I watch the steam curl softly from my coffee and sip slowly, aware that today is a day for savoring—a rare light-sweater day of gold-soaked sunshine that toasts your clothing without toasting your skin—the quintessential “fall” everyone envisions.
Only a handful of these days exist each year, yet these are the days that make up most of the traditional fall imagery associated with the season despite how sparingly they are sandwiched between the far more frequent days of gloomy gray skies and gusty winds.
It’s my favorite season. Part beauty, part symbolism.
Understanding the brevity of this beauty, I revel in the deliciously bright and cool morning. For the first time in weeks, the air conditioner sits silent, and I begin making plans to try a new soup recipe I saw online the other day.
It’s my favorite season. Part beauty, part symbolism—it flares so briefly into place with more panache than all the other seasons combined: Crimson. Gold. Orange. Cinnamon. Cider. All things pumpkin.
It’s more than merely a fiery farewell from deciduous greenery that thrills my soul—it’s the flavors, the scents, the crunch of leaves beneath my feet, and the chill that pulls snuggly blankets from their closet storage and prompts my flip-flopped feet to seek fuzzy socks. Autumn is a total immersion of all the senses, and it’s a season made specifically for cynics like myself.
It’s a season made specifically for cynics like myself.
I’ve never been a Pollyanna who can see the best in every situation. In fact, for every silver lining, I am more than capable of finding many a cloud. When my husband took me to Six Flags, I spent most of the rides envisioning every little thing that could go wrong with each ride. I was filled with absolute certainty that death by mechanical failure (caused by a loose screw or something equally benign and unnoticed) was inevitable.
Spoiler: I didn’t die. But I also didn’t enjoy myself much because my focus was mostly on all the bad things that could potentially happen.
And it’s not just Six Flags—I can be a great resource when it comes to considering an opportunity. For every pro, I can think of a dozen potential cons and supply a laundry list of reasons it might not work out. This tendency makes vacation planning fun. My husband gets excited and enjoys the process of looking forward to something, whereas I hold my excitement in reserve. If I don’t build too much anticipation, I can’t be disappointed, right? If I have no expectations, any experience can only exceed them.
That’s what I tell myself anyway.
Basically, I’m protecting myself against the disappointment of things not going the way I hope them to go. Because bad things CAN happen. When it comes to fall, however, those of us who tend toward critique and identifying all the potential downsides are brought up short. We already know the bad thing that happens: things die.
We already know the bad thing that happens: things die.
Verdant life declines toward barren winter. Leaves drain of life while filling with color and then, when they can no longer resist the pull of the wind, they fall to the ground in heaps of bright decay. Geese give lonesome-sounding cries as they abandon their northern homes and fly south for the winter. Fields are relieved of their produce, and pumpkin patches and apple orchards become popular destinations.
Thoughts grow pensive, reflective, and inward—but the hazard is already there, so it doesn’t have to be speculated in all its alarming potentiality. The potential for peril has been realized, and not only do we see death, but we are also given the grace to gaze upon it and find elements of beauty. The focus shifts from mourning the presentation of death toward the celebration of life lived in bold color. Harvest, hearth, and home shine bright and cozy as death flares across the trees and seeps into the ground.
If you track the weather, you’ll see that the ratio of gorgeous autumnal elegance is quite small compared to days filled with blustery gray chill. Yet it’s the fiery flare that sticks out most in people’s minds.
And that is why, despite the melancholy, I love this season best of all. For this very briefest of seasonal changes, even the cynics tend to focus on the golden glory rather than the gloomy gray.
. . . . . . . .
Cheryl Simmonds Kee was one of my dearest friends (and one-time suitemate) in college. How many times I remember visiting her apartment where she served me the most fabulous scrambled eggs and French toast, and lent me fuzzy socks! She was and is one of the most whimsical people I know, with a flair for the dramatic and love for deep thinking. I always admired her writing for classes and on her post-college blogs. She works as a realtor and lives near Milwaukee with her husband, Ian, and her two kitties, Oscar and Annie.
I didn’t expect it in the months of anxiety preceding the eclipse, when I feared my glasses might not be certified, when the weather forecast called for rain, or when I drove six hours to place myself in the path of totality.
I didn’t expect it when I wrote down a list of what to see during the eclipse (shadow bands at 2:34; Bailey’s Bead at 2:37; the corona at 2:38), when a small, ornery cloud slinked up to the edge of the sun at 2:25, or when my family gathered in the driveway with eclipse donuts in hand to watch the moon nibble at the sun.
