The good book
In 1956, the naturalist Gerald Durrell published “My Family and Other Animals.” It is a book which recounts his childhood growing up on the island of Corfu. Some forty years passed from its first publication before I, a scruffy student, finally stumbled across a battered second-hand copy and set about reading it.
By the end of page one I had forgotten the yellowing pages and brittle glue holding them in place, and was completely immersed in the tale of one small boy growing up surrounded by the magical world of a Greek island. A child focussed – with a dedicated fascination that only the very young seem to manage – on the endless variety of local wildlife.
In the languid pace of a Mediterranean island life one lazy day drifts into the next and into the next to create mystical and endless seasons, and the peacefulness is beautifully juxtaposed with the chaos and hilarity of a child who cannot resist the compulsion to incorporate Corfu’s diverse animal kingdom into everything he does.
If I’m not making it clear, the book is utterly enchanting.
For one thing, it is impossible not to feel for a household where scorpions escape from matchboxes, magpies taunt the workmen and a mantis and a gecko fight to the death across the backdrop of the whitewashed ceiling. And, for all that the constant drone of cicadas in the scorching sun is unfamiliar and alien to the British reader, I cannot help but think “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
For our household has enjoyed the company of its fair share of animals. We’ve welcomed caterpillars, butterflies, snails, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, frogs (captive and wild) and the children are already planning for fish, lizards and a dog. There seems to be an inevitability around being immersed in the world of children which means that there are going to be a lot of animas involved.
It was therefore no surprise that, when we went to the “ornamental fish” section of a local outdoor centre recently, Marta (3) wanted to feed the koi.
Now, my renown and expertise on fish could be written, longhand, in triplicate on the back of a tin of sardines, so I rely on my observational prowess to describe these delicate creatures as as “essentially goldfish the size of sharks with the feeding behaviour of piranhas.”
That I am able to give this objective observation is thanks the fact that the outdoor centre in question thoughtfully provides for those children who wish to feed their fish by charging you a small fee for a bag of fish food. So, bemoaning the fact that they charge money for the privilege of doing work that they’d otherwise have to pay someone to do, I did my duty as a dad, and handed over my cash.
Marta proudly and carefully transported her bag of fish food from the checkout to the ornamental pond and, one microscopic handful at a time, began to sprinkle food into the water.
As a brief aside, I have frequently marvelled at how far and wide Marta is able to scatter rice when it is served on a plate in front of her. Without apparent effort she seems able to get rice from the dining table, around two corners and halfway up the stairs.
I must therefore commend her single-minded dedication to ensuring each microscopic handful of fish-food landed in exactly the same spot. It may be that she thought a particular fish needed feeding up, but within no time every fish in the pond had converged on the single point in an attempt to benefit from her meagre offerings, and a feeding frenzy right out of a horror movie had erupted.
Stood, as I was, on a walkway a couple of feed above them, I still shuddered slightly at the savagery of the carp below. I felt certain that if I lost my footing and slipped, I would be transformed in short order into a skeletal pond decoration.
The observant fish
Still, despite the terror, the spirit of scientific enquiry didn’t abandon me. And if I’m honest I was a trifle worried that if the koi slaughtered one another in the battle for these tasty flakes, the shop might present me with a bill for several grand’s worth of fish fatalities.
So – politely asking Marta’s permission first – I took a handful of fish food and threw it to a spot on the far side of the pond. Most of the fish were too busy fighting each other to notice, but one observant creature on the fringes spotted the movement and swam over to investigate.
The observant fish poked its nose at the flakes. It poked the food with its nose. It took a nibble. It circled curiously around several times to get a better look at the food…and then hesitantly swam back, leaving my plentiful offering behind, to join the fruitless fray for the food Marta was dropping.
“Stupid goldfish,” I thought, and that was that.
Except that I then realised that God’s Toddlers (or at least this one) are capable of exhibiting behaviour remarkably reminiscent of the koi in question.
I know the way the world works. I know what’s important because the media tells me. I know what I have to chase after next, because received wisdom is, after all, wisdom.
And I know the way God does things. People around me tell me the way God is doing things elsewhere. I have seen how God has done things before in my life. A quick chat to people who know about history tells me how God has done things before. I know. So God will just keep doing the same thing over and over again, right?
I feel reassured in all of this, because knowing all of this makes me part of the crowd.
The trouble is, God’s Toddlers were never called to be part of the crowd. Part of a community yes, but not to go with the flow of the crowd. What if God whispers in my ear: “That’s all good stuff Paul. But come over here now. Here is where I want to feed you. Here is where the banquet is.”
Perhaps most of the time, like the frenzied fish, I don’t even notice. Perhaps I might notice, and risk being an observant fish, and having a poke around. And then I might, like the observant fish, go back to what the crowd reassures me works, content to live a second-hand experience of God.
Or perhaps I might occasionally dare a toddler-like exploration of where God is leading. To step away from what I think I know to where God is doing something slightly offbeat, and see how good the fish-flakes are.
© Text 2015 Paul Brownnutt
Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
© Photo of Corfu by Michael Gleave from Leicester, UK (Flickr) CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons