There’s a classic Sesame Street skit where Ernie wants to play sax in a jazz band. He’s clutching his rubber ducky, for security I suppose, and whenever he joins the jamming quacks get in the way. As the drummer flings his hair and cameos flash on the screen, cool dude Mr. Hoots wisely sings, “You gotta put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone.”
As a parent I’ve come to appreciate PBS’s insights into child psychology, and this is one of its best. I can’t tell you how often I tell my ten-year-old to “Put down the ducky.” She tries to eat corn on the cob while clutching her stuffed cat. She holds a book in one hand and picks up Legos, inefficiently, with the other. She takes her backpack off the hook and then tries to squirm into her coat.
Children are developmentally unable to prioritize their actions; sooner or later, putting the coat on first will become intuitive. Nevertheless, Mr. Hoots’ jazzy refrain returns again and again to my inner ear; that image of Ernie, wearing his famous stripes and gripping that rubber duck, is seared in my mind’s eye. “I really love my ducky and I can’t bear to part with him,” he explains. He wants the comfort, familiarity, and companionship ducky brings and he wants to join the music-making. So he faces a dilemma: Clutch what he loves and never fully participate, or let it go in favor of an untested activity that seems pretty great. The band bounces and jives around him. Ernie’s stuck.
One morning during my meditation, I finally realized why this PBS ditty has become an earworm. I love my thinking mind. I have awesome thoughts; they keep me responsible, help me earn a living, form my sense of identity, entertain me. I’m scared to put them down, even for a short ten minutes. Then I began recognizing the pattern everywhere. My house is just north of Minneapolis’ first integrated municipal golf course. It was built on a wetland and now, with a changing climate, it floods regularly. The golfers are having a terrible time putting down the ducky, lashing out at the park board instead. My church has four stunning tapestries that women lovingly stitched over decades but which portray images deeply hurtful to Native Americans and people of color; the congregation is in crisis over putting down a beloved ducky. Our government is polarized because it’s trying to get work done while squeezing duckies; the quacking is so loud, we can’t hear one another. Fossil fuels are one big petroleum-product ducky.
Ernie’s turning point comes after Mr. Hoots says, “You don’t have to lose your duck! You can pick it up when you’re finished.”
Ernie, amazed, flings ducky over his shoulder.
In meditation, I practice releasing my grip on something I love for the sake of something I don’t yet know or trust but sense I might love even more—silence, rest, peace. My thoughts define me yet on some days I suspect there’s a sweet freedom just beyond them. Regardless, the daily exercise of letting them go, if only momentarily, strengthens my capacity to welcome newness. First I notice my fist clenching the ducky, then I loosen it. Over and over. It’s a muscle worth building if I want to stay on good terms with my golfing neighbors, worship beside the Needlers at church, and converse about issues dear to me with uncles and cousins on the other side of the political spectrum. In the end, being in relationship means more to me than being right.
I need, we all need, to practice this gesture.
After the song ends, Ernie retrieves his pal: “Oh, ducky, I missed you so much!” What the reunion doesn’t show is Ernie’s internal transformation from which there’s no turning back. Now he knows the delight of making music. He also knows he can thrive without his security object, and this is both slightly sad and pretty wonderful.
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew is the author of the novel HANNAH, DELIVERED, the memoir SWINGING ON THE GARDEN GATE, a collection of personal essays, ON THE THRESHOLD: HOME, HARDWOOD, & HOLINESS, and two books on writing: LIVING REVISION: A WRITER'S CRAFT AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE, winner of the 2019 silver Nautilus Award, and WRITING THE SACRED JOURNEY: THE ART & PRACTICE OF SPIRITUAL MEMOIR. You can connect with her at www.spiritualmemoir.com and www.elizabethjarrettandrew.com.
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