ABUNDANCE IN AN EMPTY JAR

 

 

The bottom of a peanut butter jar evokes a spiritual moment for me.  The scrape of the knife against the sides takes me back to summer days in Xenia, Ohio.  I was seven years old and staying next door with my grandparents while my mother finished the needed hours for her teaching degree at the University of Dayton.  My grandpa provided most of the “babysitting” while my grandmother wrote music or poetry or letters to friends.  I trailed him like a puppy dog exploring the world for the first time.  Looking back with adult perspective, I marvel at his level of patience.

My grandfather had ministered to the hurting during the Great War, navigated a family of four children through the Great Depression, and husbanded a brilliant wife who suffered emotionally in an era when being an ambitious woman was not viewed sympathetically.  My grandmother had recovered from a heart attack when I was four, but ever after – it seemed to me – felt short of breath or short of patience, or both.   Grandpa entertained me with endless games of checkers that he never let me win, yet I loved to play.  He set me down with a huge horseshoe magnet and a tin filled with metal washers, bolts, and screws to spill and regather by power of my magnetic magic wand.   And then he fed me when I was hungry.  He made me think sardines on crackers were ambrosia.  (Couldn’t eat them now to save my life!) But my favorite lunch was peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches, folded over, not cut.  And we always saved the middle for the last bite.

The mystical moment occurred when the peanut butter jar was empty.  Or, at least, I thought it was ready to throw away.  “Oh, no, Anna!” Grandpa would say.  “We can both still have sandwiches out of that jar.”  And he would scrape and scrape the knife against the thinly coated sides, then wipe the blade smoothly across the slice of Wonder Bread.  It took short, determined strokes to lift the remaining peanut butter from the bottom, but many trips in and out of the jar and soon a real sandwich took shape.  Sometimes he would speculate, “I think we may get one more yet!  See what you can do.” And I would try my luck at finding some where there seemed none.  The results were delicious and joyful.  Just like the joy we shared at opening the next new jar and making the first plunge in the amply filled glass container.  Whether we were challenged by scarcity or abundance, it didn’t matter.  We were sharing the moment whatever it brought.

Much is written about Stephen Covey’s concept of “abundance mentality” vs “scarcity mentality.”  I’ve blogged myself about one of my favorite words – enough, but I believe abundance is an even better descriptor of the best way to view life.  Of course it takes imagination to face difficult circumstances, times when our jars of life seem empty.  But the challenge is to see beyond what seems scarce to what yet remains.  Sure empty will happen.  But empty means we go in search of what comes next.  Awareness of the undergirding joy of life is all that really matters.

Cecropia

On this Mother’s Day weekend, it seems appropriate to breathe new life into this blog of mine that has languished for months.  Being a writer requires a discipline I often find challenging to maintain – especially when life undergoes such a transformation as mine has in the last year.  Joy does not prompt me to pour out words for others to share in the same way that pain does.  Isn’t that odd?  I believe that phenomenon is common one, however.  As Truvy says in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

So let me begin again to be a writer with some regularity.  After all, being “in it for the long run” means that you don’t give up even if you’ve fallen down.  Life cycles.  And it’s time once again for rebirth.

Let me share with you a story that I wrote after my mother died.  I can’t think of a more fitting way to honor her memory for Mother’s Day.  Thank you, Edna Bach, for being the primary influence on my life and for using every opportunity life gave you to teach me important lessons – like this most important one of all.

 

Cecropia:

A Story about Life for Children and their Grown-ups

By Anna Bach

 

What do you keep on the dining room table at your house?  Maybe a pretty vase with flowers . . .  or a bowl of fruit . . . or a candlestick?   I’ll bet you would never guess what we kept on the dining room table at my house when I was a little girl.  Caterpillars!   Not just any old caterpillars, either — these were giant silkworms, the caterpillars of the Cecropia Moth, the largest moth in North America.

Not many mothers would help their children raise caterpillars on the dining room table, but my mother wasn’t just any ordinary mother.  She had a gift for knowing what was important about life, and she knew that for the few summers of my childhood the lessons those caterpillars could teach were more important than an uncluttered table.

If I close my eyes, I can still picture the tiny white and brown-spotted eggs that dotted the backs of leaves.  As they began to hatch, tiny black worms wiggled out about the size of a large ant. Inching along the fresh leaves we provided for them every day, the little worms nibbled the green straight across, never wasting a mouthful.  Sometimes two worked together, chewing away, until only the veins of the leaf remained – like an old umbrella with the fabric removed.

