On Monday afternoon as I turned onto a freeway onramp, a mother duck and her ducklings crossed directly in front of my van. Both of my kids were strapped in the backseat. As I hit the brake, I checked my mirrors, worried that someone might rear-end me. But strangely, even though it was rush hour, this particular onramp was empty for the moment. I put on my hazards and watched as the group crossed together, all of them unified in their determination. The whole thing took about eight seconds. As I drove off, I argued with Stump about whether or not I’d killed the ducks.
“You ran over them,” he insisted.
“No, honey, I stopped. They made it to the other side. If I had hit those ducks I’d be crying right now.”
Smoke came to my defense. “She didn’t hit them. I would be crying too if she did.”
When we got home, there was a box on my doorstep. Inside, I found a gift from my sister: two ceramic mugs that had been shipped across the country. The mugs were wrapped in bubble wrap, and the box was full of packing peanuts. As I sat on the floor admiring the mugs, Stump took two handfuls of the foam and threw them like confetti. Smoke laughed. Before I could intervene, Stump picked up the box and dumped all of the peanuts on the floor. My muscles tensed as I prepared myself to lift him and remove him from the scene. But then I stopped myself. In the world of a three-year-old packing peanuts are a special occasion. Since the damage had been done, I might as well let him enjoy it.
Stump and Smoke threw peanuts in the air. They rolled around on the floor. They stomped on them. I watched as a number of the peanuts broke into many pieces.
I stayed there, cross-legged on the floor, just watching. I am spending time with my kids, I told myself. It felt like a spinoff of last week’s mantra, Parenting is not hard. This wasn’t the early evening activity I would have planned for them, but it was the one they had chosen, and really it was no better or worse than a walk to the park or a romp in the backyard. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t thrilled about it; it only mattered that I was there, on the floor in the moment, half-grumpy and half-calm.
When their fun began to wane, I asked them to help me pick up the peanuts, and they did. (Their effort was a little lackluster, I admit, but it was something.) I spent ten minutes vacuuming the tiny left-behind pieces, and then we moved on to dinner.
All of this is part of a life strategy I’m trying to cultivate called Dealing with What’s in Front of Me. The mama duck walks in front of my car so I stop. My kid dumps the packing peanuts on the floor and so we play with them. I’m trying to move into the mode of responding to my world—and responding to it fully and with patience and zest—rather than controlling it.
I’ve been playing with this strategy at work as well. These days, when I teach a class, I try to remember to look around the room and breathe, to not just be a talking, disembodied head. Rather than planning six activities and working to move us through each one on a schedule, I try to leave room to let my students surprise me, and they do. When I ask questions, I try to let go of my own prescribed answer. On the days when I succeed at that, my world feels altered. I come home feeling connected to something that’s bigger than me.
I think about the mother duck and her experience of the freeway. I think about her standing on one side of the onramp, her babies lined up behind her, anticipating her next move: all that focused concentration. In the span of a single moment, the noise of traffic quiets just enough for her to go. Once she starts, there is no hesitation. She commits to that moment and to her own impulse. That trust becomes the thing that, more than any other thing, protects her.
Image Credit, Mother Duck and Ducklings: Carole Smith Berney