The Fern Room
February 8, 2015
Though it stopped airing in 2008, I recently fell hard for the TV series The Wire. Detective Bunk is one of the many characters I quickly felt myself oddly attached to. He’s good police, but he’s not exactly wearing a halo. He drinks to excess often and frequently removes his wedding band at bars. But he’s funny and he’s human and I imagine he was a really cute, really fat baby, a browner version of Theo. There is a scene where Bunk tells his partner, Kima, that she needs soft eyes when looking at a crime scene: “If you got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. If you got hard eyes—you staring at the same tree missing the forest.” “Ah, Zen shit,” Kima replies. “Soft eyes, grasshopper,” Bunk says, cigar hanging out of his mouth. Soft eyes. I loved that.
One day last week, before Linus entered the scene, I took Theo and Sophie the long way home by way of the greenhouse after dropping Ev off at school. There was a cold covering on the ground from a previous snowfall, but the sidewalks were clear and our destination was balmy, so I thought it might be worth it to see something new for a change of pace. We shed our layers immediately upon entering, the stroller becoming a makeshift drying rack for damp mittens and frost bitten hats while Theo ran and Sophie toddled to keep up. We were hugged by the humidity, and we welcomed it. We breathed in the bark and stared at the koi and soaked in the green upon green with splatters of color in the form of flowers that I don’t know the names to. There were turtles. We were in a literal bubble that felt like another world but was really just a welcome escape for a few moments from the cold, but mostly from more of the same.
The fern room held, obviously, mostly ferns. But it also held low and ominous sounds that caused Theo to look up at me with a real sense of worry written on his face. Theo is full of reckless abandon when it comes to harming his body in any type of real way—running with scissors and jumping off of or running into hard objects, that sort of thing. But when it comes to the imagined, the dark and the sounds, he is one cautious boy. Turns out the fern room is set up to be what the landscape would’ve looked like in the days of the dinosaurs, the noises of the prehistoric animals adding to the life of the room. I tried explaining this to my skeptical boy, pointing out the black boxes hung in the ceiling, but he remained fairly unconvinced that a t-rex wasn’t going to pop out of the ferns. Sophie, on the other hand, was all about the fern room because there were stairs to climb. I eventually got Theo to make a quick loop down the stairs and around a small bit of the area before he double stepped it back up, quick glances over his shoulder. I used to sprint up our basement stairs as a kid in the same fashion, sure I was being followed by the dark and whatever horrors it contained. When he got to the top, he gave me a grin: he did it in spite of being afraid. And then he hightailed it out of there.
Shortly after, Sophie began yawning so we bundled back up and said goodbye to the koi. It was barely 10 am but the winter sun was already casting long, afternoon-like shadows. The icy air quickened my pace, but Theo was unbothered as he bounded through the snow by choice—there was a perfectly good sidewalk he could’ve used. But what kid is going to walk when he can run?
The fern room has been nagging me ever since, mulling in my head, as if there a story hidden in the leaves of that warm, musty room. I thought the story that the fern room wanted me to tell was about unfounded fears and being “more brave.” Turns out, Theo was just the right amount of brave he needed to be. I just didn’t have soft enough eyes to see it at the time, because his fears weren’t my fears. He is wild and loud and gets a real good laugh when he says the word “butt,” and I hope he stays untamed and always speaks boldly. But right now, he is also 3 and will cry if a stranger reprimands him or if left alone in the dark. They’re not fake fears, they’re just, 3 year old fears. Among lots of things, sloppy kisses and a wrinkled belly not excluded, my kids are giving me softer eyes.
I imagine if we just looked at everyone else’s crime scenes, the messes that we all are—the hurts and fears and wounds and losses and pain that are weaved into us all—with softer eyes, there’d be less hate and more empathy going around. I think we can all agree that this world could do with more kindness and a lot less judgement. Yet, that small, persistent voice in my head is mocking me, do I really think it’s that simple? She’s telling me that I’m just being naive; soft eyes can’t fix the pain and the hate and the hurt, they run too deep. I mean, look at history! she says. Could soft eyes have stopped slavery? WWII?
I raise my hands: you got me, I tell her. The truth is that I don’t know. I don’t know. It starts to feel trite, sitting here commenting on things I really know nothing about. Do I even know real pain? I don’t know what a war torn country looks like and smells like and feels like, I don’t know what it is to bury a child. I literally ache and pray to God that I never do. But I do know this: I can choose soft eyes or I can choose hard eyes. Maybe it’ll make a difference, maybe it won’t. But I’d like to believe that better things might come from soft eyes, especially if they are chosen collectively.
I also know that ideas can be powerful, and ideas start with words. Words are the vehicle through which ideas are delivered.
So, soft eyes. Gentle eyes.