a whole lotta sugar (in a salty, salty world)

A few months back, on a particularly stretching and meaningful trip to Philadelphia, I made a new friend. Having spent a jam-packed day downtown with my “extra” son Gage, we sat ourselves down on the train headed for home. We’d talked ourselves out and are comfortable with quiet so we sat in a sort of sanctuary like silence as the train ambled along. I was bone weary, intellectually and emotionally spent. The day had begun with participation in my first ever real civic/political action and had continued with a thorough walk through the city. Every part of me had been engaged in challenging ways. My mind was blown, my heart ripped open, my stomach stretched, my eyes “cried.” and my feet taxed. The schedule had been filled with all the things I love: a big, diverse, loud city; putting my body, mind, and soul out there for a cause that I care about; one of my kiddos; food; mass transit; walking; intense conversation; and learning. While I was deeply happy, I was also deeply troubled. We’d spent a lot of our time talking about racism and bias. Gage had explained to me the important distinction between equality and equity. Already keenly and critically aware of my privilege, the day had left me feeling overwhelmed. It was good to be in a seat next to someone I love knowing full well that we could travel wordlessly while things settled inside. 

While contemplating the beautiful, painful complexity of the day, I noticed the boy in the seat ahead of me making faces at himself in the same window out of which I gazed. For a while I simply observed his inspiring light-heartedness. He crossed his eyes, he stuck out his tongue, he leaned in and said silly things to his reflection. When he did so, everything about him lit up. He laughed. He tossed his head back and came closer in to the window to get a better look. It seemed to me that he felt as fully bodymindsoul energized as I felt exhausted and the sincerity of his playfulness called out to me.

I decided to try to engage this bright light of a human in an appropriate way (I was, after all, a grown up stranger on a train and keenly aware of necessary boundaries). I looked fervently into the window hoping to elicit a glimmer of noticing. Not long after I fixed my gaze, my new friends’ eyes caught mine. I grinned. He grinned back. I averted my eyes while making a slightly funny face. When I looked back his cheeks were filled with air, his ears pulled back with his tiny fingers, and he was striking a caddywhompus smile. I laughed and then I winked. He tried to wink back. Again. And again. And again. Finally, he held one eye lid closed with his thumb and stretched the other open wide with his pinky, covering his entire face with his palm. Soon he was laughing and so was I. Leaning over to his mom, he whispered something which prompted her to look over her shoulder and smile at me. I smiled back silently and returned to making faces in the window. Five minutes later this tiny human hopped up, turned around, and looked at me from his seat. “You’re crazy!” he said. I bowed, thanked him for the compliment and, for the next ten minutes, learned all about what he liked and didn’t like, who was in his family, and how he’d spent his day. I dug up some little trinket “gifts” from the bottom of my back pack for him. We laughed. He taught me some “magic tricks.” Finally, he told me that he was 5 and that his name was Tristan. 

Faster than I hoped, we arrived at our stop and I found myself feeling sad to walk away from this new loved one. Gage and I departed the train, wishing Tristan and mom a good evening. Not 10 seconds later we heard “Hey doreen!” and turned to see Tristan running toward us, asking if he could have a hug. I looked to his mom for the o.k. and she said, not missing a beat, “This one’s a whole lot of sugar! Of course you can give him a hug!” 

I think of that phrase a lot these days. “This one’s a whole lot of sugar.” I love this as an aspirational motto. I want, very much, to be a whole lot of sugar exactly when it is needed.

My mom tells stories of her dad putting salt in the sugar bowl every April Fools Day. When she reminds me of this, I cringe, thinking of what it would be like to expect sugar and taste salt. It seems to me that the expectation of sweetness would make the sharpness of the salt more extreme. I think of this in relation to my day in Philadelphia. The saltiness of the entire day made the unexpected sweetness of Tristan sparkle and shine. 

We are all constantly bumping into each other, sitting in front of or behind each other, encountering each other as we move through our days. Very often we come to these interactions from sweet or salty internal places. We also have a tendency to expect sweetness or saltiness externally from those we bump into.

Our habits, bias’, and beliefs about life and the world are so well established that we likely expect these flavors from ourselves and others without ever consciously considering them. “This kind of person is ____________.” “That guy is always an _________.” “Those folks are ____________.” “Those millennials ___________.” “Those (fill in the political party) are always ____________.” “I bet she is thinking ______________ about me.” “I know he hates/loves/disrepects me.”

Because I expect (believe) these things, I find confirmation for them, disregarding conflicting data and closing off options to be proven wrong. This closed system keeps me locked into interactions with a self fulfilling flair. We make an assumption or set an intention then look for or establish proof to support it. It’s all quite complicated and exhausting and leaves us at extreme risk for missing out on the Tristans in this world.

I could have written Tristan off. I could have thought “Oh, there’s a whacky kid who clearly has no ability to sit still.” I could have thought “My day was filled with meaningful things and this person’s frivolity means he is out of touch with the problems in this world.” I could have thought any number of things or made all manner of assumptions based on the color of my skin or his, on my age or his, and on a million other variables and could have walked away with nothing but my closed loop heaviness. Instead, by remaining open and taking one small risk, I was the recipient of his sugar. That sweetness redeemed my day.

At a time when the word “divided” is the most commonly used cultural descriptor in America, perhaps our most powerful offering to our neighbors is that of being intentional about how we are in the world. Are we salty or sweet? Positive or negative? Equity offering or oppressing? Expectation filled or grace giving? Certain that we have the right answer or open to discussion? Wall building or door opening? Respect-filled or hate/fear-filled?

Saltiness is wonderful when it is called for. It is especially good in moderation and in combination with other ingredients. (Ask me, sometime, about the time that i accidentally used salt instead of sugar in my buttermilk pancake recipe at a big event.) We need the strength of saltiness in today’s world. We also, however, need the softness, light heartedness, and perspective that sweetness has to offer. We all need a little sugar, and to offer a cup of it to our neighbor when they have run short. 


Tristan, if by any bizarre and wonderful chance you ever happen upon this, know that you made a true friend that evening on the train and that I think about you often and hold you in Light and Love. i hope for you all the sugar you need, exactly when you need it!