I was recently in North Carolina, coming home from a conference. I stopped by a fruit stand to buy some peaches and strawberries. Surveying the mounds of fresh fruit, I could hardly believe my luck. Strawberry season had quickly come and gone in our wet, hot Georgia spring and my husband and I hadn’t had a chance to go picking. It was as if time had runI asked the man stacking peaches if they would take a debit card. He stuttered that I would need to ask the girl behind the desk, who called over that they did. Then, as is the custom in the South, the man said,
“Where you from?”
“Athens, Georgia,” I said.
“Yep, yep, I know Athens,” he said. He seemed a little slow, a little slurred in hisspeech. “I used to live in Jefferson. Had a good business doing plumbing, was making some money, had friends. Then I got in this wreck.”
He pulled up his sleeve and pointed to his arm, which looked like it had been sewn on a lá Frankenstein. “I was in the hospital for months. All those friends disappeared. Ain’t nobody come to see me.” He pulled down his sleeve. “But it’s OK, ‘cause God had a plan for me. I got a good life here. I’m happy.” Then he turned away and went back to stacking peaches.
There was a time when I might have scoffed at such a story. How can you be better off broken and patched up than unbroken and whole? But that was before I survived some life changing ordeals. His story made me think of the line “It is terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” For all of us do. The world breaks us, as Hemingway said, and afterwards “some are strong in the broken places.”
What this man did was make meaning out of his trauma. We are meaning-making animals, and, as Bessel van der Kolk says, that is what saves us. This man bravely embarked on a new life, limited and changed from his previous life. But based on his faith, he was grateful for it.
All of us have defining stories. Those are the stories where our lives take a turn, where something we can not control has an impact on the narrative of who we are, perhaps obliterating it forever. We survive into the “new normal,” as my friend whose husband had a massive stroke six months ago described: “I’ve been mourning the loss of my husband as he was. He will never be that again.” If we can mourn the loss, then we can go on to rewrite the narrative of our lives, including the broken and patched places. Sometimes we come through not only stronger, but also with more humility. We have experienced that the world does not bow to our ego, that we are not in control, and somehow that is a relief.
The thing that struck me about my friend at the peach stand was his calmness. He wasn’t angry or resentful. I thought that was pretty amazing.
“Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend… when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s in our lives, the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience Heaven on earth,” writes Sarah Ban Breathnach.
So here’s to peaches and strawberries, tending our secret gardens and Heaven on earth.