I didn’t expect it when the shadow bands writhed across the white sheet we had spread on the concrete or when my heart began to race, stomach bottoming out in the excruciating suspense and anticipation.
I still didn’t expect it when the darkness tucked in around us and the crickets chirped and the neighbor’s rooster crowed.
And at 2:38, when the remainder of the sun slipped behind the moon—of all I had planned to see and hoped to feel—I did not expect rifle shots or fireworks, a gauche raucous a few streets over.
I had expected to be enraptured by the heavens, to hoard the experience as it exploded within me like a supernova. Instead I was startled, disoriented for a moment when a moment couldn’t be spared. The umbra was moving at 1,500 miles an hour—it would be passed soon. Yet there I was, fettered to earth by the fearsome noises that occupy our nightmares and the evening news—guns and bombs, attacks and ambushes—a cacophonous backdrop the duration of the eclipse.
I remembered, at that moment, the sign I saw on my way into Travelers Rest two days before. In crooked marque letters, the advertisement read, “Fireworks. 2 minutes. Entirety of eclipse.”
I’d expected the euphoria, the tears and cries of people overwhelmed with the sight and sense of a world shifting above them, beneath them, within them. But I had not been warned about distraction.
The darkness gave my neighbors a reason to pop off, to make noise, to disturb the real show with their flash and bang. But the darkness was a cheap thrill—a thick cloud might cast a shadow nearly as dark on a stormy day. Had they missed the halo in the sky? Had they not been convicted by the knowledge of something larger than the darkness, far away from the red Carolina soil beneath their boots?
They had sensed the darkness, but they did not see the eclipse. And, really, neither had I.
So in a post-eclipse world, I went to get my hair cut.
At Great Clips, the television replayed footage of crowds, their faces tilted upward, mouths gaping. Newscasters chattered on, attempting to describe the eclipse, as if there was anything to add to what we had seen.
And what had I seen? I pondered this as the hairdresser’s scissors snipped away. Had I absorbed the experience in totality, within and without? Had I received every message that the eclipse had whispered and proclaimed?
I sat there, an ingrate with dripping hair, so swiftly returning to the mundane, distracted by the unexpected and irrelevant.
And I wasn’t alone.
“It didn’t get as dark as I thought it would,” I heard the man in the chair next to me say to his hairdresser. “I was disappointed.”
She commiserated, “Yeah, the lights didn’t even turn on in the parking lot.”
I understood at that moment that had we watched the universe burst from the fingertips of God in the beginning, we might have griped that the lights came on too fast. So petty and jaded, we hoped for special effects but found instead one more reason to be disillusioned.
Expectations are what get us in trouble. Perhaps we enjoy being disappointed almost as much as being satisfied.
Later in the week, I finally discussed all my thoughts with Laura, “I feel like I was robbed of my experience. The eclipse came and went, and I couldn’t even immerse myself in the moment because of the noise. And I just don’t understand.” Here I began crying, for my grief at the crudeness of my neighbors, my guilt for the experience I’d let pass, my disappointment in not feeling the world shake beneath my feet. “How could they look away to light a firework? To fire a rifle?”
But Laura didn’t pity me. “Wasn’t part of the expectation not knowing what to expect and not knowing how other people would respond?” She shrugged. “Wasn’t it all part of the experience?”
And of course she was right.
This is life, to not get what you want but to get something anyway.
While I was waiting for totality, I checked Facebook to see children peering into empty Sugar Smacks and Cheerio boxes fashioned with holes and tin foil. With such wonder they looked into the box to see the projection of the eclipse through a pinhole.
What a time to be a child, I thought. What a time to be alive with an eclipse above us and in cereal boxes.
People speak of eclipses with reverence, and now I know why. It’s not the glory of the sun or the terror of the moon’s creeping shadow. It is the knowledge that those few seconds are all that heaven grants us.
At first we stood in awe of its generosity, but gratitude turned to greed for more and greed turned to loathing, for in seeing the eclipse we saw ourselves as we are, powerless to make it linger or return.
It’s for the best, really, that we’re rationed these moments of glory. For being reminded of all we can’t control, we’re left to fill that disillusionment with something else, disappointment, grief, humility, or perhaps a quiet wonder at what—whatever—we were blessed to see.
This, I believe, was the message of the eclipse, whispered rather than roared, echoing in my mind: What a time to be alive!
Laura and I stumbled upon Shanksville, Pennsylvania, one afternoon this April on our way back from Maryland. We’re still not sure if we took a wrong exit or if the GPS arbitrarily rerouted us through the Alleghenies. The view was lovely with farmland and rolling mountains, little farmhouses and back roads. It was also the least likely place for a destination.
