A few days before Thanksgiving, our church hosted its annual ecumenical service. Our pastor had invited the local rabbi to give the homily.
In his sermon, the rabbi questioned how we can possibly be thankful in a world tattered by economic downturns and heavy with the anxiety of war. He wondered how we can be expected to give thanks when so many confident, hard-working people are dealing with set backs they never expected to experience.
The rabbi called us all to action with this challenge: “The best way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to give.” Quoting Old and New Testament passages, he proposed specific ways to give: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick.
I left the service grateful that, in our community, there are many opportunities for me to follow the rabbi’s advice. With just a wee bit of smugness, I checked off the ways that I am already giving. I regularly donate money, food and clothing to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. I make gallons of soup for the Empty Bowls fundraiser for our local food pantries. Every winter I volunteer at a homeless shelter.
Still, I went to bed wondering, How else I can transform gratitude into giving?
The next morning, when I went outside to get the newspaper, I saw a squirrel perched on a fence post in the corner of my backyard. Staring me in the eye, he continued nibbling on something white and round. What the heck…Oh, no! The little beast was gnawing on one of the dozens of tulip bulbs I had planted the day before.
It had taken me hours to rake leaves to clear planting space, dig holes and place the bulbs, sprouting tips upward deep in the soil. As I worked I had imagined the spring blooming that would come, first with the appearance of the little crocuses, breaking through the hard dirt in yellow, purple and white boldness. Weeks later, I would be rewarded with a variety of orange tinted daffodils and sunny yellow tulips.
The worst part was that this had not been a normal fall bulb planting. This had been a ritual. During a recent retreat, I had made a list of things I wanted to attract into my life – peace, contentment, fun… more than 25 items, each one recorded on a small piece of paper. I had tucked these slips of paper among the bulbs, saying a prayer that, by spring, all of these attributes and goals would be in full bloom in my life.
Instead of peace and compassion – two items on my wish list – I experienced horror to see my newly planted bulb beds pockmarked with holes. I found one daffodil bulb lying on the ground, dug up but left uneaten. I picked it up and carried it in my hand as I surveyed the extent of the squirrel’s destruction.
Next to an unearthed crocus bulb I saw a slip of paper. The writing was running with morning dew and caked with mud. Open mindedness. I looked over at the squirrel and laughed. I wondered, How can I be open-minded as my bulbs become a Thanksgiving feast for a pack of tree rodents?
The rabbi’s message gave me the answer: “The best way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to give.”
Feeding the insatiable squirrels wasn’t how I would have chosen to give. Flexibility – one of the traits still buried in the garden – tugged at me as I watched the squirrel dance down the fence, half-eaten bulb tucked between his front teeth. I shook my head, wondering what else I might harvest from this experience.
Standing in my hole-y garden, I remembered that giving is also a companion to giving up. What might I need to let go of?
First, I had to let go of the regret that I my bulbs may have been easy prey because I had not planted them deeply enough or protected them with a layer of mulch.
I traded in annoyance and disappointment for awe at the ingenuity of God’s creatures as they prepare for winter.
It took me a few deep breaths to give up the magical thinking that having a beautiful bed of bulbs would bring me more confidence and creativity. I accepted that I can still be peaceful and strong even if the squirrels have bellies full of my spring bounty.
With curiosity I watched a pair of squirrels chase each other around the fence that rings my yard. They ran up into a tree, flying and chattering as they climbed high among the bare branches. I wondered who they were feeding with the booty pilfered from my flower beds. Could they have planted the bulbs, like they do with nuts, storing them up for a time of need?
I like the possibility that my bulbs might rise up in another garden and that I might spy a single yellow tulip or a couple of “my” daffodils when I take my morning walk next spring. This reminds me that I never know how work done in one place might send out shoots of beauty and nourishment in someone else’s life.
Perhaps by feeding the squirrels this fall, someone hungry for the sight of new growth after a long, dark winter will be fed … maybe even me.
What do you want more of in your life? What might you need to give – and give up – to get what it is you most want?