Recently two of my children and I visited an unfamiliar park in a part of San Diego that we have explored little. The park sits on a hill, some of the slope on its west side a retaining wall of concrete covered in a thoughtful but neglected mural. The playground above that wall is wide, a generous half circle that is just enough a blend of aged and grand to remind me of one of Paris' more modest parks: Les Arènes de Lutece, a mostly empty echo of a Roman amphitheater where older men play boules in a setting not so much memorable as quiet, a place of simple interjections and humble adjectives -- yeah it's nice here, one might say.
The playground at Colina del Sol has a similar unhurried meter, and it too feels far from home. As my youngest daughter set out on her bicycle to circle the rim of the plateau on which the playground sits, my eldest daughter and I followed her on foot. The experience was one of gradual realization that we had arrived in a place that was, in that hour, home to a motley of identities -- young and not-so-young, immigrant and local. As we progressed our way from west to east, we heard multiple languages. There were several children at play, and after completing a few pleasant laps my 7-year-old daughter got off her bicycle to join in the climbing and sliding. She approached with her usual blend of confidence and reticence. Minutes later, she strode back to her sister and me and told us that a little girl had asked for her name.
"Did you talk to her?" I wondered. My daughter nodded. I looked at the girl she'd referred to, thin and little, her long dress in an ornate pattern and lightweight fabric unlike anything they sell at Gymboree, her head covered in a hijab. She was one of several little girls so attired. "Good," I said, and my daughter scampered back to the sand. She would entertain herself there some more.
My eldest daughter and I sat at the perimeter of the playground, two women to our right busily chattering in the shade, again in a language I don't speak. A late midsummer afternoon, the temperature was pleasing. A boy on a tricycle added a sustained rumble to that otherwise quiet place. A hardscrabble ball field below us, mid-hill, was the site of a vigorous soccer game, what looked to be the full twenty-two players stitched into an undersized space. Above them, at still another level of this hillside, a volleyball game was underway. Everything -- the play of the children, the chatter of the women, the informal volleyball and the determined soccer -- was conducted by different groups, some homogeneous and some intermingled, the faces from Somalia, Cambodia, Latin America.
We had come to this neighborhood so my son could play golf at a small kid-friendly course near here. Otherwise, we wouldn't have landed at this place, and we would have missed this patch of earth with roots both incipient and deeper, its beginnings pulled from around a shrinking globe. I sat and thought deliberately about how this diverse scene was different than my neighborhood, how it almost felt as if were traveling with passports in tow. Here, it felt silly to think about a term like "minority", because there were so many ethnicities represented that we could all be so labeled.
My 7-year-old's experience was different than mine. She didn't ask why the girl who had spoken to her was wearing a headdress. She didn't comment that we were the only ones speaking English, and she certainly didn't point out that we were the only people there of European ancestry. Instead she climbed to a platform on the play structure. She waited for her turn at the pair of drinking fountains. She got off and on her bicycle. She enjoyed the dueling slopes between the playground and the ball field where she could coast down and back up again. She played amid the other children on the playground equipment and she and the other girl exchanged fleeting almost-smiles. Later she focused on keeping her bicycle tire away from a gap that had formed in the sidewalk.
I think about the ability of a child to simply be, to accept an environment and integrate its novelty without self-reflection. I think about how a child sees other children, how "otherness" is something that grows with time. I wonder if it has to be taught. My daughter herself carries with her some element of that "other", having the chronic disease Type I diabetes. I've been ready for one of her young playmates to back away, to recoil when my daughter gets a quick injection in the back of her arm or when her lancet device produces a spot of blood on her finger. Six years past her diagnosis, we are still waiting for that day. Children instead move in rather than away, curious and perhaps lacking discretion, but never afraid and simply never aghast.
One needn't romanticize a child's deeds. My daughter did not end up hand in hand with her Somali age-mate on this day at Colina del Sol Community Park, and there was never a still shot of a pale hand clasping a dark brown one in a lovely show of solidarity. This is perhaps more a story of what my little girl did not do. Set amid a backdrop of contentiousness both near and far -- the Palestine/Israel conflict has been little changed since my youth, and my fellow citizens of our border regions are blockading buses of refugee children from arriving in their communities this summer -- I think it worthwhile to consider why and when we begin to snip away at our compassion, why we eventually mark limits around it, why we reserve it for our own collection. I doubt many parents teach this overtly to their children: when he falls, lift up your brother but not your neighbor's brother. Yet that is what we as adults often display.
Sunset was still hours away when our visit to the park drew to a close. As we made our way back down that hill, I observed what lined the opposite street: an aging strip mall, an apartment building, and at the corner, a detached home with a fenced front yard. In that yard my 12-year-old and I noticed there were three grottoes of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I chuckled at the rate of three such images to one small yard, but this is what I said to my child: "See -- being Catholic connects you culturally to people around the world." There is always something that can connect us. There is always overlap.
I think we will return to this City Heights section of the city, and I hope that in our meanderings we uncover more pleasant surprises like what we found on this hill. On that return trip I will be certain to have my children with me, and they will do what they have always done: they will make me slower, they will make me stop, they will make me proud.