While still trying to figure out exactly where we were, we passed a brown state park sign announcing “Flight 93 National Memorial Ahead.”
After several moments, the details came together in my mind: Pennsylvania. Flight 93. September 11.
“Let’s turn around,” I told Laura.
Last fall at my parents’ house, I rummaged through some old college and high school memorabilia—ticket stubs, journals, best friend bracelets, stuffed animals, bookmarks, pictures, and a weird cat tapestry—once significant things that had shriveled in my memory like the dead bugs in the bottom of the box. My sister and mom watched as I stuffed junk in a trash bag and stacked things to salvage.
My brother-in-law poked his head in the kitchen from the living room where he’d been watching TV. “Hey, they just caught the super bike murderer.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A guy who killed four people at a motorcycle shop in the early 2000s,” my sister explained.
Throwing a melted frog candle in the trash bag, I asked, “How did I never hear about that?”
“That was back when you were only thinking about yourself.”
My sister, never one to shrink from telling the raw truth, stated, “Well, that was in your early teen years—back when you were only thinking about yourself.”
It was a fair enough point. My teen years had largely consisted of me jotting down stories and poems in notebooks, researching World War II history for a novel that still sits unfinished, and staring out windows, gripped by depression and anxieties, doubts and questions about my life and faith.
Looking back now, as on a majority of my life, I don’t recall the details of much outside my own little world. But with striking clarity I do remember one day—a date so infamous we don’t even have a name to describe it, just cold numbers: 9/11.
The sun settled on the carpet like powder with leaf shadows trembling in the morning breeze as I completed my homeschool math assignment. The phone rang once in the kitchen. A few minutes later it rang again. When I heard a third call come in, I went to investigate.
Still on the phone with the latest caller, Mom placed a hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “Somebody flew a plane into the Twin Towers.”
A little over a year earlier the news wouldn’t have meant anything to me. But the previous August I had been to the World Trade Center, paid the $11.00 fare, rode in the elevator with more buttons than I’d ever imagined, and stepped onto the observation deck to see more of the world than I’d ever surveyed. I had hardly comprehended the towers’ height; I surely couldn’t comprehend their terrible fall. I don’t even know that I tried.
I spent the next months and years avoiding any stories or conversations about 9/11. I changed channels, turned up music, buried my face in a book, or typed faster, descending deeper into my own stories and poems, forgetting the smoking towers, the rubble, the flames, the falling people, the tremor in my mom’s voice when she told me the news. Afraid I might shatter from the fear and pity, I couldn’t afford to absorb the horror.
I’ve often wished to remember what I did on September 10—the night before the world changed. The last night.
That’s what the terrorists called their plan: The Last Night. Copies of this plan, giving detailed instructions for the day of the attack, were recovered from the terrorists’ cars and a suitcase that didn’t make it on the plane, and one damaged version was found at the Flight 93 crash site. It was the last night before crushed metal and lives, before burning buildings and raging war, before debilitating division and fear.
It was an almost seamless plan. But there was one thing the terrorists never could have foreseen: a field in Pennsylvania.
Traveling the long, somber road was like driving toward death. I tried to imagine the land as only a field before it was marked by concrete and fences and signs. The first sign along the road to the right invited us to gaze toward the mountains and the placid row of houses over which the 757 descended in its final minutes aloft.
We passed the visitors center, following the signs until we ran out of road in a parking lot and stepped out. Mammoth dandelions sprouted all around, too cheery a greeting for what we’d come to see.
Signs outlined the story, and another displayed rows of faces and names—people I’d never thought of as individuals, yet here they were, staring me in the face. I studied their eyes and names and hometowns and ages. From California and New Jersey to North Carolina and Hawaii, they had gathered from across the United States to fulfill their time and place in history.
According to one of the signs, some witnesses reported that the sky glistened with metal and debris that morning after the crash. But today there were only gray clouds threatening rain, so we continued on the walkway, which ran along the northern edge of the crash site and debris field.
Several hundred feet away, a boulder marked the point of impact. Behind the boulder stood a jagged grove of hemlock trees, still bearing the marks of the crash.
At the end of the walkway waited the wall of names. Though from a distance the wall had appeared to be one continuous marble slab, up close we could see that it was really a succession of separate slabs, each bearing a chiseled name. A sign explained that the design honored the individuality of each victim’s sacrifice and the unity of their last efforts.
“We need to go,” Laura nudged me. The rain had started, and we still had to stop at the visitors center at the top of the hill to see the other exhibits.
