Sea Dragons and Dirt

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I’ve discovered my daughter prefers dirt to sea dragons.

With my boys away visiting family, I thought my toddler daughter B and I should spend some quality girl time together. She nearly topples over with excitement when she spots fish tanks at Petco, so the aquarium seemed a perfect destination.

For several mornings in advance of the trip, we rehearsed the creatures we anticipated viewing. She declared “fih,” “turtull,” and “pen-gwee” with particular zeal, her lips drawn back into a proud grin beneath a film of Goldfish cracker sludge.

We read books about ocean animals. After hours of research, she made quacking sounds at the penguins. I applauded her intuitive grasp of organismal biology.

A-Day arrived. I torpedoed through the house to pack while she munched a banana. After hustling her into the car and tucking her beloved Bear under her arm, I loaded a playlist of 1980s classics to set the mood. I ignored the blur of Bear against the rear windshield as B chucked him onto the floor. We cheered a “Hurray!” and careened down the driveway toward adventure.

Forty minutes later, adventure stopped for gas. Then it got stuck behind a Volkswagen van with peace sign stickers. Finally, adventure took a sucker punch to the ego with $40 parking.

We remained undeterred. Exorbitant parking ticket in hand, we forked over another chunk of change at the entry booth. We cast all worries to the wind, and sauntered toward discovery.

When B spotted the seal tank, with its occupants floating through the brine like ghosts, she squealed with delight, and I threw a mental fist pump. Further enchantment followed as we rounded a corner and discovered a touch tank teeming with rays. I guided her pudgy hands into the water, and her eyes widened at the touch of an ocean dweller gliding past her fingers.  After fifteen minutes, I had to pry her away from the tank, so content was she to drift with flying fish.

Then, it happened.

“All done.”

No way, I thought. She’s just a little unnerved by the crowd.

I shuttled her toward new exploits — sea dragons lurking in seaweed, lemon-colored eels that stood upright, octopi plastered against glass in a mass of pink flesh, penguins hobbling over rocks before they careened headlong into manufactured pools.

“All done!” B insisted.

“B, we still have so much to see.” Five stinkin’ floors, to be exact. “Come look at this, you’ll love this tank!”

I guided her to the glass tower at the center of the aquarium. It rose several stories high, an enormous, glowing axle around which all visitors revolved as they traversed ramps in the dark.

I picked her up and pressed her to the glass. A sea turtle three times her size arched its ancient neck toward her. An angelfish flicked its tail as it sailed passed.

“ALL DONE!”

What of our adventure? What of the mommy-daughter thrills, the escapades among creatures of the deep?  What of the emptiness in my wallet, where a wad of cash once nestled?

I scooped her up. We ascended another ramp. Maybe another tank?

NO! NO MORE! ALL DONE!”

“B, please, let’s just see if you like something.”

“NO MORE FIH! ALL DONE! BYE BYE!”

I swallowed my frustration for a moment, and studied her eyes.They were as wide as saucers.

Since birth, B has studied her surroundings. She is always the first to point out a crow perched high above us in the tree line. She notices clouds, airplanes, chipmunks, even a stray breeze before her elders realize their existence. She examines every glimmer of light around her, every whisper, every shiver of grass.

I watched her in the dim, with rowdy third graders elbowing past us and purple lights flooding her face with an unearthly pallor. Her eyes stared wide. She seemed to tremble, a brittle leaf clinging to a branch in a gale.

Remorse tugged at my heart. How could my child who relished birdsong, find an anchor amid crowds and fluorescence? How could she ponder and study, when colors so tangled and swirled before her, blending themselves into a palette too garish to admire?

We surrendered. With fifty dollar stamps still emblazoning our hands, we retreated home, where the colors slow and stay.

Later that afternoon, we ventured into the yard. B spent an entire hour scooping fistfuls of dirt from the flower pots. Then she seated herself on the patio and examined rocks, one by one. She ran her fingers over smooth and jagged surfaces. She investigated shades, and mottling, and shards that glinted even beneath cloud cover. Every so often, she lifted her head to scan the fringe of tree branches scraping the sky. Sometimes she glimpsed a bird; other times, only the pale expanse, flat but churning, stretching far beyond our imagination.

Christ taught us to receive the kingdom of God like a child (Mark 10:14-16). We are to seek God with humility and faithfulness. Perhaps we are also to cast off all fancy trappings. Perhaps He calls us to forego adventures of our own design, to cease chasing after illusions, and instead to lean into Him. He invites us to repose in His creation. To revel in the soil in our fingers, the air on our faces, the majesty that belongs only to Him, yet into which He seamlessly, breathlessly weaves us.

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