“Be a Duck” 8×8, oil on gallery wrapped canvas (1.5 in). $100 Buy Now SOLD
My mom used this parable often when I was a child: Take a lesson from the duck, sailing smoothly against the surface of the water but underneath paddling like hell. Day four. Be a duck.
Remember Erica? She’s a former student whose mother commissioned a painting as a wedding gift for her. It stretched me which was basically the gist of my blog post about it.
Since I’ve written about Erica before, I’m going to limit my gushing. Not eliminate, just limit. She’s a writer and a poet. In fact she’s joined me and others in the thirty day challenge and has committed to writing one poem every day. She also has a personal blog that’s definitely worth the read.
Erica is unassuming, modest, quiet. She’s also sharp, insightful, wonderfully creative. I’ve enjoyed every moment of transitioning from knowing her as a teenager to knowing her as an adult. I’ll admit she was far more mature at seventeen than I was at twenty. My friend Rebekah is writing every day as part of the thirty day challenge and in her day two post, she includes a sample journal entry from her early college days in which she, my very smart and eloquent friend, mostly used adjectives like “cool” and “nice”. That inarticulate young adult was me too. That was never Erica. Even in a brown plaid skirt and white collared shirt, always appropriately buttoned (a major cause of demerits for her peers) she was, to say the least, well spoken.
Which is why it surprised me when the opening of her e-mail to me read like this:
“I really wanted to share a story with you for your pivotal moments/turning points theme, but I kind of feel that at twenty-three, I really don’t have anything monumental to share– certainly nothing worthy of painting. But your continued requests for stories kept standing out to me, so I kept thinking. My pivotal moments, rare as they are, are quiet ones, on a very small, very individual scale. This one is what I think had the biggest effect on me, though I don’t know if it’s necessarily inspiring or profound. It’s simply the story of how I’ve come to live my life.”
She leads with modesty, follows with impact. I was astounded by what followed.
“When I was in college, I got the internship opportunity of my dreams, which was working in a professional ad agency. I was ecstatic: this was the sort of thing towards which I had been aligning my goals. I would finally be able to be the copywriter I longed to be.
But apparently, our signals got crossed, because the agency thought they were hiring a graphic designer (even though I provided several samples of my writing and, when showing them my graphics portfolio, heatedly emphasized that design is not my strong point). My boss turned out to be terrifying, who simply couldn’t be pleased. I had to keep track of what I did all day by the MINUTE. Because I had been tasked with all the graphic design jobs, I was awful at it all, and would sit through my meetings with her shamefaced and helpless while she scolded me for doing such poor work. My explanations that I was not a graphic designer fell on deaf ears. She said lots of awful things to and about me that I knew better than to believe but hurt all the same.
For this goody-two-shoes, who is used to excelling at everything she tries, who is used to praise (and desperately wants/needs everyone to like her), it was miserable.
Now, I’ve lived an easy life. I’m very aware of that and grateful for it. It doesn’t inspire a lot of “poor Erica” comments. This story is NOTHING compared to just about everyone else. But all I knew was that I went home crying every single day. I didn’t know how to fix it. I had never faced this disappointment before, from others and in myself. I started questioning my major and career choice and goals […] from this job, I went on to an agency in New Orleans, where I finally got to be a copywriter, but my leftover negativity from that first agency really pulled me down, and I eventually quit.
No one knew how to help me, and I didn’t know how to help myself. By the end of the summer, I found myself in a very dark place, and it was scary. Two things pulled me through:
1. My dad. My mom has always been the advice giver, the comforter, the hugger, but my dad was the one who gave me this singular piece of advice. It’s humorous, but it has stuck with me for years: “Be the duck.” When I questioned what he meant, he said that ducks have an oil in their feathers that allow them to be in the water all day but not necessarily get wet. The water rolls right off the oil. Now, as far as practicality goes, this advice did not get me very far. I still came home sobbing from feelings of hurt and failure. (Truthfully, this was the first time I had ever failed at anything, and such as silly thing it was!) I never did quite master being the duck. But it gave me a mantra to hold onto, and maybe that was enough.
2. My OGTAD. I recognized how dark everything was around me, and I was honestly very scared for myself at the time. But what I am most proud of is that I was able to pull myself out by starting my “One Good Thing a Day” journal. Even though my internship ended just two weeks into OGTAD, I kept it up for the whole year because I knew I needed it.
But neither the duck nor OGTAD were exactly my pivotal moment, though both played a part in it. How shall I explain it?
I was able to recognizing this bleak darkness encroaching on my spirit, and I knew that it was not good. It was not who I was. But who I was wasn’t the opposite of darkness. “Goody two shoes” is not the opposite of dark. “Rule follower,” “straight A student,” “nice,” “scared of failing,” “writer,” and so on– all these are not the opposite of dark.
So what was? I sat down to examine my life and tried to find the parts of me that WERE the opposite. “Nice” was the closest I could find. So I made an active decision to make myself a better person and to become all the things that darkness is not. My top three goals were kind, gentle, and peaceful. I took these words and surrounded myself in them by doing my best to be them. I learned how to be empathetic and compassionate. I began practicing being a good person, which is weird to say, but best describes what I did.
It would be ridiculous and narcissistic of me to claim that I have reached that goal, because I don’t believe it is a goal that can ever be fully reached or realized. But I do believe that I have come a very long way since 2011. It started me on a new journey, which propelled me forward to so many things that I don’t know if I would have met without it. I think that trying to become a better person can be either an active or passive commitment, depending on how you decide to approach it, and I did my best to be active about it. I am still trying. I am still learning.
There have been many poems (of my own and of others) and quotes (definitely of others) that have carried me through these last few years, but I found this one very recently, and I think its tone best describes how I have come to look at the world:
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
–Philip Larkin, The Mower”
So let’s recap. Erica gave me a beautiful personal story that included an image of nothing less than my very favorite subject to paint, a bird. She ends with a poem. I’m drooling at this point.
Weeks ago, I posted a status on my facebook page asking what I should paint. Robyn (whom I wrote about yesterday) has a sister, also named Denise, who has been immensely supportive of my art endeavors. I’ve tried to find the words to express how much I appreciate her, somehow “liking” her facebook comments just don’t seem to do it.
She responded to that question telling me to paint a Wood Duck. She included a picture. I got a few other suggestions, and, honestly, I attempted a few of them but was never really satisfied.
This painting is a female wood duck. The males are known for their beauty. The are colorful, ostentatious. Much too loud for this painting. The females are beautiful too but more subtly so. If you look closely, you’ll see the words of a poem scribbled into the background on this one. It’s one of Erica’s poems from her thirty day challenge. I found it fitting, particularly the third stanza.
I am grateful:
for the roof over my head
and the birds that sing,
for the words of my father
and his rounded shoulders,
for the gentle touch of my mother
coming from her nicked hands.
I am comforted:
by the swelling winds and coming rains,
by the settling of this tired house,
by the blue of the vase
against the white of the flowers,
against the fawn of the twine.
I am calm:
in the frustration of dissonance,
in the midst of chaos,
in the blackened heart of entropy.
I find my sacred peace
in my gratitude and small comforts;
I first find my footing and carefully, gently,
I secure my place and make my home.
Just to be clear, I don’t have to know you personally to make a painting about your story. I’d love to hear from you.