The solemnity in the visitors center was palpable, like walking into a funeral parlor where the bodies of the crew and passengers might still be laid out for viewing even after 16 years. The visitors stood soberly before cases holding artifacts from the crash, personal belongings of the victims, mementos of the year, and signs telling the account minute by minute.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and milled about, trying to hide my vulnerability and silent horror. This wasn’t a Pearl Harbor exhibit or Revolutionary battlefield or a museum at Harper’s Ferry. We weren’t mere visitors shaking our heads in shallow pity, removed safely from the atrocities of history by the shatterproof glass of time. This was an event through which we had lived—an event which still lived in us.
The next exhibit resembled the back of an airplane seat with phone handsets. And I immediately understood its purpose. Visitors held the phones to their ears, stifling sobs and sniffing into tissues.
Most parts of history left us letters; 9/11 left us voices. This exhibit offered not reenactors reading a script set to sound effects, but the actual characters in all their raw fear and unrehearsed panic, sending messages to those they’d wanted to give their last words.
I felt my stomach tighten as it did those months after the attack when someone mentioned the rubble, when the TV flashed scenes of the missing persons posters, the photos of people falling, the footage of planes colliding with glass and metal and souls, the stories of the stairwell encounters and those running in and running out, the courage and chaos.
For a moment, I stood frozen, unsure of whether I could listen—afraid that somehow I would hear their indictment on my apathy or that I might glimpse a shadow of my own suffering to come. I had looked in their eyes, but I just couldn’t listen to their voices.
I slinked past the exhibit, relieved to see that all the phones were in use.
But at that moment, one of the visitors hung up the phone and walked away.
It seemed like a chance to somehow redeem myself, to expunge my guilt. After all, I’d come so far, right to their final resting place. I now knew their names. And I owed them this listen.
I owed them this listen.
So I stepped up to the exhibit.
A warning was printed above the handset: “Please be advised that these recordings include content of a sensitive nature.” It might as well have said, “Once you lift the receiver, you won’t be the same. You will forever carry with you their last words.”
Slowly, I lifted the receiver and for the first time listened to September 11.
The first voice, flight attendant CeeCee Lyles, sounded calm, as if on-the-job training had prepared her for such a moment, as if long ago she had resigned to going down with her airship. “Baby, you have to listen to me carefully,” she said on the answering machine to her husband. “I’m on a plane that’s been hijacked. I’m calling from the plane. I want to tell you I love you. Please tell my children that I love them very much, and I’m so sorry, babe.” She apologized with a sigh, as if she was merely going to be late getting home. It sounded like guilt, sounded like an apology to us all for what we would have to bear. “I hope I’ll see your face again.”
A tear broke loose and streamed down my cheek.
The next voice, Linda Gronlund, started calmly leaving a message for her sister. “I only have a minute. I’m on United 93. It’s been hijacked by terrorists.” The longer she talked, the more earnest she sounded as she gave the combination to her safe and detailed instructions for after her death, much like digging her own grave.
I nearly hung up the phone, unable to process the sadness. But the third message started before I could move.
I learned later that this was Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, the one whose marble slab held a faint engraving just beside her name: “and unborn child.” On the answering machine to her husband, she said quite tranquilly, “Sweetie, pick up the phone if you can hear me. (A pause.) Okay, I love you. There’s a little problem with the plane. I’m fine and comfortable for now.”
And that was the end. I struggled to breathe as I hung up the receiver and stepped away with my face down. I’d run from their story for so long. “We will never forget,” the nation still declares about September 11. But I had forgotten—worse I had never remembered in the first place. But standing there shuddering with sobs and wiping tears away, I grieved for a tragedy that the rest of America had mourned 16 years before.
They weren’t just 40 passengers riding the plane to their fate.
They weren’t just 40 passengers riding the plane to their fate. They huddled and plotted. They voted among themselves, using their freedom of democracy to decide whether or not to retaliate, to voluntarily sacrifice their lives so they might at least save others. They called their loved ones with last items of business, last assurances of love. And then they used what they had—food carts and hot water and broken glass—to attack their attackers. Perhaps self-preservation made them move, perhaps self-sacrifice. Many remember them as patriots.
But that April day, I simply remembered them.
The mountains watched that Tuesday morning, with the hemlock grove and dandelions, witnesses to their last full measure of devotion. So we mark that place. But as Abraham Lincoln recognized in another field over 150 years ago, the place cannot adequately honor their sacrifice.
We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men . . . who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. It is for us the living, rather, . . . to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.
