My husband and I were walking along the beach when we noticed four children perched in the sand on either side of their cardboard sign that said “Things for free,” handwritten in red crayon. I did a double take. I didn't understand. I looked for the Kool-Aid. There wasn't any. Where was the catch? I looked around to see if it was a joke. It wasn't. My husband, on the other hand, knew right away what was happening and slid right into their magical world of giving. He gently sidled up to their seaside gifting shop and began inquiring about some of the items they had collected, all of which had been arranged just so inside two slightly uneven large circles drawn in the sand. There were shells, sticks, rocks, and even teeth, available for the taking. That I was witnessing a miracle, something absolutely extraordinary, still had not occurred to me as I tiptoed up behind him, carefully observing his gentle manner and how much the children enjoyed interacting with him. All I could think of was, why? Why are you doing this? And where are you from?
My husband leaned in and crouched down as the children huddled with him to observe their treasures. They urged him to pick something, whatever he wanted. To which my husband replied, “Even the tooth? Can I have this tooth?” “Yes,” they said and swooned with pride, “You can have that.” David placed the tiny tooth in his giant hand, the children’s eyes tracing his every move. We stood for a moment and stared at the tooth together, as though it might have a story to tell, then he carefully placed it in his pocket.
“Can I give you something for your circle?” I said, breaking the silence. They all looked up into my face and I felt almost embarrassed. It was they who did not understand me. It was as though they said without words, “Why would you give us something when it is we are giving things away for free?” I could not believe it or could not receive it; I don't know which, maybe both. I found a few pieces of beach glass we had collected and asked them if they wanted to add these to their offerings. They seemed less interested in my ideas than in the glistening glass and quickly added them to their display. Just like when you’re dreaming, this interlude was over as quickly as it had begun. As we thanked them, brimming with delight and enthusiasm, still not clear what had just happened, we returned to our walk as the next intrigued passerby traded places with us at our behest. “Go and look” we gushed. “Those beautiful children are giving things away for FREE!”
I shook my head, not able to wrap my head around it—and then the light went on. I could feel it but didn't have the words until I remembered myself at six years old making mud pies. Carefully concocting the mud mixture and spreading it evenly in the pans, decorating the tops with flowers, and hand-delivering them to my neighbors, hiding around the corner just to see the look on their faces when they opened the door! What joy I felt. Just seeing the look on their faces, that was it. That was something. No, really, this was actually something. A gift itself. The look on the face, connected to me, was a gift! That's it! Holy crap! The interaction between humans. Feeling the flow of energy between two people and among a group of people is a real thing. One that makes you feel good, and that is a gift. I realized in that moment that somewhere along the line this stopped being something. Even though we can feel it, we have discounted it as though it has no value, because you can’t buy it or sell it, you can only give it away for free—that's the way it was intended to be. That is what happens naturally and children know it.
By now my husband and I had circled back towards the children, completing our morning ritual walk, filled with delight as we pondered this miraculous experience. When we approached their seaside shop hoping to catch one more glimpse of them, the children were gone. So was the sign, all their treasures. Strangely, the sand was wiped clean; there were no footprints, no sign at all they had ever been there. Even the house where I assumed they had come from, with the mother sitting on the deck, had drawn shutters and there was not a soul in sight. As we crept passed we shared a silent moment as couples sometimes do, thinking the same thing…did this really happen? We both chuckled, sharing our mind-meld moment, then stopped and looked back. “Nawww, they were there!” I said. And I have a video to prove it!
Funny, isn’t it, that I need a picture or a video to prove something actually happened? As if our miraculous encounter were unreal unless it was material. Which is the essence of this story; things that are free—a glance between us, your eyes looking into my soul, sharing a smile or a gesture of generosity—are actually something. The exchange is real, it matters. It changes you. It makes us better people. It opens our hearts, our souls. Our eyes are wider and we become more real. This is something, not the nothing we have been normalized to see. And it is not about the things. Attention, all shoppers…