Walking across campus last week, I noticed a duckling in a pond. She was doing that adorable dive under, pop up, shake off thing that ducks do, but is so much cuter when they’re still little and fluffy. I stopped on the path to watch for a minute and, I think I noticed at the same time that the duckling did that she was in that great big (for a duckling) pond alone. She stopped dunking and shaking and started to glide through the water, her bill springing open and closed as she let out a series of peep-peep noises. I felt an anxious tingle in my chest as I realized that the mother duck and the rest of the ducklings were in a separate pond, on the other side of the wide path. It wasn’t only the walkway between them, but stones blocking sight lines too. There was the gush of water noise and construction sounds from a new building going up nearby. As she floated around the pond, the peep-peep emitting more quickly and her head swiveling, I was certain there was no way so she’d be able to find her group. I wondered if there was anything I could do and knew I couldn’t just keep walking, so I waited. I stood in the middle of the path where I could see both the mother with her duckling pod, and the lost peep-peeper, and I waited. There was a large (for a duckling) distance between them and so many reasons why I didn’t think she’d be able to find her way, but then something seemed to shift. She was gliding to the edge of the water, then climbing out onto the grass, then screech-screeching at me as she ran tilting forward on her little webbed feet across the path, down the bank, and skipped into the water on the other side, sailing smoothly back to where she belonged.
I’ve been thinking about this for days, how I was stunned into stillness by that little duck, seriously worried about what would happen to her. Walking down that same path today, I wondered about the metaphor.
Last Thursday marked the end of an eight-week class I participated in at the cancer center - “Mindfulness Based Cancer Recovery.” I’d thought to take the course earlier on, during my treatment, but knew I didn’t have the strength and wherewithal to commit to showing up and being present at regular intervals. Then, just when I thought the post-treatment depression would never end, when I was really getting desperate, this class’s cycle came around again and (with no small thanks to my awesome colleagues at work) I arranged to attend.
On the first day, something like thirteen people gathered around a conference table hoping for the best. There were two facilitators and a bunch of people dealing with cancer - some survivors, some in active treatment, some caregivers. It was the first time I’d sat in a room full of people all so deeply affected by cancer; that alone was a balm. During the initial class I agreed to meditate for ten to fifteen minutes every day during the eight weeks of the program. Though I’ve practiced yoga off and on since my early twenties and read and listened to more books about meditation and mindfulness than I can probably remember, I’d never actually established a daily meditation practice. I was desperate though. My counselor called the mindfulness course an “experiment,” but to me it felt like some sort of last ditch effort.
The size of the group dwindled as people dealt with what they needed to in life. We ended with a core of nine including the facilitators. Nine people who - as faithfully as we could - practiced the daily meditation and met up each week to sit around that conference table and listen to lessons about mindfulness, to talk about what was working for us and what made us cringe. We cried. We laughed. We did yoga in our chairs. We listened to guided meditations that took us to forests and mountains and on boats at sea. We swung sleepily in hammocks strung between trees on our own imagined islands.
That hour and a half each week came to feel a little bit like magic to me, like a sparkling of light breaking across the water. Somewhere during the course of the eight weeks, something led my tripping feet up out of that lonely scared pond I’d started in, and over to the place where other folks were floating. I plopped myself amongst them and we all kept paddling. It’s not only that I made it to the others, but that I tuned into the homing device inside me that could guide my way out of the lonely pond and into the one with some life in it.
The eight weeks are over now so I’m not going to see those people tomorrow. We’re not going to sit together and listen to those marvelous facilitators, and we’re not going to get to talk about things. But they are all still with me, my mind’s own little duckling pod. I think about them when I sit down every night to do my meditation, and when I go outside at work each day to count backwards from ten and breathe in the sun. And now that I’ve written my way through this, I’ll have them in mind every time I walk down that particular path or even when, someday in the future, I might happen to notice another duckling just peep-peeing her way along.