It was 80 degrees in San Diego on Christmas, so naturally, we went to the zoo.
The previous day was spent on the beach, watching the kids take their boogie boards up the hill and use them as sleds on the sand banks–knowing that kids back home were doing the same thing except they were wrapped up like breakables in bubble wrap and were sliding down blinding white hills.
The feeling of vacation started nestling.
And isn’t it funny that the feeling of vacation does not necessarily translate into the feeling of relaxation? Even though, I’m sure if we were to take a random poll and ask people how they want to spend their vacations, their answer would be some variation of I want to relax.
Vacation is a whole other feeling entirely.
And vacation around the holidays is even more intense: the idea of togetherness and everything that means-–if we’re lucky, togetherness will feel natural; if we aren’t, it will feel forced, and vacation will feel like even more work than the place we go to trade forty hours of our week for a paycheck.
This is what I’m thinking as I stand—holding my loved-one around his sun-soaked waist, my head snuggled into a crook between his jaw and his shoulder that I swear was made just for me—at the koala exhibit.
I am watching a man who is young enough to be rocking tennis shoes below his sculpted, shiny calves, but old enough that his beard is thick and white (this combination is always confusing to me). He strolls over with his camera, takes ten pictures of the little sleeping guys with a foot-long lens, and then walks away. He does this with every koala and then he leaves the outback.
We wonder why it is that we decided to leave the camera back home on our first real trip together. After all, these are big-deal markers in our relationship: our first time traveling together, our first holiday spent together, the introduction of my hometown and my home-friends and my home-spots—why didn’t we bring the camera?
We just watched Strong-calves-white-beard (this is what I shall call our outback friend) walk over to the cutest fluff balls (which apparently are not so soft to the touch, as I learned five minutes ago from Tom, the outback educator) in the whole damn place, stick a lens in their faces and walk away.
Experiencing life behind a lens just seems so…rushed to me.
It feels like bringing a camera on vacation is a whole bunch of work—to half-experience any given moment, and instead, spend energy on capturing images that I’ll maybe look at twice? Maybe I’ll put them online and I’ll organize them in a clever way so that when other people see them, they will think my life is extremely glamorous—definitely more glamorous than their life.
I’ll capture images so I can show other people what an awesome time I had on vacation: what I did, who I saw, what I wore…all of this is either for
a) myself in the future (so I can look back on what was;
b) other people.
But what about now? What about letting myself enjoy a short sleeved shirt in December in one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people?
What about letting a moment happen without feeling like everything needs to be meticulously documented?
Strong-calves-white-beard has been gone for several minutes now, as we continue standing—watching these fluffies experience what it’s like to live ten minutes as a koala.
I am learning some things about koalas.
I’m always surprised at how much I learn at the zoo.
For example, I didn’t know that this year they discovered a new breed of sloth: the pygmy sloth. So essentially, we gave something a name we’d never given something before, and this information is one click away on my smart phone (that is always in my pocket)—but what I love about the zoo is that this is information I would never otherwise seek out. It’s not like I’m sitting at home delving into the mechanics of animal taxonomy, but when I am presented with the opportunity to acquire more information, I am always interested.
Say what you want about the zoo, but I know things now that I didn’t know before, and that excites me.
As I let Tom, our educator friend, talk to us about koalas, it dawns on me that koalas are an unlikely animal—their diet of digestionally confusing eucalyptus makes them sleepy and docile—this strikes me as the most beautiful case of adapting only what is absolutely necessary to survive, because these fluffies have essentially adapted to eat poison and sleep it off and this is how they spend most of their lives.
And just because I am a human with the ability to go out to breakfast and have friendships with people and paint my toe nails, does not mean that my life is necessarily better than an animal that prefers 23 hours on a branch and a tree.
It’s been an unlikely holiday so far, as we are at the zoo on Christmas.
And Christmas! Which was traditionally spent in PJs with cups of coffee and boxes of chocolate and the casting of the household Santa, who would be the keeper of the gifts—making sure that everybody had something to open, and everyone was paying attention to each other.
Christmas is now almost just another day as the kids have all grown up and are encountering increasingly more grown-up lives which means there are a lot of phone calls to the tune of, sorry, I can’t make it down this year, I’ll plan a trip home in March! I’ll call you Christmas morning! Love you!
This year, Christmas morning was greeted with the question: so, um, what are we doing today?
This day has become increasingly un-special in our household.
