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The child as verb

Brian Doyle |  21 April 2006

I was shuffling along the roaring shore of the misnamed Pacific Ocean, humming to myself, pondering this and that and t’other, when I saw a crippled kid hopping towards me. She was maybe four years old and her feet were bent so sideways that her toes faced each other so she scuttled rather than walked. I never saw a kid crippled quite like that before. I thought for a minute she was alone but then I noticed the rest of her clan, a big guy and two other small girls, probably the dad and sisters, walking way ahead.

The crippled kid was cheerful as a bird and she zoomed along awfully fast on those sideways feet. She was totally absorbed in the seawrack at the high-tide line—shards of crab and acres of sand fleas and shreds of seaweed and ropes of bullwhip kelp and fractions of jellyfish and here and there a deceased perch or auklet or cormorant or gull, and once a serious-sized former fish that looked like it might have been a salmon. In the way of all people for a million years along all shores she stared and poked and prodded and bent and pocketed and discarded, pawing through the loot and litter of the merciless musing sea.
She was so into checking out tide treasure that her dad and sisters got way out ahead of her and after a while the dad turned and whistled and the crippled kid looked up and laughed and took off hopping faster than you could ever imagine a kid that crippled could hop, and when she was a few feet away from the dad he crouched a little and extended his arm behind him with his hand out to receive her foot, and she shinnied up his arm as graceful and quick as anything you ever saw.

She slid into what must have been her usual seat on his neck and off they went, the sisters pissing and moaning about having to wait for the crippled kid and the dad tickling the bottoms of the kid’s feet, so that I heard the kid laughing fainter and fainter as they receded, until finally I couldn’t hear her laughing any more. But right about then I was weeping like a child at the intricate, astounding, unimaginable, inexplicable, complex thicket of love and pain and suffering and joy, at the way that kid rocketed up her daddy’s arm quick as a cat, at the way he crouched just so and opened his palm so his baby girl could come flying up the holy branch of his arm, at the way her hands knew where to wrap themselves around his grin, at the way the sisters were all pissy about the very same kid sister that if anyone else ever grumbled about her they would pound him silly.

And this is all not even to mention the glory of the sunlight that day, and the basso moan of mother sea, and the deft diving of the little black sea-ducks in the surf, and the seal popping up here and there looking eerily like my grandfather, and the eagle who flew over like a black tent heading north, and the extraordinary fact that the Coherent Mercy granted me my own kids, who were not crippled, and were at that exact moment
arguing shrilly about baseball at the other end of the beach.

I finally got a grip and set to shuffling again, but that kid stays with me. Something about her, the way she was a verb, the way she was happy even with the dark cards she was dealt, the way she loved openly and artlessly, the way even her sisters couldn’t stay pissy but had to smile when she shinnied up their daddy’s arm, seems utterly holy to me, a gift, a sign, a reminder, a letter from the Lord.

In my Father’s house are many mansions, said the thin confusing peripatetic rabbi long ago, a line I have always puzzled over, yet another of the man’s many Zen koans, but I think I finally have a handle on that one. What he meant, did Yesuah ben Joseph of the haunting life and message, is that we are given gifts beyond measure, beyond price, beyond understanding, and they mill and swirl by us all day and night, and we have but to see them clearly, for a second, to believe wholly in the bounty and generosity and mercy of I Am Who Am.

I am not stupid, at least not all the time, and I saw how crippled that kid was, and I can only imagine her life to date and to come, and the tensions and travails of her family, and the battles she will fight and the tears she will shed, and I see and hear the roar of pain and suffering in the world, the floods and rapes and starvings and bullets, and I am too old and too honest not to admit how murderous and greedy we can be.

But I have also seen too many kids who are verbs to not believe we swim in an ocean of holy. I have seen too many men and women and children of such grace and humour and mercy that I know I have seen the Christ ten times a day. I think maybe you know that too and we just don’t talk about it much because we are tired and scared and the light flits in and around so much darkness. But there was a crippled kid on the beach and the Christ in her came pouring out her eyes and I don’t forget it.

In my Father’s house are many mansions, said the Christos, confusingly, and then in his usual testy editorial way, If it were not so, I would have told you, and then, in a phrase I lean on when things go dark, I go to prepare a place for you.

But we are already in the doorway of the house, don’t you think?

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He is the author of six books, among them the essay collection Leaping (available in Australia through Garratt Publishing) and a musing on hearts called The Wet Engine (through Rainbow Books in Australia). You can email him at bdoyle@up.edu

 



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