Soon each little caterpillar would grow too big for its skin. One-by-one they would clamp their tiny caterpillar feet on a stem and split their black suits right open.  And guess what — with their next suit of clothes, they turned green.

They were lean, green eating machines, those caterpillars.  The more they ate, the bigger they grew.  The bigger they grew, the sooner they would split their skins and come out even larger and more colorful.  Soon they boasted bright orange, yellow, and blue tufts down their green backs.  No matter how colorful they became, however, I still thought they were rather ugly-looking worms.  Fascinated, I grew brave enough to let the caterpillars crawl on my finger and cross my palm from one hand to the next.  I wasn’t supposed to play with them.  Mother made it clear that we must behave gently.  Their well-being was our sacred trust.

The ever-growing caterpillars ate so fast we had to work hard to keep them in fresh leaves.  Sometimes taking care of them seemed tiresome to my six-year-old self, but I understood that their lives depended on my efforts. Every day we cut branches from their favorite wild cherry tree to place in that vase in the dining room.  So long as food was provided, they stayed right at their tasks — devouring greenery, growing more plump, and shedding their skin – four more times!  We had to put fresh newspaper under them every day, too.  Watching life’s lessons can be a pretty messy business.  But Mother seemed to care more about the unfolding story of the cecropia moth than any mess or inconvenience.  I told you she was no ordinary mother!

With the coming of fall, the caterpillars went to school with us.  Maybe I forgot to I mention that my mother was a teacher.  How her first grade students loved to watch as those cecropia caterpillars spun their cocoons!   And, of course, so did I.

Throughout the winter, the vase sat safely on a window ledge, holding bare branches that supported the brown crescent-shaped cocoons.  After a while the students — and even I — forgot the caterpillars.  We were busy with other things, like learning from books.  Then, in early May, something wonderful began to happen.

I remember the first time Mother called to me, “Anna, come here.  See what you feel when you put your hand around the cocoon.”  The dry, spun silk felt leathery as I gently, but firmly, closed my hand over its wrinkled outer walls.  Inside the warmth of my grasp, the cocoon that looked dead stirred with life.  Deep within the caterpillar’s tomb, the moth was struggling to be free.  The wiggling both tickled and frightened me at the same time.

“Let’s help it, Mother!”  I cried.  “We could use scissors and snip through the cocoon so that the moth doesn’t have to work so hard.”

“Oh, no,” said Mother, “if you want to be helpful, you must let the moth find its own way out.  If you try to hurry the process, the moth might not survive or it might be deformed.  The struggle is part of the process — part of nature’s way of making the miracle happen.”

Mother reminded me of a big word we had read about: Metamorphosis.  It meant “the process of being transformed.”   She said the ugly green worm with the colorful spots had somehow spent the winter learning how to be a moth — changing its form from an earth-bound, ugly green worm to a delicate flying machine with beautiful reddish-brown markings.  When the transformation process was complete, the new creature had to escape the once-safe cocoon in order to stretch its new wings.  That was why it was important to leave the cocoon on the branches — so the soft, downy legs of the cecropia could pull that lovely new form into the light of day.

I certainly had read in books about metamorphosis, but no words could describe my feelings as I watched one of those big, beautiful moths unfold its new wings and begin to fan them dry.   Now, Mother said, the new moths would find mates and lay eggs that would hatch into more little cecropia caterpillars, and the process would start all over.

Those summers we spent growing cecropia caterpillars were long ago.  I am now a grown up — a mother and grandmother myself — but I am still discovering the value of my little girl lessons.  In fact, I think I am just beginning to learn the most important lesson of all.  My mother taught me that one, too.

By the time I became a grandmother, my mother was old and frail.  Her spirit still enjoyed life just as much as when I was a little girl — or when she was a little girl — but her body couldn’t house that energy anymore.  Life for Grandma B, as the children called her, was beginning to be more and more of a struggle.  One night I was called to her bedside because she was very ill.  I held her close in my arms as she fought with pain.  Although I didn’t want life to change, the time to let go had come.  I cried and was so sad.

But my story doesn’t end here.

