For her sixth birthday, I agreed to buy my daughter Caitlin the tree frog she’d asked for. Through this creature of the Indonesian jungle, I was introduced, as an unexpected benefit, to what I call nocturnal mind.
A week before the birthday, Caitlin and I went to the Vivarium to pick out a frog. As we entered, I was impressed by the complexity of the terrariums, tiny worlds of plants, water, soil. I worried, what systems must I keep in balance to allow this frog to live?
As we slipped uneasily past the iguanas and the monitors, the larger turtles and Burmese boas, a sales person with Day-Glow blue and pink spiked hair and little round glasses asked if he could help us. A worthy compatriot for the reptilian residents, I thought.
Holding up a small male frog, the spiky fellow initiated us. “Night,” he told us, “is the active time for frogs. You can toss your frog some crickets, or, if you prefer, a baby mouse. But to see him eat, you’ll have to sit up and watch.” He paused and then said, “A frog is most at home in the dark.”
I felt a chill down my spine. It was as if he had asked, “Are you?” For the first time in this frog-buying escapade, I began to wonder if this might be an adventure for me as well as for Caitlin.
Since childhood I have hated the dark, avoided caves and crawlspaces, unlit stairwells and the insides of closets, dreaded the coming of night, gone to bed early. This fall and winter, for reasons I have only partially understood, I have felt compelled to enter the shadows, to root into the night. Secretly I imagined myself clothed in white, a combatant with the dark. As with the good-mother mindset, I have locked into this self-concept and pursued it as a calling. So with increased interest, I examined this mud-brown little creature of the night.
“Don’t be surprised when your frog changes color,” our spiky friend chuckled. “Pets like these fuel the imagination. Think tree frog!” He showed us how to set up the terrarium—water, soil, plants and crickets—how to adjust the heat and mist the walls, and how to hold our frog. (“The store guy’s nice, mom,” whispered Caitlin.) And I agreed. Both soft-spoken and cheerful. I began to imagine that we’d met, by some trick of fate, our own personal guide to the underworld.
Meanwhile, on our guide’s knuckles, the frog had settled into repose, eyes lidded, legs folded in close. “That’s a relaxed frog,” our guide told us. Later as he put our frog—still sitting quietly—back into the terrarium, he offered an addendum, “Of course it’s hard to distinguish between the stillness of peace and the catatonia of shock or terror.”
I began to grapple with the dark last winter when I faced breast cancer. On the way home from the telling biopsy, I made a pledge, “I’m going into this cancer with my eyes wide open.” I have taken on the task with a deep seriousness. I have felt as if the honesty of this looking is crucial to healing the complex intertwine of body and mind. Since the lumpectomy last year, I have been preoccupied with the site of the cancer. Under the roughness of my shirt is the hematoma left from the surgery. I have scoured this area with all of my senses, struggled to translate its dark intensity, as if I were reading braille. Compressed in this knot of fluid and scar tissue, what terror or rage might I find, what social and ecological imbalance dating back how many millennia?
Early in the morning of the birthday I found myself rushing around our house trying to feed everyone before the 8:00 a.m. race to the school bus. Screaming at Caitlin to help me, I prepared orange juice for my husband Patrick, Cheerios for Caitlin, more Cheerios for our dog (no time to shop for dog chow), then threw a few more Cheerios into the crickets’ cage along with a leftover slice of orange. As a finale, I scooped up a few crickets to toss into the terrarium to feed the frog—due to move in that afternoon. Here again there was a rigidity in the way I held this picture of myself as I strove to live it out: Supermom, overseeing the food chain! In an acid temper, I slammed out the door.
Later that day I picked up Caitlin at school and we went to the Vivarium to claim our frog, now named Zephyr. When we tried to empty his carrying jar into his new home, a terrified Zephyr leapt, landing on the floor behind the toy cabinet. Amidst Caitlin’s sympathetic whoops and jumps, I finally captured him.
Wriggling and hopping in my cupped palms, his livingness was palpable to me—the moist, supple body, the rhythm of breathing. His mortality was also palpable. If I opened my hands too much, mightn’t I allow him to destroy himself in froggy abandon? Yet if I gripped him too tightly, mightn’t I crush out his life?
Before he could make another jump, I thrust him into the terrarium, and slammed the screen shut. Wildly, he leapt into the screen, then flung himself against the damp glass wall. In horror, Caitlin and I stared at Zephyr our new frog friend: limbs splayed, webbed feet gripping the glass, his slippery brown body stretched splat out in panic. Pressing against the glass wall, he did battle, as if his survival hinged on shattering this terrarium that held him prisoner.
