She takes a moment. She feels like maybe it’s an idea too hard to sell. “Mom’s not right about everything….”
Grandpa chuckles. “Oh, I know honey. I remind her of that probably a bit too often for a guy that wants a healthy relationship with his daughter.”
“I told Mom that Sasha and Mercedes were picking on me. But she just said I should ignore them. But I can’t. They’re in my school!”
Grandpa frowns, with his hands on his hips. He’s clearly thinking about something seriously. Then: “I’ll get a bunch of the guys I play cards with and we’ll go over to the school and we’ll beat your bullies with dead snakes and then drive over them in our scooters. How’s that?”
The kid giggles. “Grandpa. I mean it.” She pleads, “They’re mean.”
“No snakes eh….” By the time people are grandpas they’ve often learned a lot about being a human and about how adults get formed by childhoods. He can tell this might be a big moment, so he drops down beside her and slows himself down.
He restarts by tucking her in tighter, which she always likes. “Well sweetie, you know your Mom and I disagree about all kinds of things because we’re different people who do things different ways. But we both love you, which is why I agree with your Mom on this one.”
“But you can’t just ignore people when they’re there grandpa!”
“I ignore you when you bug me for candy.”
The kid finds this defense exasperating. “That’s candy. This is people! It’s not the same!”
Grandpa rears up. “AHA. There’s our answer right there.”
“Where? What answer?”
“You think candy and insults are different.”
“Grandpa, everyone wants candy. Everyone. No one wants people being mean to them.”
“No, you want the candy, not me. I don’t want candy. To me you’re just some kid bugging me for candy while I’m trying to read my book. That’s kind of like those girls trying to bug you while you’re playing. It’s the same.”
It is, but it’s not. That’s frustrating for her because she wants her pain. “I’m not confused. They’re mean to me.”
I tightens his embrace around the cocoon of comforters wrapped around her. “Aww sweetie, I’m sorry you’re hurting. I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt if that’s what we’re focused on. But I want to save you from that and we can’t make those girls go away.”
He just pets the child’s head for a bit before restarting. “Look, I don’t mind so much when you want candy. But it’s still not good for you to eat all that sugar, so as the grandpa your Mom deputized me in the candy police–
“The Candy Police???” Even a little kid thinks he’s getting a bit rich.
“–yes, because you’re too little to do what we adults call the ‘self-regulation of impulses.’”
“Nothing. Grandpa accidentally tossed a $20 dollar word into a $5 dollar conversation. My fault. What I meant was, adults know when it’s okay to do what we want, and when we shouldn’t. At least mostly. Except maybe your uncle Danny. Anyway, the deciding what to do and what not to do –that’s most important part of life.”
“So how do I make them decide to stop being mean?”
“You can’t. They’re free, just like you. You don’t want to be forced to do what they want you to do –do you?”
“Then you can’t tell them what to do either.”
“Grandpa, everyone wants candy. Everyone. No one wants people being mean to them.”
“But I don’t like it!”
“Well that makes sense, they’re being mean. No one likes that. But they don’t control what you focus on. That’s the thing you get to decide. Your Mom’s right. You can ignore them by deciding to focus on something else.”
The kid rolls her eyes. This grandpa has clearly never been to school. “Grandpa, you can’t just not listen. They’re right there.”
“No, I get that sweetie. There are times when you can hear the sound waves coming out of their mouths and those do hit your eardrums. When you’re there. But they’re not here now, right? They’re not in your bedroom on a weekend?” Just in case, he checks under the bed.
Where’s he going with this? She’s so confused she can’t even figure out how to respond, so he just gets an exhasperated “Grandpa…!”
“No, I mean it. I’m serious. I swear, you’re confused about something. You don’t have to believe me. I’ll explain it.”
“I’m not confused.”
“Just about this one thing –you just haven’t had anyone explain this to you. I’ll make sure to give your Mom heck for not teaching it to you yet.”
This can be Mom’s fault? That makes the lesson much more palatable. She leans a little further into the idea her grandpa is pitching. He can see a common enemy has got them allied. That makes presenting an idea much more likely to succeed. “You like when we go fishing, right?”
“What’s this got to do with Sasha and Mercedes being mean to me?”
“That is a very good question and I promise to answer it. But first you have to tell me if you like fishing and if you do, tell me why?”
“You know why.”
She protests being forced. “Grandpa.”
“You like riding in Grandpa’s boat, right? You like when we stop the motor and just float, and you like how the shiny metal makes the bright lines on the water and the sound the waves make when they hit it.”
She restresses: “Sasha and Mercedes Grandpa, Sasha and Mercedes.”
“I’m getting there. I promise. In this story they drown –sort of.”
Now the kid’s more interested. “Really?”
Grandpa suddenly goes Zen and asks the obvious. “What’s a boat?”
“What? It’s a boat. Like your boat. The thing we go fishing in.”
“Yeah, but what is it. What does it do?”
“Boats don’t do anything. They just float.”
Is he serious? “Grandpa. On the water.”
“On it, or in it?”
“Well…” she gives it super serious consideration. “…mostly on, but some of it is in –the parts where our feets go.”
“So then, a boat is kind of like a hole filled with air, down in the water?”
This is a crazy funny idea. “Grandpa, water can’t have holes!”
“Sure it can. They’re called ‘boats.’ If the sides of the boat weren’t there but the water still stayed back, wouldn’t there be a hole in the water where the boat was?”
