5.29.11 Unity Bites: Just What Does it Mean to be Connected to All Things?

Imagine an eel-like salamander clamped onto your toddler’s foot, refusing to loosen its tiny jaw until you shake your girl’s foot violently enough.

How would you respond?

It makes me wonder about connection, namely the notion of feeling connected and being connected. But what does “we’re all connected” mean? How do you really experience it in the functional, non-psychedelic world?

“Unity” is an abstraction. What’s real is particular.

I don’t know the answers to my question, but this will not be a tale about how an adorable toddler re-connects a middle-aged man to all that is. Not exactly.

My daughter and I took a walk today, and I noticed my neighbor had posted new survey flags – pink ribbons – along various tree branches and around various trunks – to demarcate his property. Either he’s selling or warning, not sure which.

Nonetheless, we popped over the boundary and into another neighbor’s fallow farm field where the view stretches to the Shawangunk Ridge and the grass reaches my knees and my daughter’s head. She wanted to sit among the grass, surrounded in a green grass fort, and just stroke the weeds and deadhead yellow wild flowers.

After a while, we sauntered down to the narrow, shallow stream that feeds the one-acre pond out back. I slipped off her shoes and pants and dipped her toes and fingers in the still-cool water until she got the hang of splashing again. Within minutes, she stooped to run her palms along the water’s face like palmy water bugs, lost in the sun-glitters and splish-splash.

I looked around and down to take in our companions. The lavendar flox leaves. The loosestrife’s yellow leaves. The steady flow of water that has come from certain southern Catskill Mountains and eventually down certain streams and roadside streams to this very spot. I thought about my friend who, after living for twenty years in one spot, is at last acquainting himself with the trees where he lives.  I thought about certain naturalists such as Barry Lopez who must be trained to take in so much more than I could but wanted to notice at that moment. I thought…

Bwaaa-uh-aah! my daughter suddenly screeched. My hands reached for her and lifted her before my mind computed much else, and there the eight-inch, flat-bodied eel-like mini-serpent swung from my daughter’s pink, plump foot.

I cannot describe the squeal my mouth emitted, but I can still hear it as I watched blood puddle among her peach toes.

As I held my baby, I watched the slithery fellow squiggle and struggle in the water, post-shock. She watched it, too, and when I said, “Silly slithery thing,” she chuckled and said, “Yeah!” And then she said, “Ow!”

Fortunately, a few field guides and the New York Poison Control Center assured my wife and me that as long we keep the bite clean from infection, we had nothing to worry about. It was probably a red-backed salamander in its early lead-backed phase.

Another child, if you will, either defending its turf like my neighbor or simply reacting to the huge force coming down on its little black head.  If a few minutes before the bite my daughter and I were in notably different pleasure-oriented states of mind from the salamander, then at the moment of that bite, among the most direct ways to connect with someone or something, my daughter must have been much closer to the slithery kid’s state of startle.

I’m thinking again how care and love and compassion and connection really only happen in the concrete world with small particular things and people. These things – care and compassion and connection – are not abstractions. Real connection begins with the little world around each of us. And the person next to us. This is what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was getting at when he politely challenged the Dalai Lama earlier this month. This is what Jonathan Franzen was getting at about love when he spoke to graduates of Kenyon College earlier this month.

Real connection doesn’t just mean kumbaya moments of picaresque views and sweet moments beneath blue skies (although my daughter and I had out fair share of those today, too). It means in part knowing my neighbors, defenses and all. The fleshy ones. The leafy ones. The feathered ones. The slimy ones. The prickly ones.

Unity bites. That’s what I’m thinking.

How about you? What were your day’s three highlights today? Share them below – and let us know where you’re writing from.

See you in the woods,
The 3 Highlights Guy

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4 responses to “5.29.11 Unity Bites: Just What Does it Mean to be Connected to All Things?

  1. 1. When the power came back on this morning after the storm of last night just in time for coffee.
    2. The utter quiet in our house after breakfast while we read.
    3. Just now, reading about you and Dahlia and the salamander. A thoughtful essay and beautiful, too.
    Kingston, NY

  2. Update: A professor at Cornell whom I emailed says that salamanders don’t bite. …

  3. Update again: It was probably a baby American eel.

  4. OMG! Snakes are one of my worst fears. Especially snakes in the water. I’m glad that she’s okay and you had such a compassionate, poetic reaction.
    Highlights from May 29, my last day of being 30:
    1) double dose of a.m. yoga outside overlooking the volcanoes from the Earth Lodge, the first session led by my yoga schmoga guru Lynn and the second session led by me
    2) Indian curry for dinner, interesting conversation with new acquaintances, and playing gin rummy after dinner
    3) A quiet night alone in my cabin, reading, writing and practicing yin yoga
    ~Michelle, Guatemala