Your Best Self

Always be your best self. You never know who may be watching.

Juliette took me to the park this weekend. It was just the two of us and on the walk down; she pointed out the things most of us usually miss. The wind in the trees that makes the branches sing. The softness of the green grass. The sound shoes make when you scrape your heels on the sidewalk. And the way the clouds pile on top of one another in the Florida afternoon as the cool air from the beaches collides with the rising heat from the sun-drenched peninsular earth.

Jules simplifies these concepts to their monosyllabic essence: Trees, Breeze, Grass, Listen and Clouds. To her, the science of photosynthesis, meteorology and friction are irrelevant. Her job is to get me to think about the concepts from my experience, while she enjoys it from hers.

We came upon a crew, setting up a screen and sound system at the park. An Australian woman let Juliette help plug in audio cables, wrap Velcro around speaker stands and fold the plastic that was at the ready in case of rain.

Each was a mindfulness exercise, approached with the greatest care and with fascination.

When the music came on, three teenagers appeared to practice a modern dance number for later performance on the grass.

Enthralled, Juliette and ran amid the trio, modeling every move, drinking in the music that was an unaccustomed additional dimension of the park experience.

It mildly worried me that the highly focused dance coach might find Jules an unwelcome nuisance. But Juliette has a way about her that inspires others to bend rules, to welcome her participation in whatever is going on.

And Juliette treats each new experience with a joyful reverence. Whether it’s helping a pregnant mom push her two-year-old on the baby swings or explaining to two young kids she’s never met why it’s important to climb through the tunnel between the stairs and the slide, she only sees an opportunity to help, to share what she knows and to learn something new.

About five minutes into Jules’ dance performance, I awoke out of my hypnotic focus on witnessing this magic moment and hit the record button on my phone. The attention to shot composition and how the story would translate to the television screen had me studying how the three dancers could stay centered on their task with a kid prancing around them, mimicking their every move as if it were a spiritual rite.

And perhaps that’s what it was. I remember how scared I was that something bad might happen to Shelby and Brandon when they were Juliette’s age. Colleen and I gave them enough rope to play, but our fears definitely detracted from fully processing the miracle of growth that was happening before our eyes.

I’m older now. Most of the things that can happen to a human being have happened to us. Fear is less of a factor and my own flagging powers slow everything down to where I have time to think about the significance of the little things. This is the world that kids live in every day. Everything is new. Their insights are fresh discoveries. Nobody has told them things can’t be done, except perhaps eating candy at every meal.

Complicated issues like hatred and judgement are still in the future. Even when kids taught to disrespect differences make remarks, Juliette still shrugs them off. She is who she is. She knows what she wants in the moment. And every new stimulus opens new vistas of play and wonder.

I can relate. I’m always seeing the possibilities in everything. Can I build “an app for that?” Is this conversation a new dialogue scene for my current writing work-in-progress? How can we create a solution for problems that I still see as nothing more than puzzles to be solved?

My friends tell me that this isn’t “normal.” There are rules. Some things just can’t be done. People fear change, especially when it requires them to change, too.

So, we sit in stasis. Don’t bother the dancers. Stay in your lane. Accept what the so-called experts say. Follow the rules. And bitch about it.

That’s adulthood.

I saw a shirt in the overpriced gift shop at a resort we visited as the pandemic loosened its grip. “I’m Done Adulting for Today.”

I bought it.

At some point, Juliette will learn the rules. She will realize that we must have boundaries to stay safe. Not everyone will love her. Some may want to hurt her.

The trick is to maintain the sense of wonder, to be sensitive to life experiences that form prejudice and paradigms in others, to see every problem as a solvable puzzle. And to have the courage to join the performers on their grassy stage and dance lovingly with them.

Twenty-five years ago, 18-year-old Keshia Thomas put her black body between a mob and a white man with a Nazi tattoo as an angry mob threatened to beat him. “Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘this isn’t right,’” she said afterwards. “I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me… violence is violence – nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea.”

Months later, a young man came up to thank her. The man she had protected was his father. “For the most part,” Keshia observed, “people who hurt… they come from hurt. It is a cycle. Let’s say they had killed him or hurt him really bad. How does the son feel? Does he carry on the violence?”

What does it take to create a cycle of acceptance? Acceptance of color, gender, preference, ability?

You do what Juliette does. You seek the surrounding beauty and model it.