Learning to Breathe Air

Saturday morning, Carlos and I checked on the science project we’ve got going on the deck.


I eased the brown plastic cover all the way off of his sandbox and propped it against the railing. Twenty little tadpoles flitted across the surface of the rainwater that has collected in there during the last part of summer. The water is nice and clear, but nice and brown too. Every few days, we throw some vegetable matter in there for them to nibble on. They like grapes. There’s shade and sun and room to practice swimming. The cats and the birds haven’t bothered them. Yet.

“Oh, look how much they’ve grown, Carlos!”

He leaned over towards the surface. “They gwowin, Mama!” He parrots what I say often. He’s learning so many new words.

“This one’s got legs!” I named that tadpole Lieutenant Dan–because he’s got new legs. I didn’t try to explain it to Carlos. He’s never made it through Forrest Gump.

"Lieutenant Dan! You got new legs!"

“Lieutenant Dan! You got new legs!”

If our shadows crossed the water, the tadpoles darted away to the safe end of the sandbox. I took a piece of pinestraw and stirred the water gently.

“Look how the big ones are hanging out right at the top of the water.”

“What they doin’ Mama?”

“They’re learning to breathe. Well, they’re learning to breathe air for when they live on land instead of in the water.”

“They breevin’ air.”

Lieutenant Dan flicked his tail and skittered a few inches away from my pinestraw. His tiny legs just hung there while his tail did all the work.

It got me to thinking about how the tadpole doesn’t know that these changes are happening. It doesn’t wake up one day and think, “Alright, today’s THE DAY. I’m gonna get me some LEGS today! Better start practicing breathing the air because I’ve got big plans for these LEGS!” That tadpole spends every day just being a tadpole. Then one day he’ll be a frog. “Gradually, then all at once,” as Hemingway said.

I spend so much of my life trying to anticipate what comes next, trying to make sure that I am ready. I try to ensure that nothing will take me by surprise, while all the while I have no idea what is coming. All this anxiety that stems from prepping for…something.

Going from breathing water to breathing air. What is it in the tadpole that pushes him up towards the top of the water, to that other world? Is it air pressure or the angle of the sun or the buoyancy in his changing body? The tadpole has to change. It has to grow and adapt to a radically different world. But it does that simply by living each minute. The change happens to the tadpole, not because of the tadpole. (This is where my therapist would clear her throat and raise one eyebrow in my general direction.)

Every one of us made the same transition. In the womb, our tiny lungs are filled with amniotic fluid. Then we leave that quiet ocean and the pressure of the atmosphere forces itself into our lungs. We answer the surprise of that invisible weight and the rush of our own blood flowing with our first great wail. The first time we comment on this world is the first time we breathe air.

Even if we never knew it was time to practice.

Want to Leave a Comment? Please Do!