I’ve been thinking about change these past few days. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about its big white scary teeth.
Last week, my toddler made a very amazing discovery: a toad. (Bear with me.) It was on our back patio, where we gather in the late afternoon to commune and watch the forest. Lila responded to the little guy very much as she does to all new things she encounters. She pointed and cried out, “Oh wow! Cool!”
After some pretty funny slapstick attempts to capture our new friend, we got him safely to a spot in the forest where we decided he would be happy.
Lila was completely captivated. She squatted down in front of the toad where he was quietly recovering from his adventure, and proceeded to study him like he contained the mysteries of the universe. From time to time, I heard her exclaiming softly, “Oh wow! Cool!”
I imagined the churning in her little mind.
What does its skin feel like? How does it move? How can I play with it?
Oh wow, Cool!
An Aussie upbringing
I couldn’t help comparing this moment in the lush and benevolent Pennsylvania woods to the times I encountered new creatures in my own childhood back in Australia.
When I was a newborn baby, my father spent a whole afternoon trying to evict a deadly brown snake from our kitchen with a broom. I found my first highly venomous redback spider on our front porch at the age of four. As ten-year-olds, my cousin and I once found an abandoned schoolbag in a park bush and pulled it out to investigate. What we found was a funnelweb spider, which leapt out in full attack stance and proceeded to chase us for six blocks. (I mean, that’s how long we ran before we were sure we’d lost him.)
In Australia, as everyone knows, most wild animals will kill you within a minute of meeting you. If they aren’t physically capable of killing you, they will at the very least wish you ill. And probably glare.
Aussie kids do not exclaim “Oh wow! Cool!” when they see an unfamiliar creature. Our way is more along the lines of, “It has teeth! Run!”
👆This is a little ditty reflecting on the relative dangers of living in Australia and the USA.
Puppies and umbrellas
All baby animals are basically the same thing, right?
When I got my first puppy, I was sharing my house with a single mom who had a 1 year old child.
The two of us would have long conversations about “parenting,” only occasionally stopping to remember that the dog’s language delay wasn’t actually cause for a speech therapist, or that the baby didn’t actually need access to the backyard to use the potty.
What I learned from being a puppy mom is this: If you want your dog not to be neurotic, show her as many different things as possible when she’s really little.
The dog training literature is hilarious. I diligently copied out these endless checklists: puppy has walked between parked cars. Puppy has seen someone with an umbrella. Puppy has enjoyed pina coladas and has been caught in the rain.
Yes, the training was like a wacky scavenger hunt, but the thinking seemed sound. During early life, mammals are usually protected by their parent, or pack, right? This is when they need to inventory their world to discover what’s normal, what’s safe, what can be dismissed without alarm when they see it later?
Because at a certain point, those little creatures will be out on their own and their survival largely depends on treating anything new as potentially life-threatening.
(My current household would be much calmer if, for instance, our dogs had seen a lot of Amazon delivery trucks when they were babies.)
Basically, when they are very small, animals divide the world into two categories: “Oh wow! Cool!” and “It has teeth! Run!”
And so it is—of course—with us. At a certain point in our development, human beings tend to assign what’s familiar as “cool,” and treat anything new as though it may have teeth.
Outside of the savannah and its ubiquitous toothy predators, of course, we need different behavior. I mean, it probably doesn’t make much sense for me to see a new Instagram update and go sprinting away screaming because I can’t figure out how to post a reel.
But nor am I saying that we should go around assuming that everything’s wonderful. “Oh wow, cool!” is not a viable blanket judgment for the unknown.
Instead, for this week’s Wild Inventure, what if we focus on the questions Lila asked when she focused on her toad friend?
What if we squat down before our scary upcoming social event and ask ourselves: how does it move? How can I move to feel comfortable within it?
What if we peer closely at our creative roadblock and say, what does its skin feel like? What texture will the finished product have, and what small step will make it feel closer?
What if we look our fear right in the eye, and instead of judging it as good or bad, we take the time to say, Hello, little one. What are you and what are you like?
Best of all: How can I play with you?
For me, I’m going to try watching myself insist that my fears have shiny, long, very sharp teeth, and then I’m going to see if that’s actually true.
But I’ll be keeping my running shoes on my feet just in case. I’m an Aussie, after all.
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