It was a sunny day, warm but not hot – the perfect day for gardening. My two-year old son had a variety of things to keep him occupied – diggers and tractors, a rubber ball on stand-by for when the trucks lost their appeal. I dug the trowel into the earth and began loosening the soil, cultivating the ground in order to transplant my overabundant irises.
A rock landed in the iris next to me. “We don’t throw rocks,” I said. “We throw balls.” This had become my default secondary sentence after something other than a ball was thrown. The rocks kept landing next to me. I repeated myself a few more times before I embraced the futility of my words. I put down my trowel, took off my gardening gloves and walked over to the rock bed. How could I teach him not to throw rocks when the rocks were so tempting? Shiny bits of quartz peaked through the rose tinged stones, there was such variety of shades and sizes, some smooth, others mottled and rough. There were rocks from the beach that we’ve collected and brought home and there was the odd piece of beach glass dumped into the pile from the jar of once-treasured pieces stowed away in a jar full of water. Squinting while staring at a piece of smooth opaque pale green glass it became clear that tractors and balls were no match for these minerals. I looked around. What could be more appealing then rocks? Dirt of course.
Armed with a shovel and pail I asked my son to help me garden. He abandoned the rock bed and ran. Before I let him dig we walked the garden’s perimeter touching and smelling leaves and flowers. We’d done this before and he always smiled when I rubbed my hands in the lavender and brought them to his face. I repeated gentle when he reached out to touch the leaves and petals.
As he scratched at the soil I uprooted one of the irises. He immediately came to play in the empty hole. Certain words are often on the tip of my tongue – the don’ts, the be careful’s – words that make me roll my eyes at myself as I’m saying them. I swallowed. I said nothing and watched him sift and sort, dirt spilling onto the path. I encouraged him as I worked, telling him we were making new homes for the plants to live. I planted. He played. I left the hole where that first iris had stood and told him it was his. He didn’t throw another rock. That day.
It must be confusing, learning when we can and cannot throw since we skip stones on water, and stones themselves are ball-like. He likes to throw rocks, sometimes. Don’t all kids? I can redirect, distract, divert, and satisfying the senses by playing with dirt, with water, or muck. We have years of this playful activity ahead of us – him throwing rocks and me repeating the word gently as we touch and sniff at the plants and flowers the pepper our land. “Gently” he said, pulling at the tall thin leaves of daffodils like he would a cat’s tail at first. His grip loosened, I could see the ease in his hands and a fanning out of the leaves.
Kindness is not learned overnight. Just like a garden that needs to be tended, teaching my son healthy relationships with humans and plants and animals and even abstract things like emotions, requires the same work as cultivating fertile soil. You can neglect it, and weeds will creep in. There’s no guarantee that my son will always be thoughtful, just as from one year to the next a garden will yield more flowers or less depending on a number of factors, not just attention to the soil. But I can remind and guide and be gentle.
My partner’s mother used to say to him, ‘gently and with kindness’ when he was frustrated or about to argue. He’s listened, because he is often the first to say those exact words when we find ourselves stretched, overtired, at the tipping point of fiery words with each other or our son. Playing in the earth is gratifying on so many levels – being in touch with our physical environment, being outside, being focused and present, paying attention to the bugs and butterflies that share this world. Planting food brings gardening to another heightened level – one that keeps us tied to the health of our planet, which of course ties into the health of humankind. It slows us down and brings our awareness to just how minute we are in the universe. If it can allow for a pause, for my son to break from his instinct and desire to throw, then bring on the mud. Stains are easier to overcome than bruises.