I never believed the old family story that my first word was “Why?” Still, there’s no doubt I was an early questioner, indiscriminate in my curiosity. “Where do clouds go when they aren’t here?” “Is it dark inside an egg? Are the baby birds afraid?” “Why don’t you like Mrs. Wilster?” “Did God make his nose funny like that?” “Why can’t I have cake for breakfast?”
I was full of questions – about the world, about adults and even about the cloud of secrets I sensed floating across my sunny young life. Given my willingness to question everything in sight, it seems strange I never asked about my lack of sisters and brothers. Even though my friends had them, siblings still reminded me of woolly worms, walking sticks and puff balls. Some of them were creepy and mysterious. Others appeared to be harmless but capable of annoying mischief. When little kids need help from someone bigger, taller or stronger siblings can be useful, but in the end my friends and I were happiest when they decided to leave us alone.
Friends told me I was lucky to be an only child, but I never thought of myself as lucky or unlucky. Life was what it was, and my solitary state seemed normal. My parents paid attention to me, helped me to do well in school, gave me nice presents and always had time to do things with me. With the deep, pure wisdom of childhood I understood that brothers and sisters would mean more people at the dinner table, fewer presents at Christmas and less room in the back seat of the car. None of those prospects seemed appealing, so I held my peace, and didn’t question the size of our family.
The true consequences of being an only child escaped me, of course. I lived in clothes that were purchased or made new rather than being handed down from an older sister. My toys were my own. My dolls never disappeared and I never had to defend my right to play with them. If I wanted to finger-paint, I could stand at the easel as long as I pleased. If I walked away from an uncompleted puzzle, it would be there when I returned, waiting to be finished.
Best of all, I had extraordinary control over my world. When it was time for games, I was allowed to make the choice between Mr. Potato Head or Cooties. During my famous cold-meatloaf-and-tomato-soup-for-breakast phase, my mother baked six months’ worth of meat loaves, assuming that weird nutrition was better than no nutrition at all. I had my own room, painted Overwhelming Pink and outfitted with enough 1950s ruffles and flourishes to gag Tinkerbell. Best of all, I had a Bozo The Clown night light. It didn’t fit the room’s decor but it gave enough light for me to keep reading classics like The Pokey Little Puppy long after I was supposed to be asleep, shoving books under the covers at the sound of footsteps and feigning the dreams of innocence.
When it came time for kindergarten, it was a cold plunge into a different reality. In kindergarten, others were in charge. There were routines, schedules and expectations. “Leave your coats and mittens in the cloakroom.” “Find your chair and carry it to the reading circle.” “Unroll your mat for nap time… roll up your mat and put it away.” Our teacher chose the stories and books, lessons and games. We cooperated or found ourselves tucked into solitary confinement among the mittens and boots. We came to loathe certain words, especially words like: Now. Because. Stop. Don’t.
But there were pleasures, too. We learned to write our names and lined up our lunch bags alphabetically. We read stories of Dick and Jane, one awkward syllable at a time. We played games with numbers and words, and raced one another to the swings at recess. If the weather was bad we stayed in the classroom, painting, making “books” with construction paper covers or just messing about in the huge sandbox tucked beneath the bank of high, south-facing windows.
The sandbox, painted a translucent robin’s-egg blue and elevated on eight legs, was filled with pure, sugary-soft white sand. It was just the right height for youngsters eager to dig and it was filled with toys – little houses and trees, castles, chickens and cows, bridge trusses, sections of fence and hard plastic people. I was entranced by the bright, shiny trucks, the tiny green-and-yellow John Deere tractors and my favorite of all, a lovely, double-decker bus.
One day, I found my special bus and tucked it into a corner for safe-keeping. One of my classmates had the audacity to reach into the corner and pick it up, refusing my demand that he give it back. Incensed, I screamed as though my life had been threatened. The teacher came running, probably convinced she was going to find blood. Instead, she found me, tears running down my face as I blubbered, “He took my bus!”
“Were you playing with it?”, my teacher asked. No, I hadn’t been playing with it. “Was it just lying there in the sandbox?” Yes, I had left it lying there. “Would it be nice to let him play with it?” I was adamant. “NO!” When she asked,”Why can’t he play with it?”, I couldn’t have been more clear. “It’s mine!”
