Zen and the Art of Toddler Maintenance

I’m currently reading a book about Buddhism and children, and it seems that kids are just really Zen without even trying. They live in the moment – in fact, mine are so young, they’re barely even capable of mulling over the past or fretting about the future. They live in the ‘here’ – so much so that dragging them away from ‘here’ (wherever that may be at any given moment, from staring down a drain outside my house to the best toy shop ever) is nigh on impossible. And they always have a ‘Beginner’s Mind’ – they see the world afresh, because they are fresh. Unlike this stale, crusty old mother who always seems to be saying ‘come on, come on, we can’t stay here, we have to go there’ unless I’m trying to get their shoes on to leave the house, in which case I’ll be saying ‘come away from there, just come over here’. I always have to be somewhere I’m not.

I realised the Zen-ness of the Curly Girlie on Friday at the wonderful farmer’s market in Winterthur. As usual, I had a list and I had a deadline and I had Things To Do. The Curly Girlie had other ideas. Finishing up at a vegetable stall, I turned to see her peering into a grubby, stainless steel box on the pavement.

‘Come away from the bin! It’s all dirty!’

Sensing that she would soon be robbed of her opportunity, she stretched up on tip-toes, the better to see inside, because ‘the bin’ was a good six inches taller than her.

‘Curly Girlie! You’re getting all wet and dirty! We have to go, come on...’

‘Mummy, what is it?’

‘It’s just a bin, darling!’

‘Mummy, what is it?’

‘Oh, for goodness sake, it’s a bin...’ I grabbed her hand.

‘No, Mummy! What is it?’

And I noticed the light inside the bin. An illuminated bin? Surely not – not even in Switzerland, where they polish the rubbish cans. And then I noticed that the top of the ‘bin’ was covered with a piece of glass – filthy and hard to see through, but glass nonetheless. And then I noticed the engraving around the top of the stainless steel – ‘Sodbrunnen erbaut 1500’.

The Curly Girlie was peering down a long well, which had been built by Winti residents in 1500, rediscovered in 1764 and turned into a modest little archaeological display in 2001. It is grubby and – seemingly – forgotten but it even has a light, which the Curly Girlie was working by pressing a tiny white button on the outside of the unit. Needless to say, I hadn’t noticed the button until she showed me.

500 years that well has been there. That didn’t mean much to the present-minded Zen toddler. I must have walked past it 500 times – it’s right on Steinberggasse, for those who know Winti – and never seen it. I’ve probably even thrown a couple of crisp packets and bus tickets in it.

But now we both stood, in the middle of a busy market, apparently peering into a ‘bin’. A couple of other kids came over, and their mums shouted at them, and then another one, and her mother called her back too. What is it? It’s a well, I told them, and the Curly Girlie showed off her Great Discovery – the light switch. Eventually, with a level of exasperation that only a mother of toddlers can reach, the other mums came over and noticed the light, the glass, the well.

The Curly Girlie accepted her place in the natural hierarchy of children and stepped back to let the bigger kids see. Then she spotted a cheese stall and raced off.