The next morning, Caitlin burst into my sleep, “Mom, he’s gone!” I dashed downstairs and frantically searched. Finally, in the humid depths of the terrarium, I found Zephyr settled on a leaf. A lovely jade green, he sat quietly, his limbs tucked neatly into his body. I could hear our spiky guide reminding me, “Of course you will never know for sure what goes on in his mind.” But, I let myself imagine:
During the night this frog found peace, luminous and green. As he relaxed into the dark, he felt his world expressing itself through him. He felt the completeness of this world—humidity, warmth, pool, soil all in balance supporting him. So he too felt complete. Why should he battle the walls of his terrarium? With the fullness and balance of nocturnal mind, he felt those walls dissolve into mist, felt himself—as a great rain forest—extend without limit into the darkness.
Later that day, I went out to the country to spend several hours sitting among the retreatants at a ten-day meditation course. As I sat, I began to notice the bleating of sheep outside on the hill. For a time there was nothing but bleating. When I drew my focus back to my own breath, I was startled to experience my sitting self as Zephyr, the tree frog. Limbs drawn in, chest palpitating with each breath, I sat amongst the bleating sheep in a field of January green.
Nights, this cold season, have stirred in me a mixture of dread and excitement. To penetrate the dark, I have first wooed myself into dreams; then I’ve prepared for combat. Passing into my own darkest channel, through the scar in my breast, I have entered a violent night terrain. I have chased through jungles, down abandoned city streets, across threadbare bridges bombed in war, into dark history I never imagined I knew—always stretching with all of my energy to recover Caitlin who I feared had been lost. I have not found the meaning of these journeys, but hooked into this concept of myself in battle with the dark, I have wound myself increasingly tight in body and mind.
During our second night with the tree frog, I awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was trapped in thoughts of myself, the cancer patient, as if this construct encompassed the whole of what I was. Worries chased in rigid circles: I can’t ever let this cancer recur! But then again, why shouldn’t it? Have the conditions changed, the toxicity of the environment, the tendencies of my body? Yet I refuse to die young! As I fought cycling thoughts, I began to hear, as if in the back of my mind, the chirping of crickets.
I am not sure why I hadn’t noticed the crickets on the first night that they and Zephyr had been in residence. Perhaps the air had been too cold that night to call forth their song. Or perhaps they had sung unnoticed. But now I was more attuned, having sat that morning in the rain-drenched meadow, my frog-heart pumping in counterpoint with the bleating sheep.
As I listened to the crickets, I found myself resting in a forest. The walls of my room had melted into the night, and with them the construct of myself as cancer patient. I sensed my frog brother downstairs, perhaps also listening, nestling into the dark expanse.
It was a long night of sleeplessness. Each time my thoughts locked into the obsessions of another worrying self—mother, writer—I disciplined my attention to the singing. The walls would magically melt between that constructed thought and beyond, between my bedroom and the rooms below, between our house—our big terrarium—and the yard, between our yard and other yards. Like the frog in his nocturnal fullness, I felt complete, nourished by Patrick and Caitlin, friends, gardens, trees, frogs, the history of the planet flooding through me. All false terrariums seemed to melt away, leaving me at one with a limitless night singing with crickets.
With my underworld guide over my left shoulder encouraging me to “think tree frog,” I reflect on what I have been learning from this adventure. I notice a beginning shift in my attitude of mind. Over the years, I have accustomed myself to “trying” or “breaking in.” At moments now, I am glimpsing the possibility of “allowing,” of “opening.”
I think of Zephyr struggling to crack the glass walls of his terrarium. I picture myself so often locking myself into my narrow self-constructs and then pushing against the constraints they impose. I ask: haven’t I been hurling myself against what seems impenetrable, imagining that it is other than myself? Mightn’t I instead allow the walls to dissolve so that I may experience the continuum of life, including this darkness which seems so scary?
I think of how I cradled my frog friend in my cupped palms, firmly enough to protect him, gently enough not to bind or kill him. Through sitting practice, I grope to loosen my grip on my livingness, on Caitlin’s, on the ongoing flux of living and dying—to allow fluidity of body, of thought.
Gently—with the nocturnal mind of a tree frog—might I learn to open to the vastness of light and dark, as it expresses itself through me and all things?