There Will Be Mud: A True Life Kid Story

posted in: Family, Story 9
Awwww, yeah.
Awwww, yeah.

One day on Meadowlark Farm, my sister Nan and decided to get out into the timber for awhile. It was late enough into spring that stuff was thawing. There was a lot of mud out in the field between our farmhouse and the timber, and this was annoying. We were slightly feral, but we were also girls. Getting dirty was never the aim of our adventures; our adventures were the aim.

We put on our lighter snowsuit-overall-things, at Mom’s request. It was still cold and these would keep us warm, keep some mud off our clothes, and protect our little bodies from the burrs and pokey sticks out in the forest. We grudgingly put them on, followed by our galoshes. And we set out.

I’m sure we had fun, but I don’t remember what we did. I only remember that when we came back through the mud field to go home for lunch or dinner, something terrible happened.

Hannah (Nan) fell into a mud pit.

I’m telling you, that girl sank into a mud pit of Neverending Story proportions. She went down and she went deep, at least to her waist. Since we were small, the mud pit couldn’t have been that deep, but for a ten-year-old, a waist-high mud pit is a helluva mud pit.

“MARY!!!!” she screamed. I was 20 paces or so ahead of her when this happened. “MARY!!! HELP ME!!!”

I whirled around to see half my sister, flailing around in the mud. It’s so interesting to me to think what I must’ve said. I know what I’d say today, but at that age, I didn’t know those sorts of words.

“MARY!!!!” my sister kept screaming. “MARY! GET OVER HERE! HELP ME!!” and assessing the situation, I determined she really did need help. Her boots were totally, completely stuck and was she sinking further into the mud? Yeah, she was. Yikes.

I decided that this was definitely an emergency situation, but that I was definitely not going to help her myself. It wasn’t logical! I was smaller than she was! What was I gonna do? Pull my older sister out of a sucking mud pit with the power of my six-year-old will? I knew that if I gave my sister my hand, sloop! down I’d go into the mud, too, and at the time, I only came up to her waist, so I’d be totally drowned in mud. Hell, no. I wasn’t going down like that. I had cookys to eat.

“I gotta go home,” I said, a little scared at how my decision would land with my big sister.

There was a pause in the flailing. “WHAT??!!!”

“I gotta go home!” I yelled, and my eyes got real big as my sister understood that she was totally screwed. The expression on her face, even from 20 paces away, made it clear that if she was able to survive this mud pit problem, I was in serious trouble. As I ran away, I contemplated hiding places.

“MARY!” I heard her screaming, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU!”

“I gotta go home!” I yelled again, and what I meant was, “I gotta go home for help,” but this wasn’t being communicated properly, so Hannah just sent daggers shooting out of her eyes into my back and I ran as fast as my little feet could carry me, out of the mud field, onto the gravel road, into the yard, and up onto the porch of the house.

When I told her what had happened, my mother looked out the kitchen window and saw her eldest child flapping around in a pink coat, far, far out in the muddy field.

“Oh, Mary!” she cried, and we went out and retrieved Hannah. She was fine. A little muddy. Furious at me, of course, but my point was made. A smaller person cannot retrieve a bigger person from a sucking mud pit. Mom could help, I could not.

This is crucial decision-making.

 

 

That Child!!

posted in: Family, Story 3
Me, at seven.
Me, age seven.

On a plane the other night, I read the cover article in the latest Atlantic about the dangers of over-parenting. The concept that parents have been over-protecting, over-scheduling, and over-hanging out with their kids for about a generation and a half has (finally) settled into popular discourse. The idea that you don’t need to — and shouldn’t — watch your kids so closely is not new, but it’s no longer a fringey idea.

The article opened with a report on The Land, a “junk playground” in Wales which is simply a huge expanse of barren acreage where kids can go run around, burn stuff, create fiefdoms, and wage wars with each other if they feel like it. There is no hand-sanitizer, no rubberized asphalt. There are no outlets. There are trees, sticks, non-deadly snakes, and no adults to blow whistles. (The Land is monitored by capable adults, however; the article quotes one of the supervisors describing what she does as “loitering with intent.”) There are water holes, ropes hanging from trees, and there’s a lot of mud when it rains. You can stay out all day, and kids do; they disappear for hours and hours.

I love this.

My childhood was extremely dangerous. My sisters and I lived on Meadowlark Farm, which was seven miles outside of town (eight from the nearest hospital.) Though “Meadowlark Farm” sounds benign/chipper, the reality is that that 80-acre land was hazard’s amusement park. There were rattlesnakes. There were undercurrents in Middle River. There was a forest — or “timber,” which is Iowanese for “forest.” There were actively harvested corn fields. There were crumbly shale banks, ginormous bugs, mud holes, gravel roads, large rusty objects frequently sticking out of the ground, bees, lawnmowers, and — wait for it — an abandoned cemetery across the road. I’m serious. And we had several sets of neighbors that were about two years out from being huge Kid Rock fans, if you get what I’m saying.

We were always two steps away from peril. And it made for some strong children.

Being exposed to risk is important for a kid. How else will you know you can do stuff? I’m not suggesting that any child should be in danger at the hands of adults — that’s called abuse or neglect. I’m talking about consensual risk-taking. I’m talking about, “Hey, kid, take your coat and this apple and this bottle of juice if you’re going out hiking all day.”

Which is just how my mom and dad handled things. As a result, my sisters and I, young as we were, were antifragle: we exposed to stressors that resulted in strength. We were good in an emergency (even if that “emergency” was that the crik was too low to cross in our usual spot.) We were physically healthy, which almost goes without saying. Our imaginations were almost freakishly developed and developing. Essentially, the joy of that sort of kid-rearing is that it yields children who are able to become decision-makers without constant guidance from some adult figure. Hovering adults think they know better and are helping. They might know something, but until there’s blood, actual stranger-danger, or engulfing flames…I tend to think kids don’t need that much help. Remember, before the Industrial Revolution, eight-year-olds were drinking beer, visiting brothels, and workin’ jobs. I’m not suggesting we return to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but I do think a big field of rural nothingness on a cold autumn morning is about the best thing that ever happened to me (at least till I went to San Francisco on spring break my junior year in college.)

Please read the next post, “There Will Be Mud.” It is a story that illustrates my point and is hopefully as funny and painful to you as it is to me and my older sister Hannah.