The Backwards Child: Finding Wisdom in a Moment

Every action, every interaction, has a bedrock of truth deep within it. Sometimes that truth is wonderful, other times it is as hard as a rock. When someone sends you a note after ages of silence, the truth might be they’ve wanted to connect for a long time, but didn’t know how. When a boss dismisses you or your ideas in front of everyone in a meeting, the truth may be he is insecure and your ability threatens him. It’s an act of fear, not hate. The deeper you reach into a moment, the more truth you will mine from its walls, and the wiser you’ll become.

 

By Kellie Schorr

 

Holidays in the Moment is a six-part series examining the paramitas, also known as the six perfections or the six transcendent actions, through the lens of the holiday season and beyond. These attributes help us to open our awakened heart and reduce suffering for ourselves and others. They are: generosity, discipline, patience, effort, wisdom and concentration.

In the early 1970’s when the divorce rate boomed, I found my nine-year-old self sitting in an airport waiting area with a big red lanyard around my neck reading “UNACCOMPANIED MINOR.”

My parents were not divorced but they were never really together, either. So every summer from the week school ended to the week before it began, I’d be packed up and put on a plane from wherever we lived to my grandmother’s Appalachian farm in rural East Tennessee. My parents then had all summer for work or separate vacations or whatever they did.

The big red tag was supposed to alert flight attendants that I needed help with boarding, getting around the airport, and they would have to ask some adult in the seat beside me to keep an eye out for me. There were a lot of tagged kids going from to mom to dad, so the watchful eye was rarely present. The realization that small children wandering around a public space with a waving red vulnerability beacon was not a good idea, wouldn’t hit the airline industry for another 20 years. More about that in a minute.

In the language of East Tennessee subsistence farmers, I was notable for several reasons.

  • I usually suffered from intense motion sickness after the mountainous dirt road drive from the airport to the farm, and I have hypermobile patella syndrome which means my knees spontaneously dislocate and I fall down, a lot. I was “sickly.”
  • I had a suitcase full of books, knee braces, new summer shoes, and spare glasses in whatever my mother thought was the latest style. I was “fancy.”
  • I was terrified of those hand-pecking demon chickens who wouldn’t just give me the eggs when I asked. I was “nervous.”

The summer I was nine, I learned I had another descriptor, one I’ve never forgotten. I learned, by accident, I was a “backwards child.”

The first night, I put my things away in the food pantry with a little cot and dresser built out of wood boxes that would serve as my “room” for the summer. I brushed my teeth, and remembered something I needed to ask before bed. My uncles and grandmother were on the porch. I heard them before they saw me.

“Harbaughs takin their kids out to the lake Saturday for a picnic. Tammy’s goin’. Kellie can come too,” my uncle said, looking out on the vegetable garden.

“I’ll ask her uplight (in the morning) but Kellie ain’t gonna wanna go with that mess,” my grandmother said as she waved off the thought. “She needs it really quiet. She’s a backwards child.”

“Yep,” my uncle agreed. “Well, if she does, give a yell (tell me) and I’ll carry her up the hill (drive her to their house).”

There it was. I was “backwards.”

The screen door made a screech and I appeared on the porch. I asked my question, got an answer and turned to go. My grandmother pulled me over to her.

“Luther said Harbaughs goin up to the lake Saturday,” she said carefully, taking my small hand in her weathered embrace. It was so warm. She made sure to look me right in the eye so I could hear the words she was saying, and what she wasn’t saying out loud. “You can go if you want, it’s really okay, but if you think you have too many chores to get done and you ought stay here, that’s okay, too.”

Spending half of Saturday in the back of the Harbaugh family’s truck that lacked shock absorbers with their loud gaggle of kids and my cousin Tammy (equally energetic), then swimming in slimy pond water where the older boys would be dunking the younger kids in the mud, sounded like all 31 flavors of hell.

“I think I best stay and get chores done,” I said.

“Alrighty, then.” She smiled at my uncle who nodded in return. The backwards child was indeed backwards.

