(previously published on shareable.net)

Today, my kids–ages 11, 4, and 3–are playing in the abandoned lot again. They call it “Nature Center.”  I am sitting on the cracked concrete foundation, looking at a patch of peeling vinyl flooring that must have been someone’s kitchen long ago.  There are many such lots around our town, rectangular plots of wilderness where foreclosed houses have been torn down if they didn’t merit their extensive repairs. Others are left undeveloped when the builders ran out of money; sometimes there is an RV parked onsite with a person living in it, and maybe there are some sawhorses and “caution” tape standing sentry over some weeds and a postponed vision.

We walked by this abandoned lot many times, day after day, and I never really noticed it. I think I took note when the “lot for sale” sign came down after awhile, but it was just a patch of weeds to me, and nothing more. We were always on our way somewhere—towing the wagon to the library or the café, or to do our marketing and come home. I never saw anything worth stopping for, and it was only after many requests that I finally reneged and started pulling the wagon onto the concrete pad, and reconciling myself to this being our destination after all. And it’s here where today my children have found the following treasures: a putty knife, the spokes of an office chair base–wheels intact, the frayed remnants of what must have once been a rope swing, and a roll of what looks to me like roofing paper.

They’re building their own structure, using these and other treasures to support the igloo-like walls.  They’ve dug out a special muddy patch alongside it for their “bug visitors.” It’s surprising, when you crawl low and peer inside their fort, how big it is, how cozy and sturdy. They’ve been working on it and adding to it for a month or two now, and the grass and weeds are now growing thickly over the domed roof. The roots are knitting the structure together, and it seems stronger that way.

The official and sanctioned playground is so close we can see it in the distance, but they will always reject it in favor of Nature Center. I try to lay low when we’re here; my services are not needed. I’m only around to do treasure triage, and I reject sharp metal things and glass whiskey bottles. When we’re at the park, they are constantly checking in with me and demanding my participation. “Watch me go down the slide,” asked of me endless times, until I’m smiling through gritted teeth. And then there are the swings, every lazy parent’s curse. Teaching your kid how to pump themselves back and forth means freedom. But here at this lot, I’m an awkward interloper. I’ve been experimenting with walking up the block and back into our house, coming out to rejoin them after a half hour or so. They hardly look up and rarely notice me, or that I was gone at all.

The last time we visited, they found that what they thought was merely a wall of ivy vines was actually concealing a part of what might have been a barn or a shed of sorts. This led to frenzied spelunking, vine-swinging, and the triumphant finding of various trophies: a flashlight, a broken toy, some planks of wood. Eventually, they began work on  the creation of a satellite fort adjacent to the core igloo.

I love how irrelevant I am here. When we leave, they’ve always managed to get so deeply dirty, infinitely more so than the controlled pleasures of the sand play area at the park leave them. There is a stubborn ring of grime around each nail bed that resists all scrubbing, and it smells like earth.