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Sunblock the child to sunblock the child
trying to be more alive
I lure my 7-year-old daughter outside to sunblock her before going to the beach. “I want to do it myself,” she declares. This is new. I would love for her to do it herself but the stakes are high—my son’s cheeks were burned the other day and I am determined to prevent a repeat of that singed red skin that is a sign of my parental failure.
I tell her she can do her face and I’ll sunblock her body. She takes the sunblock stick and rubs it over her cheek and down toward her jaw. I squeeze some cream into my hand and reach for her shoulders, but she pulls away. “I’m not done yet,” she says.
As she runs the sunblock stick over her nose haphazardly for the third time, and I ache to be done with this endless chore and on the beach, I think of Thich Nhat Hanh washing dishes.
In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Hanh writes, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.”
How many times during my days of parenting and working and trying to be a human in 2023 do I feel simply not alive? If I’m honest, a lot of the time. Not-alive while collecting dirty laundry from the floor. Not-alive while checking my work email and seeing another meeting pop up. Not-alive while slipping snacks into the front pocket of my kids’ backpacks for the 300th time.
Not-alive while sunblocking my children. This is at the apex of my most hated parental tasks. Everything in me wants to escape. I wonder if I go to the bathroom now and avoid sunblocking at least one of my children? I would do anything to get to the part where my greased up, protected children are running on the beach.
But that would mean I’m not alive for this part. And, I’m trying to be more alive, more in my actual body and life these days. Is it possible to be alive for this, or would even Thich Nhat Hahn concede that there are some activities that you just want to zombie your way through to get to the other side?
I’m going to try to stay present and alive for this one time sun blocking my daughter. If Hahn tells us to wash the dishes to wash the dishes, I’m going to sunblock my child to sunblock my child.
I let her coat her face haphazardly for the third time, then try to ride the wave of her joy while staying focused on rubbing the cream into every part of her back and the little circle where her suit is cut out. I need to get it just a little under the suit because it will move around and shift as she’s running and swimming. I move over to her left arm and remember massaging her when she was a baby, something I wish I’d done more. I was so all over the place mentally then, worried about finishing my book and getting a full-time college teaching job. Was my mind there with her?
Did I get that little pocket of skin under her shoulder? I do it again to be sure. My husband asks me where my son’s hat is, and then my daughter needs to pee. I go over my mental list of what I still need to sunblock: “Legs and feet,” I say aloud to myself. “And cheeks” because she did those on her own.
I ask her to come back when she’s done. She doesn’t.
I find her drawing unicorns. “We have to finish your sunblock. We’re almost done and then we can head to the beach!” I say this in as light and chipper a manner as possible, while inside I’m the hot red Anger character from Inside Out, my head actually on fire. We start again and I really try to focus on her left leg. Then her right. My mind wanders to where our hats are hanging, how I need to remember to bring them, then to the question of whether I packed enough waters, then to where my son is. I realize I’m not focused. I bring my mind back and go over part of her calf that I’m not sure I got. Then shift to her right leg. I rub the cream into her right thigh, her calf, her shin, and cup my hand as I pull the sunblock on, so that there aren’t any places I missed. Like the time I got a burn in the shape of an awkward blob on my chest when I wasn’t paying attention.
I pour one more dollop of cream into my hands and rub it into the tops of her ears, then say, “All done! Go tell Kai I’m ready for him.”
Someday she will do this herself. She will ask me just to sunblock her back and take care of the rest on her own.
I’m feeling the sunblock on the skin of my hands, smelling coconut extract, annoyed that it’s getting under my nails, noticing the muscles in my son’s arms as I rub it in. But I’m here, sunblocking my child, alive in this breathing body now—not in the time when I’m done and wash the sunblock out of my hands, or when I sit for a few minutes on the beach before anyone needs me to dig a hole or take them into the water. When I can read a page of my Sarah Polley book, or simply look at the waves. Those waves of life and distraction and emotion coming at me and rolling over me and trying to pull my legs out from under me. I can keep returning again and again.