days. She doesn’t like kids playing in nature, apparently, but I bet she also complains about kids using screens. People like her just complain about kids in general. We were out in the middle of a weekday, when school kids are behind closed doors, so she probably thought she was safe to enjoy a kid-free afternoon. And there we were, ruining her day with all that noise and movement and tree playing.
I told the kids to go back and play with the tree, and that if she came over again, I’d talk to her. She didn’t. Their laughter, thankfully, picked back up again.
I’ve been thinking about the incident all day, thinking about what I’d say to her if I ran into her again. I’m a writer, so sometimes my responses to such situations come after the fact, sometimes in journaling, and sometimes the longer I write, the more scathing I can get.
I stopped after what I considered to be a particularly witty put down, and thought about what our tree would say.
Here’s what I imagine our tree’s words to that woman would be:
But, dear woman, trees are for playing.
All of nature is for playing.
Dirt is for digging, creeks are for splashing, trees are for climbing, leaves are for jumping in, rocks are for skipping, and snowflakes are for catching on your tongue.
You might have thought you were protecting me, but I’m big and strong, and I’m made for afternoons such as these.
You can’t see me smile when they swing from my branches, but I do.
I’m a part of nature, yes, but so are these children. We are equal forces.
Don’t you remember when you used to play with trees like me?
When did you stop?
Was it when your teacher told you to concentrate on more important things?
Was it when your grandmother told you it wasn’t lady like?
Was it when your mother yelled at you for getting your clothes dirty?
Was it when your father told you that you might get hurt?
Was it when your friend told you that you looked silly?
Was it when your pastor preached about idleness?
Was it when the newsman told you that it wasn’t safe to be with me?
Those people were wrong, you know. Children and trees are good for each other.
Now you’re old, and tired after all those years of chasing after all those things you thought you were supposed to chase.
Because you haven’t played with me for so long, your body, mind, and spirit are stiffer and more sore than they need to be.
Being tired, stiff, and sore makes you grumpy, and so you come to me to sit…at a distance, but still, you see me, and I do my best to soothe you.
And then these children come and play with me, right in front of you.
Their minds are free and uncluttered, and their bodies are strong.
Their energy and excitement for life unnerves you.
You don’t know why it makes you so uncomfortable.
You say they’re just the product of bad parenting, whose mothers have them out in the middle of the afternoon playing and running wild instead of doing more proper and productive…and quiet…things.
But what really is causing your discomfort is that they still have what society domesticated out of you: that spark of vitality and wholeness that is where health and peace of mind come from.
You yearn for what they have so much that when you see it in them, it makes you all the more miserable.
I yearn for you to return.
To rub your cheek against my bark.
To deeply breathe the clean air I provide for you.
To reach out and catch one of my falling leaves.
To laugh underneath my branches.
I am deeply sad for you, dear woman.
But please don’t try to turn these children into what you have become.
You tried, that afternoon.
May their parents and grandparents, and even strangers such as the one who stopped to ask if they wanted to pet his dog, all protect what they have so that when they are as old as you, they still play with me.
May they always come sit under my branches like an old friend and laugh with joy at the antics of the young children who come after them.