A narrow path runs through the garden patch along the playground’s west side. There, at the point where asphalt ends, I encountered Daphne. She came from behind and shouted “Hey!” snapping me upright. I turned to see a small-boned seven year-old, with a delicate face and gentle eyes looking into mine.
She lifted a tiny plastic container close to my face and said “Look what I found.” Then, as she peeled back a thin blue lid, I saw leaves, sticks, and four roly-poly bugs scurrying around. She had snagged these bugs from beneath a split of decomposing wood and now she raised the container just below my nose so that I could get the best possible look.
“I’m going to keep them forever.”
I flashed back to boyhood – a summer visit to the town of Waukegan – at the time of my grandmother’s death. I remember standing in the yard behind my grandparents’ home, seeing what I thought were floating sparks. “Those are lightening bugs.” my cousin told me. I caught one and declared that I would keep it, but as I opened my hand, I found that I had crushed it in the capture. “They only live if they’re free.” my cousin said.
I decided to ask Daphne a couple of questions:
“Sure you want to keep them?” She shook her head in an emphatic yes. “Sweetie, when you take these guys out of where they’re supposed to be, they probably won’t make it. Have you thought about letting them go?”
The grin fell from Daphne’s face. My additional justifications brought downcast eyes in return. Still, I persisted, suggesting that she return her friends to their rightful places. Then, I became quiet and left it up to her. We stood in silence for a moment. She stepped back and gazed once more into the tiny tub. Then she turned and scooted between two tall hedges. I did not follow her.
Recess rumbled on, and I did not see Daphne again until the bell rang. She emerged from the shrubs, stepping to the last spot in line – empty tub in hand. Misty-eyed, she walked past me without looking up.
I knew Daphne’s circumstances – a daily grind that left her at odds with everyone and everything. She often pocketed things to fill in her emptiness. I asked myself why are you pushing? Why do you care? What harm could keeping a few bugs do? But the teacher in me also sensed an opportunity.
Pua and Kevin, two of my mentors, once counseled me when I struggled through an empty time. They told me about pono – a Hawaiian term that means right relationship. “To have pono, you have to ask your heart, am I right? Are you right with your family, your work? Are you right with yourself? When you find this rightness, ah it’s so sweet! You stop grasping at things. That big empty feeling takes care of itself.” The path to pono, they told me, was the best way home.
I wanted to pass along the gift they gave me – that clinging didn’t equal having – but it seemed that I missed.
Snags like these have a way of working themselves out. As the day unfolded, I found myself hoping that she would discover a path of her own making. That which could set her free might come from the spark of a single, ephemeral moment.
Let it be just so.