Today I walked, meanderingly, to the beach with my children Sid and Felix. We bought a big bag of doughnuts and took them down onto the stones to scoff them hot (as we like to do). The sun was brilliant and the waves were boisterous. Our faces were sugary. Sid had his first cosmic doughnut moment. Then Felix spotted something furry lying on the pebbles nearby. A rat. Big, brown, muscular – perfectly put together. But there were drops of blood around it: it had either been hit by a thrown stone, or fallen from the pier. The boys were fascinated by it. Was it actually dead? Its whiskers undulated in the breeze and its eyes shone, but its body was stiff.
“Come Felix, let’s leave it now.”
“But we need to bury it!”
“This is a pebble beach – we can’t bury it. Let’s leave it for the seagulls to eat. It will nourish the birds. Come on, come away.”
“Well I’m going to make it a bed.”
And so Felix sets to work creating a circle of seaweed, driftwood and feathers to surround the dead rat. He sings a tuneless mournful song as he works, immersed and purposeful. He places coins on its fur, so it can pay the boatman across the Styx. Sid puts pieces of doughnut near its face, for snacks in the afterlife. Felix wants us to pray and wish its soul well.
“Now we lay you to rest in your final bed,” he intones through mouthfuls as he splits his last doughnut with the rat.
My friend Bridget wrote this great piece on the importance of sad play recently. This afternoon Felix reminded me how ready children are to use the language of ritual and celebration, and how much they can teach us about responding authentically and being open to wonder, spontaneity and connection.