Many years ago I enjoyed keeping a fish tank which I would stare into mindlessly whenever a bad case of writer’s block would hit. My last one was like a little Zen water garden with exotic, slow moving goldfish and delicate plants that invited me into a mesmerizing little 10-gallon world. After an unfortunate tank accident, the goldfish and I parted ways.
I kept the filter and gravel for a long time, and during a slow writing time in seminary I decided to jump back into keeping fish. at a garage sale I found a tank, so it was off to the fish store where I purchased two fancy goldfish, $2.50 each. Before leaving the store I noticed some tiny frogs which were playfully darting up to the top of a tank for air. The store attendant said the frogs wouldn’t grow much larger than an inch and could live with goldfish, eating whatever food floated to the bottom of the tank. I wanted them. I had to have them.
At $3,50 each, they were mine!
For the first several weeks the two frogs lived in a tiny conch shell at the bottom of the tank. They always seemed to be hungry, and I called them my hungry ghosts after the Buddhist beings with throats so small they can never be satisfied. By the time the frogs had doubled in size, they started lunging after the goldfish, which I discovered on the Web is a favorite food.
I also discovered that my new pets were African Clawed Frogs, and like the store attendant said, they live their entire lives, up to 15 years, completely submerged. That’s where truth-in-salesmanship ended. Small? Full grown they would reach the size of a fist. Scavengers? No, completely carnivorous, preferring to gulp down small goldfishes whole. To dissuade them from eating my other pets, I fed them minnows, which they considered appetizers. My goldfish were in a constant state of panic, my peaceful underwater Zen garden now a zone of carnage.
I had a decision to make: goldfish or frogs. I thought about all the personality my frogs had: Their favorite pose was to float on top of the water, arms outstretched, as if in meditation. They often snuggled next to each other in the little hallowed out log on the bottom of the tank. Other times they swam playfully in long arcs from one end of the tank to the other. When I cleaned the tank they grabbed my fingers and harmlessly nibbled on me. They were actually trying to eat me but I’m bigger than them and they have no teeth. I finally gave the slow swimming fancy fish to a neighbor’s kids, bought some faster swimmers, and settled into the idea that I would own my Clawed African Frogs for a very long time.
A shorter version of this story is to be my “story for all ages” on Sunday, for I’ve always thought of this story as a good illustration for the phrase “you might not get what you want, but you get what you need.” Over the years (many), my frogs did give me much to think about. They opened up spiritual work for me around animal totems. They reminded me on a daily basis of the spiritual trap of unfulfilled hunger and consumption — and the myth of the hungry ghosts. The illustration isn’t perfect, but it does make me think about the difference between what I think I want and the different outcome I often get. My life has many times been blessed in that tension.