A smile played around my teacher’s eyes as she said, in the sweetly reasonable tones of a woman who thinks she’s stating the obvious, “When we play in the sand box, we have to share.”
I was astonished, shaken and chagrined. “Share?!” I thought. “What’s this sharing business?” I’d never had to share anything in my life, and I certainly wasn’t about to begin by turning over my beloved red bus to a kid I barely knew. As the teacher walked away, my classmate turned his back and the first evil impulse of my life overcame me. I grabbed the bus, dug furiously and buried it nearly to the bottom of the the fine, sugar-like sand. When my adversary turned around, the bus was gone and it was his turn to howl and burst into tears. When the teacher arrived for the second time, I showed her my empty hands, gave a casual shrug and walked away. Whether she thought to run her own hand through the sand and discovered the bus, I never knew.
Needless to say, that was the beginning of a journey that extended far beyond childhood. The process of learning to share is difficult at best, and as we age the stakes grow higher.
Years ago in rural Texas, I was introduced to one of the best sharing techniques in the world. When I stopped by the home of a friend and agreed to stay for a cup of coffee, she pulled out a piece of leftover pie to go with it. The piece was fairly large, but it was just one piece. Taking down some plates and a knife she glanced over and asked, “Cut or choose?” “What?” I asked. “Cut or choose? What does that mean?”
She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of the practice. “That’s how we do it here”, she said. “When there’s just one of something to be shared, one person cuts it in two. The other person gets first choice. If one piece is bigger than the other, the person choosing gets the better deal. It motivates the cutter to be as fair as possible.”
Even at the time, I recognized the simplicity and elegance of the process. With both people involved in the outcome, each is more likely to be satisfied and recriminations are far less likely. It’s the perfect way to divide a limited resource, like a piece of warm apple pie.
On the other hand, not all of the world’s resources are limited in the same way, and fairness isn’t always the best way to judge successful sharing. Much of the grief in our world, much of the jealousy, bitterness, pettiness and spite comes from seeing everything around us as a last piece of pie, a slice of life waiting to be cut and distributed in ever-thinning slivers.
I once stood next to a stranger in Louise Nevelson’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd, a part of St. Peter’s Church in New York’s Citicorp Plaza and Nevelson’s only permanent New York installation. Looking at the exquisite assemblage, the woman said, “I hate her.” I was so startled I couldn’t help asking why. “Look at that,” the woman said. “Look how beautiful it is. I’ll never be able to do anything like that…”
Such a statement, of course, assumes that creativity is indistinguisable from pecan pie. The premise seems to be that if someone gets a bigger chunk of talent, our slice is necessarily smaller. Nothing could be farther from the truth. To paraphrase someone who knew a thing or two about life and creativity, the fault lies not in our talent, but in our metaphor.
In an extraordinarily lovely post at her blog, whollyjeanne, Jeanne Hewell-Chambers offers a different way to understand sharing when she says,
In our journey to voice, we gather around the digital well of blogs and comments and tweets, telling our stories and speaking our truths (perhaps tentatively at first and at times), and an entrainment takes place. We find (others) with whom we resonate, (others) who inspire us, tickle us, enkindle and excite us. We gather around the digital well, knowing that encouraging, supporting, cheering on others does not diminish us in any way because this is a well of abundance.
Abundance is a word rarely heard in today’s scaled-down, pinched-up, anxiety-ridden world. So rare is it that when I discovered artist CheyAnne Sexton closing one of her blog comments with the phrase “peace and abundance”, I was startled. And yet there are circumstances when the word is exactly right. We may run out of pie from time to time. We may have to worry about shortages of water, teachers or fuel. In a world of tightened corporate budgets, shrinking natural resources and increasingly constrained economic activity, some are forced to cut while others are made to choose. Nevertheless, even in a world of bitter necessity, the freedom to imagine and create lives on.
The truth is that love is not limited, and does not need to be apportioned. There is no single slice of life, no leftover spirit. Creativity is not served up on a plate and joy is not meant to be rationed. Love, creativity, boldness and joy flow freely in all seasons, fed by springs of memory and imagination.
Droughts will come and droughts will go. From time to time, a new bucket may be needed, or new ropes for drawing. As word of abundance spreads, crowds gathering around the well may give rise to fears of diminishing supplies. Nevertheless, no matter how difficult our days of cutting and choosing, we always will be free to lay down the knife and pick up the bucket, drawing from the well that never runs dry.