This strikes me as memorable for several reasons. First of all, she’s always correct. She has indeed seen these things at the aquarium. Sea turtles, fish of various shapes, sharks, crabs, penguins, even divers. Secondly, she can pronounce “aquarium” correctly. Last of all, what I find most significant is that it’s been nearly a year since she went to the aquarium and she still remembers what she saw there.
There are lots of reasons that the aquarium should be memorable to her. She’s been twice. (There’s a Ripley’s Aquarium in Tennessee that we’ve taken her to the past two springs.) She really has two different experiences of this aquarium to draw on. Of course, the most obvious reason she would remember the aquarium is because it’s awesome. Aquariums are super cool. I don’t care how old you are, watching jellyfish float through a blue tank is a blissful experience. Looking at giant crabs is not something you get to do every day. Getting up close with a hammerhead shark is awe-inspiring and chill-inducing, even if there is a foot of plexiglass in between you. What kid wouldn’t remember these experiences?
It’s not just the aquarium, though. She remembers playgrounds and the equipment she played on. She remembers games she played with friends and activities she did at church. She talks about the pumpkin patch we saw in October and the giraffes she saw at the zoo. She remembers any out-of-the-ordinary sight she sees: a fender bender, a man in a tree trimming branches, a colorful display at the grocery store. It’s quite common for her to relate something she sees or hears to an experience she’s had. Or, for that matter, for her to just bring it up out of nowhere: “I saw kitties at the kitty show with Grandmommy.”
You know what I don’t hear from her very often? How much she loves her toys. Occasionally she may see a doll or figure and say, “I have that toy.” But I don’t really ever hear her say, “I want to go home and play with my dolls.” That’s not to say she doesn’t play with her toys and enjoy doing it. I just don’t hear her remembering her toys with the same fondness as she remembers her experiences.
I’ve heard it said that people who spend their money on experiences – vacations, concerts, family outings, etc. – are happier than people who spend their money on things. This seemed odd to me when I heard it, because I don’t think that way. An experience is over; you spend money on a vacation, but then when the vacation is over, it’s gone. A possession lasts longer. Maybe not forever, but usually longer than an experience. I suppose that’s the appeal of buying souvenirs from vacations: I want to have something to show for it.
I’m clearly being too tangible in my thinking. My daughter is quickly and resoundingly showing me that the memories of life experiences outlast the impact of things. I feel foolish that I have to re-learn this lesson, but what better teacher than a four-year-old who is encountering the world through fresh, curious eyes? A toy will get buried in the back of the closet and she’ll forget she even has it. But seeing zebras at the zoo? She hasn’t forgotten that. Chasing bubbles through the yard with her buddies; sliding down the slide at Plaza Fiesta; seeing the fire truck that one day that the fire department visited her daycare; playing with the water puzzles at the museum; petting the dogs at the park on a Saturday when the dog obedience class met; doing anything at Monkey Joe’s. God help us, we can’t drive by Monkey Joe’s without her shouting, “Monkey Joe!” She never comes home to her room and shouts “My toy train!”
I suppose it could be argued that experiences like these mean more to her than they would to me. After all, I’ve lived thirty more years on this planet than she has. I’ve had a lot more experiences. Seeing a real live zebra is always a pretty cool thing, but it’s not the new experience for me that it is for her. She has much more to learn from experience at this early age in her life than I do. Right…?
When did we in our culture learn to substitute things for experiences? Objects for life? Perhaps it’s an extension of the ways we learn as children to internalize relationships through transitional objects like teddy bears or security blankets. We learn to feel safe about our relationships by transferring positive feelings onto things; this helps us as toddlers learn to be alone. Maybe as we grow older, we confuse these transitional objects for something more than they are. The security we feel in driving the right car or wearing the right clothes becomes such a substitute for the security we feel in our relationships that we mistake those possessions as the ultimate goal. Or maybe we buy things in order to facilitate experiences – camping gear, or hobby supplies, or musical instruments, or whatever – but the pursuit of having the things takes over from the experience itself. I don’t know, exactly. What I do know is that I feel humbled by the enthusiasm and curiosity that my daughter uses to engage the world around her.
Experiences don’t have to be expensive. Going for a walk, watching for birds, dancing and singing; these are all free. A few dollars just exponentially increase the options: playing cards, enjoying a milkshake, drawing with chalk or crayons. Experiences don’t come and then go; they stay with us. Particularly if we are impressionable. Of course, a toddler is impressionable. Maybe I, too, should make myself more impressionable. If there isn’t anything else for me to experience in this world – and that seems unlikely, given that I’ve experienced less than point-oh-one-percent of this planet – then at the least I can be a part of my child’s new experiences of the world.
So we’re going to start spending more money on adventures than toys. This Saturday, if anyone is interested, we’re going to the aquarium.