Friday, October 28, 2011

Living Treasures

Today was Science Spectacular Day at my daughters’ elementary school and I had the privilege of volunteering at one of the presentations.  Two scientists from NC State University did a great job involving third graders in explorations about the properties of soil.  As the students at my table sifted through a sample of the dark, rich-looking material, they exclaimed over their findings:  rocks, twigs, leaves, roots, pine needles.  I couldn’t help but notice, though, that their biggest excitement was reserved for the living treasures that they encountered – worms, ants, beetles, and “roly-polys”.

As I watched their enthusiasm, I was taken back to memories of the school garden project that I created while I was a volunteer service worker in a semi-arid region of Brazil.  Although I had dabbled in gardening for years, I didn’t really realize how much I loved it until I shared that joy with the middle and high school students who were a part of the project. It was hard work, but the harshness of the landscape, and the challenges we faced seemed to make the beauty of the garden all the more vivid and precious.

Of all the things that I enjoy about gardening, there is one thing that I love most  – the sight of a new green shoot bursting its head above the earth.  After all the work of preparing the soil, planting, watering, and weeding, I reach the point where I have done all that I can do.  Now, all I can do is watch as the sun warms the earth, waiting and hoping that life will emerge.   When and if it does, it still seems miraculous to me!  The hope and potential expressed in this small being always lift my spirits.

“I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree," wrote Joyce Kilmer.  Nature has long been a source of inspiration for poets, visual artists, and musicians.  What is it about experiences with nature that speak to us so profoundly?  For me, encounters with nature bring a sense of wonder and gratitude.   There is something more, though.  Observing nature reminds me that each creature has a part to play in the grand symphony of life.  When I see a bird being a bird, I am moved by how it expresses its’ unique essence.   Without it, the richness of the world would undoubtedly be diminished.   Experiences with nature cause me to appreciate our uniqueness and our interconnectedness. 

Like the sprout or the bird, I think that we also are part of the symphony of life.  We each have a unique essence that is ours to contribute, and when we don’t, the world misses something.   When we discover our essence and express it fully, we have an experience of vitality and fulfillment.  When we are our most authentic selves, we are able to use our talents and our gifts to make a difference.  Each of us is a living treasure, unique and irreplaceable.

How will we choose to spend the treasure of our lives?

Sunday, October 16, 2011


This weekend, our family enjoyed a visit to the beach with my parents.   It was a short trip, but the weather was glorious, and we packed some of our favorite beach activities into the time that we had together.

We spent a good bit of the day on Saturday engaged in a big sandcastle project.  My younger daughter, Kyra, got us started, and before long we were all engaged in some aspect of its construction.   As we worked, it was evident that we were all cognizant that, sooner or later, the tide would rise and our work would be undone.  Nonetheless, we undertook the project with great gusto.  As we worked, I couldn’t help but notice where each of us chose to apply our energies.

I observed as Kyra quickly focused on building the inner castle and surrounding it with a moat that would keep the water away.  Later, she carved channels that would divert any water that entered back out again without damaging the castle.  John built a solid wall in front of the inner moat – a barrier against the rising tide.  I dug a lake in front of the wall.  It would have to fill up before the water could reach the wall, and thus would delay the arrival of the waves.  Behind the main castle and moat, my older daughter, Kristin, built a small island, also surrounded by a moat.  After decorating it with multicolored shells and smooth stones that she had been collecting on the beach, she dubbed it “Sea Treasure Island”.  My parents took the sand that was displaced from the lake that I dug, and made fun sculptures to surround our creation – a sea turtle, a whelk, a starfish, and an alligator (complete with a new poem from Mom inscribed in the sand beside him.)

The slow, pleasant work and the steady sounds of wind and waves provided a perfect opportunity for my mind to wander.   I considered the creative and transitory nature of our project.  It is interesting, I think, that despite the impermanence of sandcastles, so many of us enjoy building them.  Why is that?  Why do we invest so much time and energy into creations that the tide will soon wash away?  

Sandcastles seem to be interesting metaphors for the way we relate to our lives and our health.  As surely as the tides rise and fall, we know that we won’t last forever, but most of us cling to life for as long as we can.  Yet long lives aren’t our only goal. More than that, we hope to live “well” – with enough vision and energy to make contributions that will fulfill and outlast us. Even though we know that we will all “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, we work to extend our wellness -- protecting ourselves from risk and increasing our strength and resilience.  We try to build lives that are authentic and vital, remembering to include those things that bring us joy, fun, beauty, and meaning.

As you care for yourself, where do you put your energies?  Do you try to minimize risks – putting distance between yourself and the likelihood of unwanted outcomes?  Do you work on increasing your strength and resilience – increasing your chances of withstanding illness when it occurs?  Do you invest in your deepest values – your spirituality, your relationships, your vocation, or your creativity?  Hopefully, you have found that all of these activities have a place in your well-lived life.

We left our sandcastle on the beach yesterday before high tide arrived and did not expect to see it again.  Early this morning, John and I took a walk at sunrise and were amazed to see it still standing.  Although the tide had risen past our creation, the features that we included had successfully diverted the water around it.  For the moment, we had cheated the sea and our castle had been spared.  The alligator continued to grin and the decorations on Sea Treasure Island still sparkled at passersby.  We smiled and walked on.