Their story is hidden away in a humble field outside an unassuming Pennsylvania town where they fulfilled their final duty; our duty is now to remember and honor them with our lives.
Perhaps on a future day of terror or despair, their voices will come to me from that field, telling me how to live, teaching me how to die.
“Let’s get your ears pierced,” Laura said several months ago.
I hung a pair of Alice in Wonderland earrings back on the rack and shook my head.
I gave a sincere shrug. Thirty-one years without pierced ears, and I just didn’t know why.
“Maybe you should find out,” Laura suggested as we walked past J.C. Penney, out of the mall.
Though it’s true that I went over three decades without having my ears pierced, I’ve had holes in my ears since I was born. Turns out I’m one of the under 1% of people in the United States born with preauricular pits, tiny holes on the front of my ears where my ears meet my head. I didn’t learn how rare they are until I was a teenager, but I could have guessed: I’ve spent my life inspecting ears and have met only a handful of people with ear pits.
I’m one of the under 1% of people in the United States with pre-auricular pits,
Once in a store, a little girl noticed them. “You’ve got weird piercings.” (This was back before any part of the anatomy was up for studs and plugs and gauges.)
“They aren’t pierced. Just holes,” I informed her.
Her mouth gaped as she stepped forward for a closer look. That’s the general reaction when people find out about my ear pits (usually hidden by my hair).
When I was young, I sometimes stuck pins in the holes and pretended they were earrings, but was never allowed to pierce my ears. Then again, I never asked my parents if I could. I knew that my mom had once had her ears pierced but let the holes grow shut. So I always assumed those Old Testament verses that spoke about not making marks in your body precluded us from dangles and studs.
A few days later, with Laura’s challenge haunting me, I took out my pink notebook and made a list of reasons not to pierce my ears. Sixteen reasons later, I had it figured out.
Among my reasons were . . .
Afraid I might get an infection.
Don’t want to spend money on earrings.
Afraid that I’ll be disgusted by sticking something in my earlobes.
Embarrassed of drawing attention to my ears (which, in addition to having freaky holes, also curl up a bit at the lobe.)
Ashamed that it took me this long to get them pierced.
Afraid I’ll be like everyone else.
Afraid it will create some kind of awareness that I don’t think about now, but would if I get them pierced
The answers startled me. I hadn’t known they ran that deep.
“I’ve made my list,” I told Laura. “Sixteen reasons not to get my ears pierced.”
I guess I expected her to be impressed or dissuaded. She was neither. “OK, now make a list of reasons you should get them pierced.”
Flipping over the page, I cheekily started with “Reason 1—Because Laura wants me too.” Then continued . . .
I see cute earrings all the time.
Earrings are cheap.
I might like them.
There’s no real reason not to.
Sometimes a list of pros and cons boils down to one line—the only line that means anything. It’s the do line on the die list. The man line among a column of mouse lines. The swim line in a paragraph of sinks.
There’s no real reason not to.
With that line staring back at me, my deepest fears seemed unfounded.
Afraid I’ll be like everyone else? Was that a bad thing? In a world obsessed with elusive uniqueness, we forget that it’s not our differences that unite us but our similar experiences. All my life, I was proud of my ear pits because they set me apart—but they also made me feel lonely and freakish. Sure I had holes in my ears—but I didn’t have the adventure of getting them pierced.
Afraid it will create some kind of awareness that I don’t think about now, but would if I get them pierced. Good! I need to know something that I didn’t know before, to broaden my empathy and knowledge.
Afraid that I might get an infection or be disgusted by sticking something in my ear? Well, I wouldn’t know until I tried.
The next weekend at Icing, I rattled on about how weird I felt, getting my ears pierced at 31. As she marked my earlobes, the lady smiled. “That’s OK. It’s never too late.”
It didn’t hurt nearly as much as I had dreaded when the needle pierced my flesh. But when I looked in the mirror and saw the silver studs in my ears, tears sprang to my eyes. Something old had passed; something new had come. I wasn’t the same as when I sat in that chair. We always grieve a bit when we change, always balk a little when faced with the unknown.
We always grieve a bit when we change.
That was a month ago. My ears have healed, and I can wear whatever earrings I want (which generally means raiding Laura’s jewelry box). Each morning, what has been ritual to so many women since their childhood has become a new experience for me as I slip the earrings or studs into the little holes.
Recently, when my mom noticed my pierced ears, I asked her why she let her holes grow closed years before I was born. She shrugged like mothers do, brushing off the real story you’ll never know. But she went to her room and brought out a ring I had fingered many times in my life. It held two diamonds and two opals, but I had never thought to ask its significance.
