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Teachings of My Summer Toad

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On a warm early morning this past summer, I opened the front door and stepped onto the porch, where I was surprised to find a toad sitting quietly. Assuming him to be as surprised as I, as well as vulnerable, and not wanting to frighten him, I passed carefully by, heading towards the yard and making it clear that I had no intention towards him. “Hullo, Toad,” I offered in a soft tone, as casually as I could, in the hope of dispelling any awkwardness. Toad remained still, unblinking. His demeanor was hard to assess. Was he watching me? Thinking about me? Was he calm or just unrevealing of his emotional state?

Though unexpected, his appearance wasn’t unprecedented. I had spotted the occasional toad in the yard, always in the summer, and always sitting quietly in whatever inward state toads may experience, simply not moving. I have never understood what they were doing here: there is no water, and I have only ever seen one at a time. Are they loners? The yard contains some mysterious small holes, but do toads squeeze themselves into them? I avoid the holes, hoping that the inhabitants, if any, won’t emerge while I’m near. There had even been a summer toad on the porch before. He appeared during the same season as a plant was passed along to me by a neighbor. The plant, a maranta, or prayer plant, was the one among all the pots which looked the most like Toad. How did he know that? He took up residence in the pot and could often be found there in the shade. If I didn’t see him and began watering, he sat patiently, perhaps even enjoying the soft shower. He stayed all summer and was called Rupert. Maybe this summer’s toad was Rupert, a resident of the neighborhood, showing himself again: perhaps he knows me, while I can’t tell one toad from another.

Recently, I heard someone use the phrase “trust the stillness.” I was delighted, especially at hearing it spoken by that particular friend. What an expression! Does he really think like that? Are those his words? I googled the words and found them used in various forms by many sources. So lots of people are trusting stillness, or at least talking about it, and I didn’t know – a popular idea existing all around me, of which I had been unaware. And I found myself thinking of Toad.

Toad arrived this summer and took up his post as my teacher. His arrival and departure, like everything about him, were unannounced. He gave me no syllabus, no reading to do, no assignment. In fact, he never spoke or acknowledged me in any way. I am not big, but I am huge compared to him; and yet, he appeared unimpressed. I don’t know what may go on in the consciousness of a toad, so I can only make human assumptions and imagine him to be like me. I liked him being here; and in my mind, he trusted me. I gave him as much space as I could and made myself quieter and slower – smaller – around him. Stillness reminds me of him, because it was stillness that we shared. I studied Toad and tried to give him the atmosphere he seemed to want. He gave me his presence.

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9 thoughts on “Teachings of My Summer Toad

  1. What an utterly charming anecdote Elizabeth; a paean to stillness, presence and toads, as well as being a reflection of a sensitive and kind soul. And I enjoyed the Edward German piece by the way; I could hear all manner of influences segueing into one another there.

    May I ask, do you permit the submission of silly videos here?

    Hariod. ❤

    • Hariod, glad you enjoyed the German piece, and it’s so interesting that you could identify influences in it! It would be illuminating to know what his influences were. The “silly video” has served to deepen my appreciation of my own Toad. I did watch it all, though the images were alarming to me (I may be too girlie for it), and the phrase that popped into my mind was Emily Dickinson’s “how public – like a frog.” In the end, though, it has made me realize even more deeply how carefully chosen was the toad which was sent to teach me and how special was his solitary presence.

  2. A lovely meditation on stillness, and I love that the teacher is the homely Toad. Of course I think of T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, too:

    . . . After the kingfisher’s wing
    Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
    At the still point of the turning world.

    It’s hard to find those still spaces, let alone to trust them, I find. Yet they offer such a valuable oasis in the world. Certain pieces of music, like Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants, which I’m listening to now, can show the way for me. I look forward to listening to German’s Elegy, too. When I do, I’ll be thinking of you and Toad.

    • Sue, no one lends encouragement and support better than you do. The lines from Eliot mirror the atmosphere of my own experience nicely. And the image of the kingfisher’s wing is an apt accompaniment to the Elegy, I think you’ll agree, near the end, when the music quiets. I’m intrigued by your statement that it’s hard to trust the still spaces, when found. Perhaps you’ll say more about that at some point. I’m grateful for your enthusiasm and humble, on behalf of Toad and self, that you would think of us while listening to German’s lovely piece.

  3. Toads get such a bad press, all that about their spit not hitting the white dove and so on, and their presumed ugliness, but I love it that you get to the essence of the toad just being, and being along with you: that’s the best I think that nature has to give us now I’m a bit older. Being at one, without sentimentality, affectation or even the inevitable anthropomorphist in us. I like just saying hello to cats and dogs and expecting nothing in return, and I’ve seen a few other folk do that on the street, which endears them to me.

    Write more1

    • David, you always come up with the unexpected! I had to look up the bad press about the toad’s spit not hitting the white dove and found it listed among French animal proverbs. How delightfully David of you to have a French proverb on the tip of your tongue! By an interesting coincidence (which happen more when I’m reading from you than in general life), while looking at French animal proverbs, I found that the French say they have a cat in their throat, rather than a frog, as we do (“avoir un chat dans la gorge”). I agree it is something learned with age, a simple greeting offered to an animal may or may not lead to a friendly exchange, and in the meantime lowers the anxiety of hoping for a response, or the loss of self-esteem when not getting one. Hope you recognized the inclusion of German, whom I found out about from you. This week was his remembrance (Feb. 17, 1862 – Nov. 11, 1936), which I marked with this same Elegy over on the newleafsite Facebook page.

      • It’s a lovely piece, and a connection with the dear old dad – maybe you learnt about German when I mentioned that the only piece of music he ever cited was a song from Merrie England. Quite right about shrugging off animal indifference (usually from cats). By the way, I was charmed to know that our ‘water off a duck’s back’ is nearly the same in Russian (substituing ‘goose’ for ‘duck’).

  4. “I made myself…smaller[ ] around him.”

    Amazing, contradictory visual imagery.
    Seeing yourself as other than physical form, nothing short of genius.
    Toad had a wonderful lesson for us.
    Truly he (or she), trusted the stillness.

    Be at peace,

    Paz

    • Paz, making myself smaller was in this case out of consideration. Usually it is one of my defensive responses to the overwhelming, such as a couple of recent posts over your way which are much too close and much too soon for me to read. You understand. Being still can be a way of waiting. — Elizabeth

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