The next morning I woke early and went outside alone to think.  I knew the day would be difficult.  I had to tell our children and grandchildren the sad news.   I tried to think of words to use to explain losing someone we loved so much.  As I stood in the early dawn, listening to the birds sing, watching the raindrops drip from the leaves of the trees, I remembered how my mother always taught me to find strength and comfort in creation.   However, instead of finding the words to share with my family, my mind kept returning to the moment I held my mother as she struggled within her body.  I searched my mind for happier pictures, trying not to be so sad.

Then the childhood memory of holding the cecropia cocoon came back to me.  What was it Mother had said?  “The struggle is part of the miracle.”  A sudden, wonderful feeling washed over me.  “If an ugly green worm transforms to a magnificent moth, imagine how glorious life must be beyond this earthly cocoon for someone already so beautiful.”

At that moment, I experienced the understanding of another big word — Resurrection.  Just as there is no way to explain to a little green worm about wings and flight and being carried by wind currents, so there is no way for us to understand any life beyond this physical one.   But by faith we catch an occasional glimpse of what eternity must be.  We can sense that the transforming miracle we call death is really just a new beginning, a transformation, a metamorphosis.

I left the porch and the quiet morning rain with a deep sense of peace and assurance.  I knew when my grandchildren asked the question, “Why did Grandma have to die?” I would be ready to respond — “Let me tell you a story from my childhood about a giant silkworm moth called the cecropia.”

Better still — this fall we will find a cocoon and wait for the spring.

 

October Light

I love the golden hue of October light, the patina of an aging year.  The glow seems heavy as though the late morning sunlight is swimming against the  tide of time.  I understand. My life force feels the same resistance in my aging bones.  Still, many say that fall is their favorite time of year.  And many young ones say they can’t wait to be retirement age.  I wonder if they recognize that autumn’s allure eminnates in part from our awareness of its inevitable fading from glory. Its brevity underscores its value. We know it can not linger long, for it isn’t the last season of the year – it’s the penultimate one.  The same can be said of our retirement years.

I’ve never before comprehended the need for the word penultimate. Why would the next-to-last be something to identify with such specificity?  Shouldn’t the ultimate of anything dwarf what comes just before?

Perhaps nature gives us a hint as to the necessity for the word by sending us October light. Maybe you think it’s your imagination that the light seems golden, almost liquid in its hazy hovering, especially early on an autumn morning.  However, what you observe is real.  Earth has begun tilting away from the sun; now the rays of light we receive are longer, slanted beams that gleam and cast long shadows. We recognize that – while warmth is not quite over – the days of baking our bones in sunshine are done.  We wax nostalgic, looking back at summer and anticipating the long, dark, ultimately cold days of winter.  We savor the penultimate nature of autumn light.

In the Hindu religion, this is the season for Diwali – the festival of lights, a celebration that spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair.  My understanding is that the festival lasts 4-5 days over the new moon of autumn, during the penultimate darkness before the “longest night of the year” in December.  The traditions of shopping and feasting, of gifts and lights seem not unlike the Christian celebrations attending the birth of Christ, the ultimate Light of the World. If we could learn to value the traditions of other religions, perhaps Christians could recognize that the Universe is always teaching the same lesson to slow-learning humans – light eliminates darkness, life triumphs over death, and ultimately, understanding illumines oblivion. We know the light will return with vivid spring strength.  Like a crayon-resist painting, darkness will be scratched away, and the light will be revealed once again.  If we let them, the seasons teach us to hold on to hope.  The Hindus use the “Festival of Lights” as a reminder before darkness descends of the power of light.  It’s like cramming right before the test.

I would argue that in this penultimate season, humans get a needed chance to value the changing nature of light and the changing nature of life. We slow down.  We savor the harvest. Our memories glow with the same golden hue of the grain we store.  The mellow shades of autumn remind us of the challenges on their way, but soften the dread.  Given this time of preparation, we can be ready for the ultimate season – winter,  or metaphorically, death.  We have the penultimate season as a reminder to get ready.

Ever since Ron’s stroke, I’ve been more aware of the ultimate season life brings to us all. More specifically, I have thought about the reality that my life, too, must end.  Theoretically, we know the shadows deepen as autumn approaches (“those golden years”); but if we are honest, until we really experience the chill in our bones, the physical shift from growth to wither, we don’t really believe death will happen to us or to those we love.  How important, then, that autumn brings us the chill reminder of changing realities.

