Last week, I spent a morning at the park with my six-year-old granddaughter who loves to explore nature. When we make a list of what we’ll do when we’re together, her first choice is always to take a walk at a park and go exploring.
This time, she was especially interested in sampling the mineral springs and interacting with the ducks. But I also drew her attention to the stump of an old willow tree that had new life growing from it. I’ve been observing the “baby willow” for the past year. (Or maybe two years? Seems I always have to add an extra year due to the Covid time warp.)
When we got up close to the tree stump, we were surprised to find a female duck waddling inside of it. Then we realized she was there because she had a nest tucked away inside a nook!
I photographed the nest quickly and respectfully then moved along, to give her privacy. My granddaughter already was off and running in the direction of more ducks to quack with.
It didn’t seem like the willow stump treasures made much of an impression on her. But it wasn’t long before she made a new friend, who was sitting with his mom at the edge of the pond also observing the ducks. When they went off exploring together, the first thing she wanted to show him was the willow stump secrets.
The mama duck wasn’t there when they returned, so they went inside the trunk for a closer look as the boy’s mom and I tried to catch up to them. From my vantage point, they seemed to be steeped in a moment of awe and wonder.
It’s funny: I won’t run to the grocery store to fetch a missing ingredient, and I tend not to head into town to run just a single errand. This is one of the ways in which my life has changed since the pandemic began. I keep a running list of errands, groceries, etc. and try to check them off in as few trips as possible.
It’s an opportunity to practice patience, improvisation, and creativity. It’s a little game I play, and I play it because I find it worthwhile. Plus, it’s good for the planet to limit the amount of driving I do.
However, if I wake up inspired with a photography idea, it’s a whole different story. Off I go, whether or not any errands can be tacked on.
That’s exactly what happened after looking through the images I took at the park when I was with my granddaughter. The composition of one in particular felt a little off. It would have had greater depth, context, and meaning had I shifted my lens a little higher.
Before I knew it, I was back at the park with camera and three lenses in tow. After recomposing the image I went there for, I lingered for a while, experimenting with “seeing and being”. Zooming in and out. Being still and planted like a tree, taking in the landscape visually, emotionally, and artistically.
I returned to the willow stump and discovered a second nest of eggs inside another nook—with a mama duck sitting on them!
It was a beautiful, Sunday (May Day) morning, and the park was fairly busy. That meant I had to wait for people to move out of my camera frame when I couldn’t hide them behind trees. Such moments are great opportunities to practice mindfulness and patience. (When you have a mindfulness practice, moments of waiting take on new possibilities.)
I watched many people stop to take a closer look at the huge willow stump and the baby willow growing from it, without ever noticing the camouflaged secrets nestled inside.
Observing & Reflecting
I also waited to make some wider landscape images and ended up waiting for quite some time for the wider space to clear. While waiting, I observed families with young children enjoying the park together and remembered when I was raising my children. Back then, I was almost never alone. I often had one in the backpack and the other in the stroller. My children and I were together 24/7. It felt like that’s how life would always be. I had a poem on the refrigerator reminding me that there would be time later for what I wasn’t able to do while immersed in the important work of mothering young children.
That time arrived eventually. I pursued interests and career paths, always learning and growing…and with a lot more time to myself. And so there I was a couple decades later, standing alone with my camera in the park on a picture-perfect May Day morning.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the young children running around chasing the ducks would grow up. What would their lives be like? What challenges would these families encounter?
There was one little girl and her dad who stayed within my frame for a long time because the little girl was so fascinated by the ducks. She chased them, and after they moved away from her, she ran around a tree instead. Then she explored every square foot of earth, or so it seemed from where I stood. The little girl had a lot of energy. Her dad allowed her to explore while hanging back yet remaining present. I enjoyed watching their body language and considered composing a picture in which his caring posture was part of the landscape, but it felt voyeuristic. The mom was ahead of them pushing an empty stroller with a slightly older, less energetic child at her side. It seemed the dad was on daughter duty, giving the mom a bit of a break.