“Your dad gave me these for our wedding,” she pointed to the opals. “And his parents gave me the diamonds. When I let my ears grow closed, we wanted to keep these, so we made a ring.”
It was a story I’d never heard before, opened like a door unlocked by the key of our related experience. I was glad that I asked.
Our risks, our experiences connect to other experiences and stories and join us to our past, our future, and one another. Time and money will keep me from seeing many places in the world and bar me from experiencing things that I’d otherwise long to see and enjoy. But it’s the simple, close-to-home adventures that sometimes frighten me the most.
It helps when we make our do or die list to find that bottom line and remind ourselves—
There’s no real reason not to.
(And for those who really want to know, this is what my preauricular pits look like.)
Dawn dish soap isn’t the only kitchen item that can save birds—your everyday stirring spoon can too.
My mom showed me this unusual use for spoons when my sister Sarah—then about eight years old—found three baby birds drowning in our front yard. A severe storm had shaken the birds out of our only tree—an evergreen that towered two stories high and ruffled easily in Missouri storms.
Yielding to Sarah’s pleas to save the birds, Mom retrieved a stirring spoon, and we sloshed through the yard to the evergreen. Sarah watched as Mom squatted by the birds, and I held Mom’s long black hair to keep it from dangling into the puddle. Mom lowered the old plastic kitchen spoon with her right hand, scooped up one bird, and deposited it on the high ground inside the wooden ledge that surrounded the evergreen’s trunk. She repeated the process two more times before leading Sarah and me back to the house.
Mom reached for the screen door and held it open for us. “I hope they’ll live,” Mom said. “I don’t know if even that will help them enough.” She shook her head and glanced at our old brown kitchen spoon. “I’ll have to throw this spoon away.”
My eyes widened. “What? Why? Don’t throw it away!”
“Carmen, I have to throw this away—those birds could have diseases! We do not want this touching our food again.” Mom marched to the kitchen to throw away our well-used kitchen spoon while I turned to stare through our bay window at the evergreen.
I like to keep things—cards, school papers, jobs, friends—anything that serves a purpose in my life. I could blame the hoarding gene that I inherited from Grandpa Elza and Grandma Bernice, who could never empty their barrels of pickles that they’d pickled themselves or the shed brimming with garage-sale items.
But the truth is that I, like the rest of humanity, struggle with letting go. At ten years old, I even struggled with letting go of a kitchen spoon that had stirred many meals of beef stroganoff and macaroni and cheese. As I strained to see the endangered baby birds from my dry side of the window, I realized that the spoon’s purpose had changed.
Sixteen years later, that spoon reminds me of my constant struggle to let go when changes come—when I must transform from college student to teacher, move from Florida to Missouri, and shift from warming the church pew to teaching a teen Sunday school class. Some changes have even meant sacrificing something useful or loved to serve a greater purpose. However, thinking about our kitchen spoon’s sacrifice has helped me to understand some things about my struggle to let go during these changes. Here are a few lessons on letting go that I learned from that kitchen spoon.
To say “yes” to one thing, we must say “no” to something else. Some purposes are mutually exclusive. My mom could have kept the spoon devoted to its original purpose—stirring food. But, instead, she used the spoon to attempt a compassionate rescue. Sometimes, letting go means saying “no” to a good job, relationship, or dream so that we can say “yes” to another God-given job, relationship, or dream.
It’s okay to feel regret for what we let go. Although our spoon was replaceable, I struggled to let go of the spoon because of the joyful memories it stirred. Likewise, it is natural to mourn fulfilling jobs that we leave, friends that we move away from, and the dreams that we sacrifice. Our regret simply reflects the joy that we have experienced.
To every purpose there is a season. When I want to juggle every possible purpose at once—being a student, a writer, an editor, a teacher, a daughter, a church worker—I remember advice that I heard from Shaunti Feldhahn: “The world wants to tell you that you can have it all. And you can have it all—just not all at the same time.” God may have one purpose for us to fulfill today and a different purpose for us to fulfill tomorrow. Yet, to fulfill today’s purpose, we must let go of yesterday’s purpose. Change doesn’t mean that God is inconsistent with His plans, but that God is unlimited in His ability to use us in multiple ways throughout our lifetimes.
We don’t always understand why our lives change. But we can trust that when the Lord asks us to let go of something, He has something just as wonderful for us to reach toward. If we simply let go when the Lord demands a change, He just might use us to save the drowning people in our own front yards.
. . . . . . . . . .