And this is my first year bringing a guest home with me for the holidays, and now, somehow we are at the zoo, and it is one in the afternoon, and neither Oli-face nor I have eaten anything yet today. (We clearly didn’t plan this very well.)
As you know, paying for food at theme parks is absolutely ridiculous.
It costs almost four dollars for a bottle of water, and although the map tells us we have all the options in the world, when we actually approach any umbrella’d counter, we realize that when we saw the words sandwich, burger, and wrap on the map, we thought they meant different things with all of those words. But they all mean essentially the same thing: if you want, you can spend $9 for a (questionably produced) hamburger almost anywhere in the park, and this is one of the only choices you have.
Since we aren’t super amped about the idea of filling ourselves with french fries as our first meal on Christmas, we decide to make our way to the center of the zoo, where apparently there is a sit-down restaurant, possibly with risotto.
I am very hungry. He is too.
But we’re in California, and it’s Christmas, and we’re at the zoo, and it’s beautiful and I’m in love and I want to spend time looking out in the same direction as my loved one.
This means that as we make our way across the zoo, we encounter a bunch of different animals, and it only makes sense to spend some time with them.
I have been a member of the San Diego Zoo for my entire life. I have gone to the zoo for all kinds of reasons: with my friends, with my family, in the morning, at night, just for a casual stroll, to go see some baby animals, and other reasons that I’m probably forgetting right now.
Most of my trips to the zoo go a little something like this: hey guys! Be very quiet and look up on the rock in the right corner! Do you see the tail?! That’s the jaguar! That’s the jaguar guys!
Today is not one of those days. The Tasmanian Devil is running around eating her mice, the orangutan just finished opening her Christmas present, and is now wearing her wrapping paper as her hat and is eating her boogers. (Because, you know: why not?)
It appears that even the animals know it’s lunchtime.
After an hour of unexpected animal activity, we actually get to the restaurant.
We opt for bar seating because otherwise we’ll have to wait a while, and as we sit down in the bar, I am suddenly struck with the feeling that this whole thing feels very…cruise-like.
Now, I’ve never been on a cruise, but based on the way the couple next to us is slushing down some blue colored cocktail, I’d say this is fairly similar. There’s a strong sense of shared experience in this room—that perhaps because it is Christmas and we are all at the zoo together, we are now part of a special club that allows us to greet strangers with Good day! and Merry Christmas! but does not allow us the freedom of actually picking up a real conversation with each other.
And because it’s Christmas and we are at the zoo, it seems that all bets are off, and why not get drunk at 2:00 p.m.? Everyone else is doing it.
In the end, we decide on lunch and a simple statement of grace.
I never used to pray much before meals. Every once and a while growing up, our household would recite:
Thank you, God, for happy hearts, for rain and sunny weather. Thank you, God, for this our food, and that we are together! (The most important part.)
But I never really felt connected to God or to myself or to the other people as we said it. They were empty words spilling from vacant hearts, searching for a way to fill the void.
And although this Christmas has felt…weird, to say the least, I allow myself to slow down and I am sitting here—just sitting here.
I have breath in my body; I am holding a hand that is warm and kind and strong and full of love; I have eyes that close to God and starry skies, and open to a set of green eyes that remind me so much of my own that I melt completely into them every time I see them.
I do not necessarily feel Jesus today, but I certainly feel God.
And God is not an event, or a duty or an achievement; God is this moment, exactly as it is.
God is the crowded bar, and the couple next to us. God is our food and our water. God is the space in-between my hand and his hand. God is being able to spend Christmas at the zoo, being together and with animals. God is behind my eye lids, so that I feel connected as I close my eyes and pray; and when I come back to my vision, God is the wet covering of my blink to remind me that I am supported no matter where I go or what I see.
For whatever reason, I have had this feeling all day that God would like me to spend Christmas in a different way—maybe at church, or at extended family dinners spitting out my bullet-point list of what I’m doing with my life, or around a tree with some songs and some mugs full of cider or cinnamon or whatever.
There’s a whole bunch of shoulds and a whole bunch of expectations circling around my insides around this time of year.
And yet, here I am: the zoo, on Christmas, coming out of giving grace with the person who reminds me that I am also God.
Somehow I just don’t think God would take issue with this. Somehow, I think that this is exactly where I should be right now, and I’m thinking this only because this is where I am: I am nowhere else but here.
I don’t know what Christmas is really all about, but I know that today is about God.
It’s about God and getting to eat finally.
Now that sounds like Christmas.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Courtesy of Author, Wikimedia Commons