After watching my four year old son attack his great-uncle the other day, then play tag on the lawn with his twenty-something cousin, I thought about writing a short blog on why connecting across different generations might be part of the new good life.
But then there was the episode with the flamingoes.
And I realized that I was observing something in the children that was equally true for all of us.
We were at Jungle Gardens in Sarasota. Jungle Gardens is a sort of glorified petting zoo for alligators and the like. They have this shtick going where you can buy food for the flock of flamingos that live by a pond on site. Up close, flamingoes are really rather wonderful creatures. They’re a gorgeous shade of pink, with black feathers underneath their wings like some sort of haute couture inspired fashion accent. They have long, bendy necks that they contort into improbable twists and loops when they tuck their heads into their wings to sleep. But they’re also kind of goofy: they have big beaks, beady eyes and they honk when they call.
We did a first pass round to feed the flamingoes (going past, I might add, the religiously-inspired “Garden of Christ”… “Well,” my daughter Mira said when we’d passed it, “that was unexpected”) but the flamingoes were arranged around their pond, fast asleep. Despite Jamie’s enthusiastic calling (he’s four), they just ignored us and snoozed on. We admired them for a while, including their ability to sleep whilst standing on one foot, then gave up and went to see the reptile show.
Half an hour later, we returned and found the flamingoes just waking up. At least their leader was, and his cross-sounding honks roused them all. Whether it was too early, or that they were simply overfed, they didn’t seem interested in our food. But Jamie was unwilling to give up and, quivering with excitement, he stood there with his hand outstretched. Finally, a haughty looking flamingo strutted (there’s no other word for it) over, turned his head, and peered at Jamie out of one eye. Jamie cooed at it, and it finally disdained to nibble some of the food from his hand. The bird, which easily bigger than he was, was surprisingly gentle as it picked at its little pellets. Jamie almost levitated with delight. I don’t know if the flamingo got much out of it, but for Jamie, it was clearly meant a lot to be touching (or rather touched by) something so wonderful and alien.
It would be reasonable to wonder what playing with extended family and feeding flamingoes have in common.
I think it’s the sense of being fully in one’s body and connecting to other things through one’s body. Florida was beautiful, and it was fun to be on spring break. But it was also striking that we were all so physical. Not just active, but moving through the world in a way that connected us to other things, especially each other and the natural world. We walked at the shoreline, put our hands and feet in the same water in which we’d seen dolphins swimming, played with each other, fed the flamingoes and dug in the sand. By contrast, in our normal life, we spend an awful lot of time in cars and at desks and computers.
For sure there’s a “what I did on holiday” aspect to this observation. But the holiday was really just the opportunity to see the larger point. Our bodies are the fundamental vehicle through which we connect with the world. The people, animals and things we touch; the elements in which we immerse ourselves; the food we eat…these are the things that reveal the world to us. And through the plain and fundamental action of touch, we understand – in the truest way possible – that we’re connected to the world.