Now, this could seem a morbid truth, and autumn could be a hated season.  But usually it is not.  Why?  Because we celebrate the harvest.  We hold parties, we dress up, we ring door bells and play pranks.  We layer clothing and discover there is no bad weather, only poor planning.  We rake leaves and jump in them.  We mull cider and roast marshmallows.  Life is good.  And if we are smart, we approach our latter days with the same abandon.  I want to be smart.  I want to make the most of this penultimate time we are privileged to enjoy.

And so I announce my choice to risk loving again.  I am selling my home, downsizing my closets and shelves, and taking a leap of faith that – like Job – my latter days can be better even than my beginning ones.  I am pledging my heart to the Rev. Dr. Page Foster of Melbourne, Florida, who also lost the love of his life – four years ago tomorrow.  We plan – like the Hindus – to make this penultimate season a “Festival of Light.” How sweet to have a chance to share the harvest years of life together.  So how fitting that I will say “goodbye” to family and friends here at Thanksgiving.

When I was in the middle of Ron’s winter season, I entitled this blog “In It for the Long Run.”  Of course, at the time, I was thinking of Ron’s admonition to me as a young mother to be patient with the raising of children – to take the long view.  They would not always be children.  Once my babes were adults themselves and successfully pursuing lives of their own, I saw the wisdom of his advice.  In the midst of our struggle, I discovered how taking the same long view applied to the marathon journey of stroke recovery.  Then after Ron made his ultimate crossing from this life to the next, I recognized the new “long view” applied to picking up the course of life again and finishing my own race.

This blog began as a place to explore the lessons of caregiving in the face of difficulty and struggle.  Then there were forays into the furnace of grief and loss.  I wish now that I had been more faithful to record the explorations of how I was rebuilding my life, once I determined to do so, but instead much of the searching for direction in last twenty months has been a time for silent meditation – like when it’s summer and it’s just too hot to cook.  But thanks be to God, I have emerged from that season and am enjoying October light.  This long run I’m on is taking me to new places and new scenery, and that’s okay.  Maybe it’s time for a new title – “Second Wind.”  Regardless, I am still underway, and I don’t intend to quit. Just letting you know.

 

 

October Light

The hope is life’s transience will produce such luminance in us

If we tilt toward the Source,

Avoid storms and linger in the calm,

Let the chill of change produce its magic,

And just BE.

Holy Saturday

Everything is made more meaningful in this world by pause. Think of it. Mark Twain wrote a whole essay about the importance of the pause in story telling. And then he practiced it in his writing. We use the phrase “great comic timing” to praise a comedian who puts in an effective pause at just the right moment. “Joy to the World” is just the notes down the scale without the holds and pauses. Pausing makes whatever we have to wait for seem more important. Of course we also chirp platitudes like “S/he who hesitates is lost” as well. Sometimes life demands immediacy. Split seconds determine medals. A pause to reflect is not in an Olympian’s training schedule. And, for the most part, we resist pausing in our daily lives, too. It seems to me that pausing is more the stuff of artists – poets, musicians, writers, and the like. Photographers have to be quick, but they are trying to capture just the right pause.

I wonder are there pauses in the universe? Do the orbits of the planets have built in pauses? Or do they rumble inexorably on? I wish I had been more interested in learning physics than I was fearful of taking a hard class in which I might get a bad grade. But I was too young to be wise. Of course, the scriptural view of the stars and planets is that pausing is perfectly possible. The sun is stopped in her course. Even God rested (or created the pause) on thje seventh day.

Maybe one of the important lessons to learn this side of eternity (the pauseless existence?) is how and when to pause, to get our holy timing right, to learn how to create meaningful pause.

Those are my thoughts this Holy Saturday morning. The day we remember Jesus didn’t just leap up – like from a magic trick – and shout “Ta da!” There was a respectful pause after death, a time in an unneeded tomb, a moment in which the Universe herself seemed to say, “Wait for it, wait for it!”

And maybe that’s the purpose of this inner hold of grief on my heart. The energy of life is heightened by the hiatus. Like the bulbs that rest and wait. Like the quiet of Holy Saturday before the celebration of new life rushes in on Easter morning. Too soon and we’d take life for granted. Too late and we would give up the wait.

Jesus, did you really know how it was going to go? Or, like me, did you have to hold on to faith in the darkness? I like to think you had to wait. Just like us. So that you know the tension that pause creates — the “already, but not yet” existence of human beings. We wait with you. Ready to be flung into joy. Help us hold the pause just long enough to make your joke work for the crowd. Amen.