I am standing in my backyard and looking up into a tree. Beside me is my loyal black Lab, Echo. He is looking up into the same tree. Staring down at us from the vast distance of 20 feet — and I use the term “staring” loosely because Echo had long ago decapitated the toy duck’s head — is the body of the duck, swaying in the wind, its throw rope wrapped several times around a branch.
I consider myself a coordinated person. I might even say, an athlete. But on that day, three years ago now, my athletic ability to toss a toy duck a great distance and with great accuracy failed me and the duck got tangled in a tree. And there it remains — resolute in its ducky stuckiness.
Will Echo and I ever play with the toy again?
Quoth the duck: Nevermore.
When I was a boy, it was not uncommon to have toys get stuck in trees. I’m talking about kites, and footballs, and Frisbees, and playground balls. But they always came down — either by me knocking them out of the tree with a different ball, by climbing the tree to get the prodigal toy, or with the help of a great gust of wind.
But this duck won’t behave. It isn’t like the other toys. And believe me, I’ve tried to get it down a lot over the years. I’ve pummeled it with basketballs, footballs, golf balls, hockey pucks, Frisbees, sticks, rocks, tennis balls and even the cans that tennis balls come in. No amount of whacking has dislodged it. And on this tree where the duck has decided to make a nest, there are no branches close to the ground to climb. And I do not own a ladder tall enough to reach it.
Quoth the duck: Nevermore.
It’s exhausting to be mocked by a headless duck but some days are more exhausting than others and on those more exhausting days I feel compelled to grab my basketball.
On one occasion when the only things getting knocked from the tree were brown needles and sticks, I heard someone whisper (I swear it came from somewhere above me) the Latin phrase “memento mori” — “remember you will die.”
That wisdom permanently put an end to me trying my luck … to get the duck.
Memento mori thinking makes me concerned with the immediate. I think about using my time well and not wasting even a second by throwing all kinds of things at a duck stuck in a tree. I’ll never get those minutes back, minutes I could have used for the betterment of myself, my family and my community.
So I ordered a new duck and decided to throw it only in the front yard.
For a few weeks, Echo and I enjoyed playing with that duck. Until one day I threw it upward instead of outward. Alas, that duck is now stuck in a tree, too.
Quoth the ducks: Nevermore.
To my credit, I have never tried to get that duck down. Instead, I have used my time better by passing along this New Year’s lesson I am taught each day when I look up at the stuck ducks: Live life with urgency and immediacy. As the poet Robert Herrick wrote a long time ago: “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying.”
And as for those ducks swaying in the high branches — time, the wind or lightning will take down those trees someday and then the ducks, too, will fall back to earth.
Quoth the human: What goes up, must come down.
Gregory Greenleaf lives in Harpswell and teaches high school English. He ascribes, prescribes and subscribes to many old-fashioned ideas, but especially Charles Dickens’ observation that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”