Report from Oniontown: Wondering Where All the Places Are
In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes of joy and sorrow: “Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
Anybody who knows me can name my joys these days: wife Kathy and children and family and an embarrassment of friends; the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, and my sisters and brothers at St. John’s Lutheran Church; the silence of contemplative prayer; improvisation in the kitchen; and the cultivation of good words.
Most of all, grandsons Cole and Killian bless me so often that I’ve become a bore. A pop who drones on about his boys “ad nauseam” has everybody in his sphere searching for escape routes. I get it.
But stay with me a moment. The eventide of kindness and cooperation everywhere is fast falling. When apocalyptic weather isn’t laying waste to the human enterprise, people compensate by wreaking havoc on each other. Sweetness and light are close to extinction, while civility is an endangered species.
Cole knows nothing of such gloom. The evening news hasn’t yet tripped up his giddy groove, and he comes out with thoughts that lift my fog of pessimism. It happened just the other day.
I wasn’t present for this gem. My daughter Elena found Cole in his room, lying on his bed with fingers laced behind his head and staring up at the world map tacked to his ceiling.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m just looking at all these places,” he said, “and wondering where they are.”
Elena couldn’t remember how she answered, but she’ll never forget the next line: “Where is the playground with the sand?”
Cole wanted his mother to point out, on a world map, the location of the jungle gym and swing set where his Grandma Kathy takes him to play.
Why does this little slip of dialogue leave me stunned with pleasure? After all, his statement is nonsensical, his question naïve.
I’ve spent hours rubbing my temples and concluded that there’s no logic in my response, only emotion. Cole’s thoughts about our big planet make me want to scoop up the little master and hang on tight.
Just imagining the embrace pierces me with joy, but sorrow, ever dutiful, also waits on my board and peers at me over its reading glasses: “Ahem. You realize, of course, that the future might scourge thoughtful souls. Even now, dreamers are having nightmares.”
Point taken. How will tomorrow greet gentle folks who ask where all the places are? And what will become of the pure in heart who need directions to the playground with sand?
Even as I rejoice that one innocent child rests on his bed, looks toward the sky and speaks the language of wonder, I grieve that kindred spirits of his generation may one day hold their tongues, bullied exiles in their own land.
The arms I wrap around my grandsons long to protect as much as love. Unless humanity has a change of heart, the world they inherit will be selfish, ignorant and brutish.
“Will be?” some would say. “Aren’t we already there?”
Not so fast. As far as I know, Khalil Gibran didn’t account for hope. Joy is light enough to ride the mildest breeze. Sorrow surges and gusts. Hope, on the other hand, comes without watches or warnings. Its news comes from redheaded boys.
Most of all, hope is announced by children who have been tossed into the air, caught safely and drawn in close.
As long as my muscles hold out, I’ll pick up Cole and Killian and ask, “What are you doing? What’s on your mind, kid?” If my heart is without guile, their answers will heal and sustain me. I promise to keep you posted.
Joy and sorrow, meanwhile, will live as neighbors on a floodplain, the former assuring the latter that love always has the last word.