How many of you were fed the story of the ugly duckling when you were school children? The basic story is that a gawky, outsized, not-so-fluffy duck is hatched in a barnyard among a flock of cute, fluffy yellow ducklings. They tease him mercilessly, so he flees and spends a miserable, cold winter in the woods alone evading all sorts of evil predators. During his travels, he sees a flock of wild swans and wistfully wishes that he could join them, but he knows that no one will accept such an ugly duckling. The next spring, much to his delight, he is welcomed among the same flock of swans – as, unbeknownst to him, he has matured into one of those most beautiful birds. It turns out that he never was a duck at all, he was a swan all along.
The story is supposed to make you feel better about yourself if you are not like the others when you are a child.What it missed is just how slowly time moves when you are a kid!
When I was a little girl, I would look in the mirror and not like what I saw. I didn’t fit in with the popular kids – the fluffy, yellow duck crowd. Instead, my feathers weren’t so fluffy. I was gawky, klutzy and outsized. I looked at things differently. I sounded differently. I didn’t fit in with the quaking masses. I envied the fluffy yellow ducks.
Yes, I was an ugly duckling.
I, too, was fed that story, but it didn’t help. I wanted to be a swan there and then, not later, when I was old and it didn’t matter. But, the adults told me that I would ‘grow out if it,’ so…I had that to look forward to. Meanwhile, I had to be a dork and deal with it.
I was well into my 30’s when I realized that I never got to be the swan. As I got older, I stayed gawky, got geekier and became entirely less ducky. The fluffy yellow duck crowd presumably grew up together, became successful and hatched flocks of ducklings of their own. I was alone, and I didn’t even know what kind of bird I was.
It was a cold, winter’s day that I was driving down a back road actually thinking about such things, when I saw an old cornfield that had been flooded. In the middle of the black waters swam an entire flock of wild trumpeter swans. Even in my dark mood, I could ignore neither the irony of their presence nor their sheer beauty. I pulled over and got out of my car. I sat down at the bank of the makeshift lake and watched them glide about as if on a sheet of smoked glass.
I mused that I will never be like the ducks, and I certainly will never be seen as a swan. Where did I fit in?
I was actually feeling sorry for myself, and then I saw HIM getting out of the lake.
Now, swans in the water are absolutely the most amazing creatures. With their sleek bodies covered in silken feathers, their long, elegant necks, they are the epitome of grace and beauty.
Get them out of the water and you have a fat body squatting on short, knobby sticks with big, bowlegged flippers and a long awkward neck, all of which causes them to waddle about with very little grace. They are entirely out of their element – and they look like dorks! They wouldn’t survive a minute away from that pond without being ridiculed or eaten alive.
That’s when it hit me. I may not actually belong in any particular group, but I can survive any of them. Without a particular element to which I am tied, I have learned to survive them all.
Maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe I don’t want to fit into just one element. Maybe my unduckiness and my unswanedness allows me to fit into ANY element. I don’t have to be relegated to lakes – I can go anywhere. I create my own environment wherever I am!
I have something that the ducks or the swans can never have. I have seen the air, the sea, streets, forests and other worlds that they cannot even dream of. In each place, I felt just as out of my element – or, if looked at from a different angle, just as at home as the next.
While many of us enjoy the story of the ugly duckling, this is a story of physical transformation, rather than personal acceptance. If I had spent my life waiting to become a swan, I would have never gotten a single thing done. I would still be looking in the mirror, comparing myself to everyone else and hating what I saw.
I may not be as popular or beautiful as the other waterfowl in the lake, but I like me, just the way I am. I am in my element being me wherever I am. It’s great! I may not be perfect, but who wants that? I will never look so ridiculous and be so completely out of my element as a waddling swan.