I wasn’t the only backwards child my grandmother kept under the protective warmth of her wings. A woman with nine children and who-knows-how-many grandchildren, is bound to have a few that need a little extra care.

When my cousin Seth who struggled with speech came by to pick up vegetables she would get what he wanted purposefully slowly so he’d have time to finish the list. My cousin Junie was autistic, non-verbal, prone to seizures, and lived in a care home. A member of the family would bring him to the farm to visit every week. He would be so excited to see her and sway toward her and she’d say, “I love you too, sugar.” My great aunt Gladys experienced long periods of agoraphobia, and my grandmother would send us with cornbread or flowers to her window where we would hand the item through.

  • “Give Seth a minute to answer,” she’d tell me. “His talkin’ is backwards.”
  • “Junie is talking to us in his way. It’s not his fault we don’t get it. We’re as backwards to him as he is to us.”
  • “Take this bread over for Gladys and knock on the window. She’s in a backwards time.”
  • “Kellie doesn’t do well around a lot of people. She’s backwards.”

We were all seen. We were all loved. We were all “backwards.”

I know. I know. It is wildly inappropriate to call someone “backwards.” I wouldn’t do it, and I’d probably have a few choice words of correction for anyone in this day and age who did. But to my elderly grandmother with limited language choices, who probably hadn’t been more than 10 miles off that farm since the day she was married at 14, it wasn’t a slur, or even a criticism. It was just the reality of the situation, and it meant we needed to be a little softer, a little kinder, and a little more wise.

The fifth paramita is wisdom. It’s the easy one to talk about.

I think of Buddhism as stool with three legs—practice, study, and ethics. They need to be kept in balance on you’re gonna wobble through life. Although we tend to think of study when we hear about wisdom, it really applies to all three. We need to be mindful of the lessons our practice brings us. We need to study texts, stories, histories and experiences. We need wise choices to develop a life made of compassion, honesty and joy.

Wisdom is learning from the truth at the heart of the moment. Every action, every interaction, has a bedrock of truth deep within it. Sometimes that truth is wonderful, other times it is as hard as a rock. When someone sends you a note after ages of silence, the truth might be they’ve wanted to connect for a long time, but didn’t know how. When a boss dismisses you or your ideas in front of everyone in a meeting, the truth may be he is insecure and your ability threatens him. It’s an act of fear, not hate.

The deeper you reach into a moment, the more truth you will mine from its walls, and the wiser you’ll become.

It’s so very natural in our culture to call things out and pick them apart. Songs, movies, half-time shows, leaders, teachers, children, acts of kindness, words of hope—everything is susceptible to being put on the social media slab and dissected by the masses. People think it makes them seem smart, “woke,” or present. Most of the time, it just adds to the noise. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t point out wrong, but we should time the time to learn from the true heart of the moment before we condense, condemn and cast-off.

It is terribly easy on the surface to ridicule or criticize my grandmother for her less-than-educated and unenlightened description of the neurodiversity and challenges in our family. But in her moments, flawed as they were, she taught her introverted, socially awkward granddaughter about the gentle acceptance of letting people be where they are with things. She taught me to notice when someone is struggling and instead of shouting it in their face, to quietly offer them a chance to exist with dignity.

Your life doesn’t have to be a constant battle of self-improvement. It can just be your life. That’s some pretty advanced wisdom.

The deeper you reach into a moment, the more truth you will mine from its walls, and the wiser you’ll become. ~ Kellie Schorr Share on X

Now there are safe zones, attendants, and trackable wristbands for children who fly alone. It took a billion-dollar industry full of analysts more than 20 years to figure out red-tagging children and letting them wander around airports without supervision was possibly a bad thing. It took my Appalachian grandmother about 10 minutes to discover how to give someone the space they needed to be comfortable and safe.

Wisdom isn’t in the money, the study, or success story. Wisdom is in the moment.

In the Moment:

Generosity is giving what you have to the moment.
Discipline is doing what the moment requires.
Patience is letting the moment be exactly what it is.
Effort is filling the moment to its fullest potential.
Wisdom is learning from the truth at the heart of the moment.

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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