I imagined that two days prior, my granddaughter and I had looked much like this father and daughter, only older. But the same basic idea.
As I observed the dad and daughter from across the stream, a male duck waddled into the willow stump, as if to check on the mama duck and make sure everything was okay. A few minutes later, he waddled back out and into the adjacent stream where a few colorful, male ducks cleverly drew people’s attention away from the willow stump. I presumed he was the daddy duck.
Interestingly, when I looked at my images later, I zoomed way in and noticed the word “mate” right there in the nest. I hadn’t noticed it at the time, for I was too far away. It appeared to be part of a longer word that was folded, with “mate” being the only part visible. I became fascinated and intrigued by this image—which I thought of as Mother Nature’s oracle card for the day.
All week, I was drawn like a magnet to my images of these duck mamas-to-be. A number of situations arose that were out of my control, in my personal life and in the world, and I felt vulnerable. For example, I received a massive car repair bill and wondered if I was being taken advantage of. I listed some items for sale on Marketplace and encountered stealthy scammers whom fortunately I was a step ahead of. My bank had to send me a new debit card because my card somehow had been compromised. Stuff like that. Family stuff.
One of the messages I receive from the mama duck images is that caring is a quiet and often unnoticed, but ever-present and natural force in the world. It’s not loud and showy like those who seek personal gain through taking advantage of, controlling, manipulating, putting down, and objectifying others for whatever reason.
Be wise and discerning. And don’t give up hope, for caring abounds in this world, even now. It just doesn’t tend to draw attention to itself or make headlines, for that’s not what it seeks. Caring always finds a way.
I also saw the duck mamas-to-be doing their best to create a nest of safety and caring in a bustling, unpredictable environment.
Despite our deepest intentions, we can’t always keep our children safe. We can’t transfer our experience and wisdom to them. We can’t direct the course of their life or prevent them from suffering. That’s not our responsibility, it’s not the point, and we only suffer more when we try. But we always can care and be there for them. We can listen deeply without sharing our unsolicited advice, opinions, or concerns—or at least that’s what I’m practicing right now.
My experience of motherhood has not been anything like I imagined and envisioned it would be when I was pregnant with my first child. At times, it’s been pretty brutal, and I swear I signed up for the accelerated learning plan here on Schoolroom Earth! It’s certainly been a path of deep compassion, humility, and surrender. My children have been and continue to be my greatest teachers.
The space between our expectations/desires and reality is a breeding ground for suffering. Thank goodness for my meditation practice and time spent in nature, is all I can say! They help me to let go of the stories of what life is/isn’t or should/shouldn’t be and find balance and inner spaciousness, many times a day when challenges arise.
So there I was alone at the park with my camera, waiting for the scene to be people-free, watching children chasing ducks and interacting with their families. Feeling my feet on the ground, feeling into my body, aware of my breathing, receiving impressions of the environment through my senses, and feeling connected with the life around me. Wondering what these young families will go through as the children grow up and what challenges they face now.
Realizing many other families have had or will have similar experiences—that my experience isn’t unique—has grown my compassion tremendously. There is so much I would have passed judgment on prior to experiencing what I have in this messy, human life.
I don’t normally spend time in nature with my camera in busy places. However, that Sunday morning visit to the park presented a whole new invitation beyond practicing mindfulness and patience in those moments of waiting. It was an opportunity to practice lovingkindness, as well.
Lovingkindness, or metta, is a practice of wishing others well and cultivating caring. All of the people and families who passed through my camera frame were opportunities to send more lovingkindness into the world. Humankind is struggling now, and I silently wished the passersby:
May you be well.
May you be kind to each other.
May you enjoy this beautiful day.
May you live with ease.
May you be free from suffering.
May you know that you are loved.
Generating lovingkindness made the waiting times much more enjoyable. By the time I left the park, I felt more connected to all the life around me. Not just the ducks.
© 2022 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.