Tristan and the Lights: Reassurance From a Four-Year Old In Surreal Times

“Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” — Isaac Newton

Sometime in March 2020, a week or so into our sheltering-in-place, people around the world began re-hanging Christmas lights. It was one of the many small but powerful displays of solidarity, hope, and resistance against a collective global despair. For days, pictures of windows and balconies across the US, the UK, France, Italy, and elsewhere, twinkling with the beautiful, if unseasonable, decorations dominated on social media. The morning of Day 9 in Spain’s official quarantine, Tom and I stood, coffee mugs in hand, on the rooftop deck of our house, watching the sun rise over the sea. It was quiet and still and breathtakingly beautiful, the palm fronds and pine needles of the neighborhood trees backlit in a rose-gold glow. It was then Tom said to me, “There are Christmas lights at Tristan’s.”

I turned towards the house across the street. In the front windows, little white lights twinkled softly in the brand new sun. The home is currently being rented by a young family while their nearby house undergoes renovations. We frequently see them out and about; they are a cheerful and active little group: a mother, father, and their son, Tristan. Tristian is four years old. He’s blond, with his parents’ bright blue eyes, and a direct gaze. He also has quite a lot to say, and he does so very definitively, usually jabbing his little index finger in the air for emphasis. He stands very straight when he talks, locking eyes with his audience. Even when we don’t see him we often hear, from across the street, his clear, high voice, expounding emphatically on some topic or other. Usually he speaks English, but sometimes in German, and at times Dutch. Although a child, he is neither childish nor childlike; he evidences no whining or helplessness that we have seen. Rather, he gives off the impression of unshakable confidence, as though his interpretation of the world and its various states of affairs is the unquestionably accurate one, more field marshal than four year-old. 

Before the quarantine, we got quite used to seeing Tristan accompanying his father on their bi-weekly walks a few streets away to check the progress of their house. For these occasions, Tristan suits up appropriately in a dark green canvas vest with loops from which hang a variety of toy but disconcertingly real-looking tools: hammer, saw, screwdrivers, pliers. He wears this to almost every inspection, only occasionally switching it out for a Spider Man suit. At no time does he betray even the slightest hint of irony or embarrassment in his outfit choices. At his young age, he seems to have already taken to heart the dictum of every executive: you’ve got to dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

One sunny morning, we caught Tristan and his father on their return from a recent inspection, and inquired how it was progressing. It was Tristan who stepped up to answer, hammer swinging from one of the vest loops: “They are not moving as fast as we would like [forefinger raised] and we are not happy!” He looked us square in the eye as if daring us to disagree. Slightly intimidated, Tom and I clucked and shook our heads, attempting to convey the appropriate level of empathetic disdain for the work pace, secretly marveling at Tristian’s well stocked vest. A few days later we ran into them again. This time Tristian apparently didn’t feel the need to stop and say hello or give us an update on the speed of the workers. He continued to stride purposely up the stairs in his canvas work vest to the house. His father followed a few steps behind, slightly out of breath, lugging a day-glo orange traffic cone. Upon seeing us, he grinned sheepishly, gave an imperceptible shrug, and in a quiet and slightly apologetic voice said, “Tristan really wanted this.” 

In yet another instance, Tom and I had ordered five tons of pea gravel to re-cover our garden flower beds. The delivery company deposited it in a four-foot-deep mound outside our carport, taking up much of our narrow street. For four days we labored hard in the summer sun, shoveling rocks and pushing wheelbarrows, dirty and sweaty, the stone pile diminishing dishearteningly incrementally. Tristan, however, was fascinated with the process, and seemed to immensely enjoy it. He often came outside to watch, his eyes hawk-like as he followed our movements, as though keeping mental tabs. From time to time he would ask questions: about the wheelbarrow, the shovel, or just the gravel itself. On the fourth and final day of shoveling, hauling, and raking, our hands blistered, our backs aching, rock dust in our hair, Tristan’s interest grew more acute. We couldn’t figure out why; the once large rock pile had all but disappeared, and our work was almost done. As if reading our minds, his father said, “He’s impressed you are working on a Sunday.” Tristian, this time dressed as Spiderman, solemnly nodded in agreement. He held up his forefinger and said to us, “It is good to keep working.” 

