Splashing in the puddles

Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 3:12pm

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Illustration by Cara Jhang

I have to put my hand above my eyes to look up and see how high Walker has stealthily climbed up the tree in my yard. The sun behind him creates a sort of halo effect. He looks like he has conquered the land as he leans his back against the trunk, sprawling his legs on different branches.

I hear the sound of wheels on the sidewalk rolling toward me at an accelerating speed. Lindsey flies into my driveway on her rollerblades, holding a lacrosse stick and ball while discussing her most recent spy mission.

As this is going on, Jake dribbles by me and tosses a basketball up into the hoop for a point. He proceeds to remind me, or convince me, that the score is now 99 – 0. In celebration, he hops on a skateboard he learned to ride just a few days before, and zooms around like a champion.

This chain of events became a daily occurrence just a few weeks into the start of quarantine.

My next-door neighbors, the Gibbs, have been friends with my parents since they moved in and started their own family. Today, Lindsey is 7 years old, and Walker and Jake, the twins, are 5. When life was busier with driving to friends’ houses, homework and being a teenager, I never got the opportunity to get to know the kids. With this dynamic, I really only knew these three from a distance. The only things I knew about them were snippets of information I would receive from my dad: “Lindsey is playing lacrosse now,” he would tell me, or, “Walker and Jake are riding bikes up and down the street.” I can imagine that in their minds, my brother and I were like some sort of neighborhood urban legends.

When I first returned home to the suburbs of Massachusetts in March, everything was pretty dreary. The weather is always unpredictable around that time of the year. One day it’ll snow overnight, pour all throughout the day and then the sun will peek out just before it’s ready to set. The constant cold and grey skies looming around made it hard for me to go outside a lot. I didn’t realize how crazy I would be driving myself by staying indoors too much.

My older brother, Sean, moved back in and started working from home when everything began to shut down. Unlike me, he is an outdoors rat. Every break he took would involve him going outside to play basketball with the high hopes of randomly getting drafted to the NBA someday. My window looks out onto the driveway, so I can hear the ball bounce on the pavement and the hoop swish when he makes a shot. On one particular break, the bounce of the ball was accompanied by little shoes shuffling down the driveway and small but brave voices asking if they could play with him.

The Gibbs had discovered my 24-year-old brother and elected him as their new best friend. Out of curiosity, I laced up my go-to Reeboks and walked outside. For the next hour Sean, Lindsey, Walker, Jake and I ended up playing basketball and various games of catch.

After that first interaction, we grew to expect to hear a small knock on our front door at any time of the day. We knew we would then get invited outside to play whatever game had been crafted by any of the three kids. Sometimes it was soccer with small goals and strategic methods to distract your opponent and get a shot on their open net. Sometimes it was just running as fast as possible up and down the sidewalk.

Everything was simple with them. The games they played didn’t have to be executed perfectly, or planned before. It was all improvised. The only rule was to have fun. Mishaps were forgotten and name calling in a moment of frustration was forgiven minutes later just so the games could go on. More than once, one of the kids would scrape a knee, or trip over a root and bang an elbow on the ground. There would be pain, and the occasional tear, but they would get right back up and continue to play.

There have been various moments of laughter where we are reminded of how different their perspective of the world is. I remember my brother asked them how old they thought he was, and they confidently replied, “Fourteen!” with pleasant smiles on their face. Sean and I threw our heads back laughing and informed them that he was actually 24. At first, their eyes bulged like their world had been flipped upside down. But after a few seconds, they then shrugged it off and got back to trying to steal the basketball from Sean. 

I realized that at such a young age, the kids have an easier time connecting with others because they carry a natural trait of open-mindedness. I couldn’t fully grasp how finding joy seemed so much simpler for them, so I conducted an informal interview with each of them and collected their hot takes.  

The interview took place near the Gibbs’ swing set as Walker, Jake and Lindsey swung back and forth around me. I wasn’t expecting them to spill the meaning of life, or the key to happiness in quarantine, but I wanted to hear their perspective on the past couple of months. I had a feeling it would be a breath of fresh air. That being said, the interview was short but sweet, and actually somewhat insightful. 

I first asked the group what their favorite thing to do outside was. All three answered with going on the swings. I think that the fact that they were mid-swing when answering this question may have influenced their response, but they were clearly living in the moment (which I respect).

I then asked the group how long they think we’ve been quarantining for and I received mixed replies. Jake informed me that he thought it has been, “ninety hundred years,” and Lindsey declared that it felt like around four months.

We then dove into discussing what their least favorite thing about the quarantine has been. Jake replied with, “doing homework,” which I think many could agree on. On a different note, Lindsey shared that eating dairy has been her least favorite part because it gives her a stomachache. This answer, while unexpected, was definitely justified. With Walker, I believe some of the question got lost in the wind as he swung back and forth by me, since his reply was “I don’t like sharks; I don’t like sharks because I saw one.” Hm. Me too, Walker.

We also chatted about things they have learned recently in online school. All three explained that they had learned about Memorial Day. One of the boys stated that he had learned how to paint and Lindsey informed me that she had started multiplication. Clearly, all three have been actively acquiring knowledge despite the less than ideal circumstances.

To conclude the interview, I asked the group if they felt sad when it rains. 

“Yes,” they said. “Because you can’t play outside.” 

Their answer was simple and exactly what I expected. Yet, as I nodded my head in agreement, Walker added something that left me feeling grateful: 

“But you do get to splash in the puddles after,” he explained. What a wonderful thing to say.  

In a time where I felt discouraged and isolated from the rest of the world, Lindsey, Jake and Walker pulled me outside with them. Their endless imagination and open-heartedness inspired a new appreciation in me for my surroundings.

I was reminded of what it felt like when I was their age. I spent summers in our suburban neighborhood without ever feeling like there was nothing to do —  it just felt like being on a giant adventure map. There were boundaries that my parents set, but the opportunities to explore felt endless. The woods behind my house had swamps with rickety bridges over them made by fallen branches. There was a secret path between the bushes that went from my driveway to my friends who lived next door. The tree in front of my house was the watch tower for my beloved kingdom. When I feel nostalgic and reminisce back to this time, everything seems conserved — like it’s been buried in a time capsule — from lemonade stands to scraped knees. Looking back, I can’t pinpoint a specific day or moment where I decided I was too old to play outside, but I can imagine that the constant sense of adventure I had was interrupted by getting older.

Returning home, I felt frustrated to be stuck here. I forgot how much there is to explore in just a mile radius around my house. I forgot how beneficial just being outside can be for mental health and peace of mind. I thought that during quarantine, I would be further from people, but thanks to the Gibbs’ children, innocence and genuine curiosity swept over me, pushing me to play again. I’m learning new, simple ways to cope with sadness, boredom or frustration. I also have had the privilege to get to know three awesome people who, otherwise, I would have only known from a distance. We would have been familiar strangers at best.

So yes, the past couple months have been hard, and the future feels daunting. But I am grateful that I have found at least some good that has come from all this: a puddle to splash in.