Carmen Dillon loves studying and using God’s gift of language—specifically, the English language. Equipped with a BS and MS in English Education, she anticipates sharing her passion for English with her junior high and high school students at Kingdom Christian Academy in Missouri. She enjoys serving the Lord with her family at Faith Baptist Church and exploring how the Lord can further use her to share the light of His truth through teaching, writing, and editing.
The spider has vanished, leaving behind a tattered web like lace torn in a zipper. She was so small I didn’t notice her working behind the peace lily on a corner stand in my dining room. The web must have served her purposes, fed her belly or didn’t.
Either way, she’s gone. Last year, grass spiders the size of quarters invaded my apartment. They lurked behind shower curtains, on ceilings, in drawers, in the washing machine. Four monstrosities perished mid journey crossing the sticky mousetrap behind the dryer, their exoskeletons splayed on the adhesive like skeletons in a miniature desert.
But this year, the apartment managers insist they’ve sprayed for pests. And so far only she remains. As I clean her ragged handiwork now thick with dust, I wonder where she went. Perhaps she scurried across the room to the bookshelf, finding retreat among stories about her kind—the spider who frightened Miss Muffet, Shelob in Middle-earth, Aragog at Hogwarts. But she is not like them.
I don’t fear sharing my space with her. I’m not compelled to hunt her down as I did in my terror of the others last year, searching with flashlight and zapper to crisp her legs and smell her sizzling body.
We’re much alike, she and I—artists weaving in corners, though we know today’s silk might become tomorrow’s cobweb. Feeling our time—this messy life, as Charlotte called it—is short, we spin to live, persistent as the itsy bitsy spider on his waterspout. Noiseless and patient, as Whitman observed, we isolate ourselves on a promontory in measureless oceans of space, forming bridges, reaching out to the world around us.
If I find her someday, I can’t help but think she will turn out to be a true friend.
“This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt.”—Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”
An astronomer I know told me of the 1979 total solar eclipse he saw in Manitoba. You must know this: the astronomer can fill a conversation by himself as both informer and inquisitor, providing both questions and answers. He likes to talk and is very adept at entertaining and educating eager listeners. His wife gives him space, content to slink comfortably in silence—eclipsed in his good-natured verbosity.
He recorded his eclipse encounter on a cassette tape. After later replaying the tape, the astronomer realized that his wife chattered through the eclipse while he remained silent. He shrugged. “It brings different things out of different people.”
Everyone who has witnessed a total solar eclipse reports that to watch the moon blot out the sun like a judgment is a spiritual experience, life changing even. Some have wept. Some have screamed. Annie Dillard wrote an essay.
A total eclipse is coming in August 21. I wonder what it will bring out of me?
They’re calling it the Great American Eclipse, as if America will manufacture it in Detroit or project it from Texas. One might picture the sun, when we finally glimpse its corona, wearing a red hat with tired font: Make America Great Again.
Though it is the same moon that crosses the same sun in eclipses the world over, and though there will be other total eclipses, we rightly claim this eclipse as our own because it’s showing exclusively on US mainland soil. Supposedly, the last time this happened was AD 436; the next time will be 2316.
The eclipse will only air once, no rewind, no reruns.
To prepare for the eclipse, last week my friend bought our glasses. “They’re so cheap,” she said, bending the flimsy cardboard. “But I guess the eclipse will only be two minutes.” (1).
Two minutes and ten seconds, I think, struck with the brevity, the specificity of this event. Eclipses keep a tight schedule. We have instant replay for our sports, repeat setting for our music, and downloads to watch at our leisure. But the eclipse will only air once, no rewind, no reruns. At 2:38 the show starts, be there or be square. We dither over seconds, marking the duration with precision, like time of birth and time of death and the time stamp of a punch clock.
Though Carbondale, Illinois, will revel in the longest duration of totality for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, people will flock to anywhere within that much-mentioned path of totality, a relatively narrow strip from Oregon to South Carolina. After all, to almost see a total eclipse is to miss it completely.
“I’ve seen partial eclipses before and—” The astronomer made a noise with his mouth, like a party popper, a cheap thrill. “You’ve got to be in the path of totality. People will be in areas where they’ll see the eclipse at 97% and have no idea the sight they’re missing an hour away. It’s the difference of night and day—literally.” And to watch it on TV, the astronomer snorted, “Would be like phoning it in on your wedding night.”
So the weekend before August 21, I’ll drive six hours to my parents’ home in Greenville, South Carolina. According to projected numbers on greatamericaneclipse.com, over 2 million people could possibly trek to my home state for this event.