Tom and I joke about Tristan being able to solve any problem: computer glitching? Ask Tristan. Government at a stalemate? Tristan will mediate. When earlier this year, a telecom company dug up the neighborhood streets to lay fiber optic cable, the process seemed disorganized and like it lasted much longer than it should. There were frequent power cuts, and wires and other debris littered the roads. Exasperated by the delays and the mess, Tom and I swore we were going to call in Tristan. Now, in our time of quarantine, whenever we hear his forceful chatter from across the street we like to imagine he’s working doggedly on a COVID-19 vaccine. 

One day, many years from now, I’ll be walking down a street in New York, or Madrid, or Sydney, or Shanghai, and I will pass a well-dressed man, with blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and impeccable posture. He will be speaking in slightly accented English, to what I presume to be his colleagues, as they listen with rapt attention. He will be jabbing the air with his forefinger for emphasis as he expertly directs some important process: a corporate takeover; negotiating a hostage situation; unsticking a cat from high up in a tree. I will wait on the sidelines until he has finished expounding and lowered his finger, nodding in satisfaction as he watches the group wordlessly disperse to begin the work at hand. And I will go up to him and say, “Hi, Tristan, it’s been a long time.” 

Cat versus garden

In this time of COVID-19, I cope the same way I do with being on a plane. An anxious flyer, in times of turbulence I lock my gaze on the flight attendants, gauging their every reaction in an attempt to calculate the risk. I reason if they keep going about their business, pouring Diet Cokes and rummaging through that myriad of mysterious back-of-the-aircraft cabinets as they chatter amongst themselves, I can relax. But this plane ride that is COVID-19 is without flight attendants, much less pilots. So I turn elsewhere for those small but powerful instances of reassuring normality. I turn to the tiny, but rapidly growing kale and mustard greens powering through the soil in my little vegetable garden, despite the feral cats who often use it as a litter box. I turn to the newborn shoot from our jasmine plant, which, despite our continual foot traffic, has already managed to traverse the cold stone walkway, and is making its way determinedly up the side of our house, a handful of white flowers already in full-scented bloom. I turn to the guy who lives in the house across the road behind us; a man we’ve not yet met but who, every afternoon, blasts music in from his outdoor speakers: Queen, Neil Diamond, the soundtrack from The Little Mermaid, as he and his kids exercise on their pool deck. They laugh and sing along, as they lift makeshift weights of water jugs and run laps around the property. Once, on a day when I was feeling particularly low, I stepped onto our balcony at the very second that Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” powered through his speakers, and I almost cried.

I turn to Tristian and his incessant clear and cheerful chatter.

New Jasmine shoot

And I gain strength from all these beings that continually muster up the courage and fortitude to keep going in spite of it all; each day choosing all over again to live, even thrive, in spite of the risks — digging cats, being stepped upon, a worldwide pandemic. And this ineffable, perhaps instinctual, persevering normality saves me again and again and again. I think it saves all of us. 

A consummate list maker, I keep a great many running at any one time. I like the order and comfort they bring to my life. The other day, I started a new one titled “Things I can’t wait to do post-quarantine.” I thought I would include items like “Drink sangria at Cajita Azul,” “Go bathing suit shopping,” or “Get a pedicure.” But instead, I found myself writing, “Watch the sunrise from Ambolo Beach.” “Hug all my friends.” “Make cookies as a thank you for the family behind us.” “Invite Tristan to the Easter egg hunt, even if it’s in July.” My little list gives me something to look forward to, to better times that I can almost catch a glimpse of, glimmering on the horizon. They might be hazy but they are there.



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