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Call the wooden climber in the center the seat of power. Call the sandbox and the swings and the splintered tables the hearts of commerce; the shade
beneath the oaks, the church; the ravaged muddy creek beyond, this country's borderlands. It is spring a puckering day. The kids alone, in pairs,
afraid, delighted, in cars, on foot, in a parade of rusty wagons, on the verge of brave entanglements have finally come.
Out on the playground's edge, the sun at my back, I sit and wait and wonder. I watch. I know that the coming hours will shape the children's view of
friendship and, consequently, their view of themselves. I know that there will be struggles, winners, losers, so many one-act plays, mysteries and
parables. Who is the leader here, and who the disciple? Who will betray, who can be trusted? Who will be drawn in, who locked out? How will passions
coalesce, what will be talked about, who will care? When will the accretion of events, hopes, revelations, gifts, become the stuff of memory and
faith, a durable philosophy of friendship?
The playground bristles. The kids keep coming. A red-cheeked boy with banged-up knees ascends the climber and declares himself king. Below him, in the pit of oyster-colored sand, an artist marvels at his own crystalline creation, then guards its sanctity from the others. Blond and uncompromising,
plastic molds and shovels at his feet, he attracts a gaggle of little girls and boys, beguiles them with the magic of the sand. One or two watch in
reverent awe: obedient, an audience. The others grow rowdy, impatient, seize the artist's tools, plot a sandbox revolution. A tussle over ownership
and rules ensues until some kids run off and some decide to stay, and the morning readjusts to new rhythms and old patterns. Soon boys are dissecting
bugs beneath a tree, kids are fishing for algae in the creek, girls are scraping bare toes against the sun as mothers, fathers, nannies, siblings push
them higher on the swings.
Amid all of this, one child stands forlorn on the fringe a boy without a place to play in this prolific spring. His bucket dangling over his wrist
like a bracelet, his hair rolled up like SpaghettiOs beneath a cap, he has come too late, or too timid, and he has come alone. Sitting where I am, the
sun now warmer at my back, I imagine how his mind is working, how his heart is feeling, how heavy his bucket feels across his wrist. I imagine that I
know him, and in some ways, I'm sure I do. For I too have come alone. I mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend wait here, on the brink.
Watching the boy in the baseball cap, watching the others in their silliness and seriousness, their clear unrivaled laughter, I am taken back to years
ago when I chose my friends, then they chose me. Friendship, from the very start, was both exotic and pragmatic, a roughing up and a letting down. It
was the way I shared what I loved and discovered what was worth sharing; the way I wasted the day, or fractions of day; the way I knew how big or
strong or good or protected or likable I for that small instant was. Friendship happened in neighborhoods and classrooms, and lasted for seconds and
years. It turned trees into castles and marbles into coins, the streamers on a tricycle into wings of plastic glory.
This story, I know, is everybody's story, for the capacity and desire for friendship are scripted right into our genes. Rous-seau's lonely heroes
notwithstanding, we are intrinsically social creatures, our very survival inextricably linked to the fabrics we weave ourselves into. Six billion
people now throb upon our planet; six billion people must somehow daily get along organize resources, divvy up jewels, agree to certain customs, share
the wonder of a baby's face or an aurora borealis. Sometimes the entanglements leave us with bruises, sometimes with friendships, and at times, of
course, friendships leave us hurting, and we start all over again. Friendship isn't merely the province of photo albums and light romance; it should
not, as it so often is, be taken for granted, a random given. Sociability and, by extension, friendship is, as poet and social philosopher Terrence
Des Pres once noted, the by-product of the self-preserving forces of evolution.
Look at the boy in his crumpled baseball cap. Look at how he stands: a muted wanting, his bucket empty.
Throughout our lives, friends enclose us, like pairs of parentheses. They shift our boundaries, crater our terrain. They fume through the cracks of
our tentative houses, and parts of them always remain. They are the antidote not to our aloneness, but to our loneliness. I think of someone sliding
over on a bench. A chair being added to a circle. A letter sent for no good reason. A joke only two people understand. I think of the way an oak's
roots hunger after water, suck life into the tree, anchor the pith, the heartwood, the windshake, the phloem, and keep the branches in their leaves. I
think of someone looking up and saying, Hey, I'm glad to see you. Someone indulging in the mathematics of plurals and finding more than expected in
the sum. Friendship asks and wants, hollows and fills, ages with us and we through it, cradles us, finally, like family. It is ecology and mystery and
language, all three. Fantastic, sustaining, bewildering, it requires us to explore and respect its multiplicity of forms and to teach our children its many lessons. To visit playgrounds where it all begins and wait and watch and remember.
I want to know what friendship is because I am a woman, nearly forty. I want to know because I am a wife, fifteen years married. I want to know
because an old best friend has found her way back to my life, like a leaf on the wind, like a cure, and because some friends have gone missing, and
others are in pain, and others give me gifts so large I cannot reciprocate. I want to know what friendship is because I am the mother of a boy of
grace and humor, a storyteller, a listener, a kid who is happily, confidently off on his own at school, messing around with his own band of friends,
knocking soccer goals home at recess, settling down to a geography test and getting everything, save one trick spelling, correct. I am the mother of a
boy named Jeremy who is deep in his own becoming, standing on the precipice of time. What do I teach him about friendship? What do I know? What can I
remember and elucidate and put upon this page that will help him build a life through friendship, stretch his living across its poles?
What do any of us know about friendship, isn't that the question here? What can we make of how it changes over time, how it is about wonder at first,
then self-definition, then survival, how it is always about comfort, about simply being here, alive? How do we come to terms with the responsibilities
and limitations, the possibility of schisms and despair? Because isn't it true that the more we let others into our lives, the safer we become and
also the more endangered. Isn't it worth it nonetheless? Friendships matter; they rebut death, they tie us to this earth, and, when we're gone, they
keep us here; our friends remember us. Looking back and looking forward we see that this is true: friendship stands as both a scaffolding and a
The boy with the baseball cap is standing before me. He is a lonely alone, his curls spiraling out in all directions. The artist and his fans have
settled in. The king now has a queen and two loud princes. The boys beneath the tree have given up on their disassembled bug. The bouncy horses bounce
and bounce, the swings draw arcs through the air, and down the slope by the creek, algae hangs like a bright flag on a stick.
"Hey," I say to the boy with the cap. "Hey. How about we build us a village?"
"Yeah?" he says, startled. He had not noticed me before.
"Yeah," I offer. "A village. Right here. In our private corner of the sand."
"Sure, yeah," he says. "Whatever," his voice wincing and grateful. Dropping to his knees, a shy, heavy gesture, he scoops his hands into the sand and
starts prodding, poking, plunging. Beside him, I too drop to my knees and steep my hands, pull the sand up into my cupped fingers and let it sift
through; pull it up again, watch the grains fleck with light and filter, fall. I am remembering, making sense of things, remembering. My hands pull
the sand up, let it go, plow deeper and deeper into the earth. Friendship is a benefaction and a weight. It is an instruction and a tool, a risk, a
therapeutic, a happenstance, a philosophy. I must find the words to teach my son. Digging for water, digging for roots, I listen to the soft susurrus
of earth hitting earth, then hear a burst of laughter nearby. It's the boy beside me, elbow-deep in the sand. The kid with the cap and a bucket full
of sand, who is, for now, not lonely.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Beth Kephart. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.