When the astronomer watched the full eclipse in ’79, he did so beside a construction site. As the darkness fell, men in the backhoes turned on their lights and continued moving earth, too engulfed in their work or dimness to track constellations midday or keep appointment with eclipses (3). They sensed the darkness, but they did not see the eclipse.
They sensed the darkness, but they did not see the eclipse.
I, for one, wouldn’t miss seeing the eclipse for the world.
But what if I do?
Of course I am concerned that the weather will not cooperate, that clouds will roll in (as they often do on Southern summer afternoons), obscuring the show like a curtain. “Look at the weather the night before,” the astronomer advised. “Plan to drive two, three hours to clearer skies.” But if common sense leads the millions of other eclipse watchers to do the same, officials fear gridlock on interstates, with witless drivers stopping mid highway to watch the sky.
But more than the weather or traffic, I am afraid that this eclipse will not change my life—that I’ll see the darkness, but miss the eclipse. What if I’m too aware, too prepared, shot up on the critics’ praise like for the summer blockbuster movie that halfway through I realized should have been rented for $1.50 from Redbox?
What if the eclipse passes before I can read the epiphanies it smears across the sky? What if I don’t lose myself in the deep shadow or am not transfixed by the fiery halo of sun or not hypnotized by the shadow bands writhing across the ground?
I might not worry if it weren’t for my track record with disappointment. A few years ago at the Smithsonian in D.C., my struggle with disillusionment surfaced twice. I’ve seen prize squash more impressive than the Hope diamond. And the shriveled remains of the giant squid—this was what Nemo fought against so valiantly to save Ned Land? Where was the snapping beak, the dinner-plate eyes, the fearsome suction-cupped tentacles? (2)
I dread to ever see the Grand Canyon, afraid I might sigh over what others are breathless. Perhaps the problem is that nothing can match the immensity of my expectations.
In my fear of disappointment, I wish to stand on a solitary mountain or lie in a field somewhere to watch this eclipse, to commune with my wonder or disappointment, with only nature around to witness me witness the event. But even the cows will respond, plodding toward the barn, and the swallows will change their course toward home.In its own way, even nature obeys the power of an eclipse.
Together we’ll see the eclipse and make of it what we will.
This week an article headline stated, “The Solar Eclipse Path Will Overwhelmingly Pass Over Trump Country.” On it went, rehashing numbers and statistics, a poker in the embers, a stick to the sleeping bear, a fingernail beneath the scab, a tug to the fray. What is it to us the path that the center of the solar system chooses to take across the nation? It knows nothing of our squabbles, the high drama of earth—and does not care. The eclipse will draw a line all will gather on—no matter their usual party line. The eclipse has come to unite us, to distract us with a display more magnificent than our old standby, divisive obsessions. It has come, perhaps, not a moment too soon.
I’ll take in the view at a park, surrounded by hundreds of people drawn from the small town and from places beyond the Carolina borders, states, perhaps even continents, away. Together we’ll watch the coming darkness; together we’ll see the eclipse and make of it what we will. And anyway, maybe that is the point.
The last time that an eclipse shadowed the United States in this particular path, from coast to coast, was June 8, 1918. That autumn, another shadow darkened the world—the Spanish Influenza. When that shadow passed it had taken almost 700,000 lives, affecting a quarter of the United States and elsewhere a third of the planet’s population. Before the end they piled the bodies in the streets, black and blue from suffocation. Do you suppose they recalled the eclipse then, pondering whether it had been a sign, a premonition too glorious to read, too ominous to have been ignored as the country gasped, drawing the last of their breaths together?
I wonder, too, what else is coming for us later or soon? For what other kind of storm or eclipse might we gather to view in totality?
Perhaps then we’ll remember our wonder not merely that the heavenly bodies aligned, but that on an August day, in a year when the nation could hardly agree on anything, the heavens brought us together, as it seems only heaven could. In one small swath across the nation, we huddled until the scene had passed, at last comprehending our place in the universe.
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1. It’s a dangerous misconception that you’ll wear your glasses only to see the moment of totality. In a total eclipse you can take the glasses off only at the time of totality. However at all other times in an eclipse, it is necessary to wear them. Never look at the sun without proper eye protection:eclipse blindness is a real thing! Since in Greenville the partial eclipse begins at 1:09 and ends at 4:02, I sure hope those glasses are comfortable, because we could be wearing them for up to almost 3 hours—minus 2 minutes and 10 seconds, of course.
2. More than likely it was a colossal squid exaggerated by Jules Verne’s terrific imagination.
3. A phrase Eudora Welty used in her book One Writer’s Beginnings.