On Saturday, I took my son Mason to the zoo in Asheboro. It was a gorgeous day, but there were very few people there. When I stopped into the gift shop to rent a stroller (Mason hurt his foot this week and wasn’t quite up to all the walking), I asked the bored teenager behind the register how his day was going. “Slow,” he replied. “All the excitement happened this morning.”
“Really? What happened?” I asked.
“One of the rhinos got out.”
“No kidding?! Wow.”
“Yeah, he was only out for about 15 minutes, then they got him back in.”
I can’t help but admit that there is a part of me that is sorry I missed that. What is it that draws us to dangerous situations? If I know we’re going to be OK in the end, I guess I just can’t resist a good story.
My day held no real danger, though, unless one counts the increasingly challenging task of negotiating the day’s agenda with my four-year-old son. He’s disturbingly good at negotiating, and it has been recommended to me that Deanna and I simply concede now and let him run the family.
I had taken him to the zoo partly to get us both out of the house so that Deanna could finish up a big paper for her masters degree. It turned out to be a good time to visit the zoo, though, all wayward rhinoceroses aside. The gorillas had two new babies, and it was moving to watch the large and powerful male cross the grass carrying his tiny infant in one arm like a football. I admire—and do not envy—the vets and zookeepers that are responsible for the health of those infants. I wouldn’t want to try to take that baby away to weigh it.
The giraffes and zebras and ostriches were all in fine form, as were the baboons and the birds in the aviary. There was a display of animatronic dinosaurs that had been scheduled to end the day before but was held over, and Mason thought they were pretty cool.
We saw a lot of stuff and had a lot of fun, but the thing he kept talking about was the carousel. He was eager to take a ride. To be fair, it is a beautiful carousel. I didn’t want to get stuck there, though, so I suggested it might be a good thing to do last, after we had seen all the animals and the fake dinosaurs. Mason rolled with that.
He wanted to go see the otters after the gorillas, then the giraffes after that, but the otters were on the other side of the zoo and the giraffes much closer. He just turned four, and the map didn’t make much sense to him, and he’s at an age where some boundary pushing comes naturally. All this in the context of a long day of trekking around. A full meltdown would not have been at all surprising. They come fairly often these days. It never came, though.
After we had seen all the animals Mason was interested in, we took a ride on the carousel. We were the only ones on it, so there were lots of choices of zoological modes of transportation. “The giraffe is the only one that doesn’t go up and down,” the attendant explained helpfully, in the too-fast, automatic parlance of one who has said the same words hundreds or thousands of times. There was a gorilla, and yes, a rhino (though it was clearly securely fastened), a lion, a dolphin and several other compelling options, but Mason wanted to ride in the bird’s nest—the other one that doesn’t go up and down, it turned out. I think it’s an option intended for small children, but Mason loves birds (“birdies” sounds just like “bodies” in Masonese, and that has provided for some amusing sentence interpretation), so that’s the one he wanted to ride. He loved it. I climbed into the small space and tucked my knees up to the side like a bagpiper’s pipes, snapped some pictures, then off we went, contented.
On the way out to the parking lot, the afternoon light was warm and peaceful. Most people were already gone, but we had stayed until closing, so the parking lot was largely empty. My car had a big median of grass in front of it, so before I opened up the car, I leaned on the hood and picked Mason up to sit with me.
I told him how much fun I had had, and told him he had done really well, and had made good decisions. I thanked him for being such a fun guy to hang out with. We chatted a little bit, then I carried him around to put him in the car seat.
As I buckled him in to his car seat, I asked him what his favorite part of the day was. I was pretty sure he would say the carousel, but I held on to some hope that it would be the cool parental moment with the gorillas.
He caught me completely off guard when he looked straight at me and answered in a quiet, straightforward way, “The part at the end where we talked about the day.”
And there you have it.
Some long-haired guitar player once sang, “there’s no time like the present, and there’s no present like time.” I write songs about things like that, however, not because I have great wisdom to impart, or because I’m particularly good at putting my time where it matters. It’s just the opposite. I keep hoping that if I hear those songs enough times, maybe they’ll sink in. I need to be reminded. Sometimes by my own song and sometimes by my own son.
Mason is happy enough to play with cardboard boxes instead of fancy toys, if I’m with him and paying attention and spending the time. I know that, but I still need him to remind me from time to time, and I’m grateful for the gift of an articulate four-year-old who tells me so clearly what matters to him.
In my faith tradition this is a sacred season of waiting. The time itself is holy. But then, isn’t all time?