“You mean if there was no boat?”
“Yeah, but the water stayed where it was.”
Okay wait, maybe he does have a point she’s starting to think now that she’s picturing it…. He’s getting an affirmative look so he continues.
“Okay. So a boat is a little like a hole in the water where we put our feet when we fish. But what makes the boat float is that the water can’t get in, right?”
“It would be a dumb boat if water got in Grandpa.”
Now it’s his turn to laugh. “They needed you on the Titanic.”
“What’s the Titan…”?”
“It was a big boat, but they forgot to keep the water on the outside.”
“That was dumb.”
“Suuuper dumb. But we gotta get back to Sashes and Mercedy there–“
She rolls her eyes and stresses, “Sasha. And. Mercedes….”
“Whatever; the ones that drown. So here’s what your Mom means by ‘ignore them.’ She means that your mind is like a boat you own. You can invite anyone you want into your boat, but the boat only floats –ours minds only stay healthy– if we keep the water out. And Sasha and whatshername are all wet.”
That gets him a giggle, but mostly she’s thinking, brow furrowed. “Sasha and Mercedes are made of water?”
“Well, not really them, it’s their thoughts that are the water.” He takes a moment to think of a way to describe it. “You know how you can’t run fast in the water when I chase you at the pool? That’s ’cause water slows us down. When you hear Sasha and Mercedes say mean things, that’s like hearing the water against the side of the boat. But when you put their water in your head it slows you down. But the water never gets into the boat unless we decide to think about the mean things that people like Sasha and… Merrrrr….–“ Oh oh.
“MERCEDES! MERCEDES! MERCEDES! MERCEDES!”
“–MERCEDEEEESSSS– say. Right? Get it? Them saying mean things at school is the water hitting the side of your mind –the side of your boat. But you thinking of them here in your bedroom, tonight, days later –that’s you pouring their water into your boat. Remember, boats float in water, not on it.
“So all our lives people will splash mean things in our direction, but none of that matters if we stay dry in our boat. So that’s what your Mom means. You sitting here in bed thinking about insults you got hours or days before now is you inviting those girls into the space in your boat when you could have been thinking about me….” Grandpa hangs his head, dejectedly.
She realizes he’s trying to steal her victim thunder. “Grandpa…”
“It’s true. You were thinking of them instead of us going fishing. Who do you feel better spending time with?”
“You. Of course.”
“So take me in your boat instead of them. I take you in mine. That’s why I miss you when we go to Arizona.”
She’s not sure she likes this. She’d like this to be Sasha and Mercedes issue to manage.
“Come on. Whose boat is it?”
She tries to wait him out, but he only raises his eyebrows until she reluctantly clucks out a quick, “Mine.”
“Exactly. Your boat is your mind and your job as the Captain is to keep the water out. Right Captain?”
“Can I get a hat?”
“A Captain’s hat?”
“We’ll see what we can do. But do you think you can keep Sasha and–“
She warns him with a look–
“–Mercedes,” he adds carefully “from getting inside your boat?”
“I don’t want their dumb mean faces in my boat.”
“Perfect. Then just don’t think their thoughts. Their thoughts are the water. You only take a thought when you need a drink. They’re not for filling boats. Especially polluted water like theirs.”
“Yeah. Polluted.” She looks like maybe she feels better.
With kids he knows it often will take a while for an idea like this to stick so he reminds her one last time. “Okay, so where’s the boat we want to keep dry?” She taps her head. “Right. And who’s the lake?”
“MERCEDES, and Sasha.”
“Right. And what’s the water?”
“What they think.”
“Their opinions. Right. And so who’s the Captain that keeps water from getting into your boat?”
“RIGHT! See. They can bang water against the side of your boat all day. But you practice keeping that water out then your boat will not sink my dear. Every boat gets some water in it because storms make the waves big. But we can always bail out what got put in, so you just remember to keep the inside–“ he taps her on the noggin “of your boat as dry as you can, okay?”
“Dry as a bone grandpa.”
“I believe that. You bonehead.” He lightly raps his knucks on her noggin.
She giggles. “I’m not a bonehead.”
“Sure you are. Your a chip off your Mom’s bonehead.”
Now she loves when he does this. “Mom’s not a bonehead!”
“She was when she was a teenager, ask your grandma.”
“Did she put a lot of water in Grandma’s boat?”
Grandpa stops and refocuses, sensing an opportunity for some fun and a chance to be a good husband. “You know what? That is a very good question. It’s such a good question that; the next time your Mom and your Grandma are together –and it’s a time when your Mom is really mad at Grandma– that would be a really good time to ask your Mom about the water she splashed into Grandma’s boat when she was in high school. If she’s mad at Grandma that would be a good time for her to remember the times she got Grandma all wet, don’t you think?”
That gets a big few nods in the affirmative. He gives her a little nod of agreement. They are on the same page. He switches to an official tone. “Ready for sleep mode?”
She nods her agreement.
“Okay. five deep slow ones.” The little girl takes five very slow breaths in and out in time with her grandpa. It sounds like they’re already asleep. “Good. That helps slow the machine down. Now you just keep breathing like that, and soon you get to dream! Tomorrow morning you can tell me about all the things you did in your dreams, okay?”
He kisses her on the head. “Boat dry sweetie, okay?”
She nods, he smiles, and out goes the light as the bedroom door closes.
From the darkness, a confident little whisper responds, “Aye aye, Captain.”
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.