Tadpoles as Teachers

First Published in Spa Magazine, Premiere Edition, September/October, 2000

It was a picture-postcard morning in Kauai. I meandered down the hallway of our small, island-style home towards the kitchen to brew a fresh pot of wake-me-up coffee. Favorite mug in hand, I was ready to begin a day of writing.

However, my enthusiasm dissolved as I saw the chaotic mess in my office.

Not that this was anything new, but as Native American elders say, “We have to look before we are ready to see.”Perhaps this was the moment that I was ready to see.

Stacks of papers were piled everywhere. My desk screamed for breathing space.

As a therapist and writer for the past two decades, I had accumulated mountains of files, notes, books, journals and tapes. I even dragged all of this stuff with me when my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to Kauai in 1992, thinking, “I need it all.”

My office is graced with a glass-louver window, which provides a view of swaying palm trees, colorful bougainvillea and the beautiful azure ocean of Kauai. Life is sometimes like that: We need a window to help us see the beauty beyond the chaos.

Gazing at the mess in my office and the view beyond, I asked myself, “What is this picture trying to tell me? Do I really need everything? Why is it so difficult to throw away that which I no longer need?”

And yet another question flashed through my mind. “Am I holding on to these old sources of information, or are they holding onto me?”

The answer was clear. All my stuff was holding onto me. It was then that I realized that my professional identity was wrapped in a belief that these books and articles somehow fortified my sense of self. Without them, perhaps I would feel like I know nothing.

I remembered an experience I had a year prior to our move.

It was a delightfully warm, dry Arizona afternoon, and I was sitting by the edge of the Verde River taking a few private moments to appreciate the surrounding beauty. I decided to wade into the murky, slow-flowing river to cool off. I felt the warm mud squishing between my toes as my feet began to sink into the silky river-soft earth.

Once I got my footing, I noticed that I was surrounded by hundreds of tadpoles. I continued walking cautiously, slipping and sinking into the muddy bottom. I then noticed the almost-frog-still-with-tail tadpole. I named it the “frog-pole.” And finally there were hundreds of mature frogs.

In this moment of solitude, I listened to the songs of the frogs and wondered what I was supposed to learn from this seemingly simple experience.

The message became clear when I was back in California, visiting a friend who was a neurobiologist. After telling her of my experience, I suggested that the “frog-pole” knows when it’s time to lose its tail and become a frog. ” “I guess it falls off, or something like that,” I said.

Diana smiled and said, “That’s not what happens, Joyce.”

She explained that the tail of the frog-pole does not fall off. Instead, it is assimilated into its own body. The tail becomes part of the self. The frog does not eat during this time; it gets nourishment from its own body. Nothing falls off; nothing is lost.

I realized, like the tail of the frog, the information in those books and journals and piles of paper was already absorbed into my being. By letting go of what I no longer needed, I wouldn’t be losing anything, but instead, I would be gaining greater mobility to move along in life.

I knew it was time to wade through the mire of clutter, let go of what I no longer needed, and clear the pathway for new learning and discovery.