In an earlier post, I mentioned a trip to the zoo which led to a minor epiphany.... That might be overstating the case. It was one of those weird moments when part of your mind is deeply uncomfortable, while another part of your mind is trying to tell you, "Hey -- pay attention. This might be important." (Hm, that sounds familiar. Is that a quote from Harriet the Spy? Geez, be careful what you read in your youth -- the quotes never, and I mean never, leave your, I mean my, lunatic head.)
And, um, am I the only one whose mind splits up into parts that speak to each other? (Nevermind. Don't answer that.)
Anyway, back to the story. One lovely Saturday in early spring, we took Little Man to the zoo. His idea. One or the other of us parents sometimes suggest to him, of a Saturday, "Should we go somewhere? the zoo maybe?" And often he will answer, "No, I just want to stay home." Which might just mean he's spending too much time in daycare, or it might mean that we have raised a reclusive future hermit and/or serial killer, or it might just mean that he wants to keep doing whatever he's doing: drawing, playing with trains, whatever. We're not sure. But this day he actually said to his dad, "Daddy, can we go to the zoo today?" And so we did.
I am uncomfortable with zoos. However preservation-minded they might be, however far their attempts to recreate an animal's natural habitat go, however kind-hearted individual zoo workers are, I don't like seeing animals in cages as entertainment for crowds of people walking by. There's something strange and awful about it. Still, I go; and I take my son, who appears to believe that some animals just live naturally in zoos, which chills my soul a little. But I also don't want to be the kind of parent who continually just subtracts things from her kid's life. I have recently gone vegetarian, and so I'm not buying meat. I hesitate before I let my kid have a hotdog at a picnic. I try to say No to the obvious baddies of nutrition. I don't let him watch too much T.V. I'm the gatekeeper, and I hate it.
Because my nature tells me to say Yes, yes, yes, all the time, in nonsensical repetition, like Molly Bloom or somebody. Can we dance in the supermarket? Yes! Can we climb this tree on our way to the car? Yes! Can I see what dirt tastes like? Yes! Can I take this marker and draw orange circles all over my face? Yes, damnit, yes yes yes! Can I put a pile of oatmeal on the table and "paint" with my spoon? Why not? I like giving him avenues of exploration that are, basically, harmless and fun. Zoos are more complex, but maybe the time to talk with him about my feelings about zoos is not yet. And in the meantime, my paltry admission fee is not going to keep zoos in business. (I see the flaws in that argument, yes I do. And I'm going to ignore it for now.) The elephants in particular break my heart, but I still love to see them, I admit it.
Am I ever going to get to my story? Probably not. But really it's quite simple. We got to the building where the primates are kept, and we were walking down a winding path towards the door. Outside the building was a winding stream, with bubbling jets under the surface, and plants leaning over into the water. Little Man wanted to stop and watch the stream, and so of course we stopped. He ran up and down the path, looking down over the railing into the stream. Then he sat down on the pavement, and just sat and watched the stream. I felt vastly patient, and wondered at his ability to watch water endlessly. And then I was not. Isn't it time to go? muttered my restless mind. But the primates are inside! And still he was fascinated. My husband, oh he of little patience, was delighted, and kept grinning at me. Our son the maverick, his expression said to me, as clearly as a thought bubble in a cartoon. Why should he do what's expected, and rush in to see the monkeys, when he's fascinated by the water?
In principle, and even in reality, I agree with him. Of course. Water -- moving water -- water washing over itself in interesting patterns! What could be more fascinating? And, truth be told, seeing animals in cages is, besides somewhat disturbing, rather less than fascinating, if all they're doing is staring disconsolately into space, or chewing on an old piece of lettuce for hours on end, or trying to avoid the endless eyes staring in on them. But I don't fool myself that Little Man had some beautiful, intuitive sense of the wrongness of it all. He just got interested in something, and it wasn't what one might expect.
It went on, and on, and on. It turned out that we never left the water until it was time to go home. Eventually we did move a little bit away and sit on a bench and laugh at the squirrels, but he never wanted to go inside. What made me uncomfortable, finally, was not Little Man's lack of interest in the unique attractions of the zoo, but my own discomfort with it. I heard Katherine Hepburn's voice in my head: "Let's get on with it." Moving toward a goal; approaching a destination. Why would I be so invested in that?
But this moment: this very moment; this very young 3-year-old boy, grinning and grinning and grinning over the water, and running back and forth from one end of the brook to the other, watching the mini-current and shifting shadows, and plopping down in his grinning dad's lap to watch it some more. What it came down to was something like, I wish I were more like him. And maybe I can be, just a little bit, if I keep working at it.