As I mentioned in an earlier post, some of my favorite creatures at the New England Aquarium aren’t fish but birds. The New England Aquarium houses more than 80 penguins in an open (and noisy) habitat that visitors can view from the spiral walkway that surrounds the giant ocean tank. Whereas sea turtles are fascinating because they are creatures of the deep, penguins are enchanting because they seem so similar to ourselves. Bipedal and social, penguins really do seem to be like little people trapped in tuxedos.
Penguins are cute, and therein lies part of their charm: the first time I saw the little blue penguins on exhibit at the Aquarium, I wanted to pop one into a pillowcase and take it home. (Needless to say, such behavior is frowned upon, so I didn’t act on the impulse.) But penguins aren’t simply cute: they are also amphibious, at home on both land and water. Clumsily cute on land, penguins become zooming torpedoes in the water, flying through the sea as fast as other birds fly in the sky. It’s as if a bumbling clown were to realize she is also a gravity defying acrobat.
Penguins, in other words, represent a kind of “ugly duckling” realization, where something that seems clumsy is actually elegant. But whereas the cygnet in “The Ugly Duckling” becomes a swan and is never “ugly” again, penguins keep one flippered foot in both worlds, switching back and forth between their humorously clumsy terrestrial selves and their sleek and swift aquatic personae.
Although I admire every ugly duckling who discovers herself to be a beautiful swan, I myself relate more to penguins, who are obviously in their element in the ocean but nevertheless live on land. Don’t we all have times when we feel out of our element, and don’t we all have places where our inner elegance comes alive? Surely we’ve all encountered stutterers who become self-assured when they sing or shuffling, bumbling types who transform into Fred Astaire when the music begins. As much as we’d like to become swans who never have to be awkward again, most of us are instead amphibious, moving between places where we are clumsy and places where we are self-assured.
When I teach, I feel like an earthbound penguin, bumbling my way through a classroom, trying not to trip over my own tongue and wondering how, exactly, to keep my students entertained and occupied for an entire class session. But when I’m alone and writing, I feel as sleek and fleet as a penguin in water: here is my element, the place where I am at home. It would be tempting to hole ourselves away in the places we feel most comfortable, like a penguin who refused to set foot on land. But land is where penguins live and find love, despite their apparent clumsiness, so like penguins, we learn how to move between two worlds, it only seeming that we don’t belong in both.
This is my final contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.