Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wild Strawberries

You've heard the Zen story about being chased by a ravenous tiger? You're running away, and the tiger is right behind you, and you come to a cliff. The only way to escape is to lower yourself off the side of the cliff, and hang from a vine. So you're hanging there, and you look below into the valley, and two more ravenous tigers are waiting. And then a little mouse comes along, and begins gnawing at your vine. Just at that moment, you notice a wild strawberry growing near by. You reach out, and pop it into your mouth. How delicious!

And that's what life is. Learning to appreciate the strawberry, even though we're all hanging from a vine that's about to give way, sending us tumbling down to the hungry tigers.

One of my favorite authors is Marilynne Robinson. Her first novel was "Housekeeping," the story of two young girls who are orphaned when their mother commits suicide. They are then raised by an eccentric aunt, who would rather be hopping a train. It's fabulous.

There is one scene from the novel that has always remained in my mind. Early on, the girls' mother leaves them with their grandmother, and goes for a drive, not to return. Here are Robinson's words:

They searched for her. Word was sent out a hundred miles in every direction to watch for a young woman in a car which I said was blue and Lucille said was green. Some boys who had been fishing and knew nothing about the search had come across her sitting cross-legged on the roof of the car, which had bogged down in the meadow between the road and the cliff. They said she was gazing at the lake and eating wild strawberries, which were prodigiously large and abundant that year. She asked them very pleasantly to help her push her car out of the mud, and they went so far as to put their blankets and coats under the wheels to facilitate her rescue. When they got the Ford back to the road she thanked them, gave them her purse, rolled down the rear windows, started the car, turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, and roared swerving and sliding across the meadow until she sailed off the edge of the cliff.

For a moment, if you can, set aside your judgments about committing suicide. Because I have been in my own moments of great darkness, I know only too well what it is like to consider that option. What strikes me about this passage is the incredible beauty of that moment: a young woman sitting on the roof of her car looking out over the lake eating strawberries. She knows she is about to die. The fact that her death is of her own choosing is irrelevant. It is a purely Zen moment. When it is the last thing that you are going to experience in this life, sit with the wind in your hair, spray from the lake moistening your face, imagine how exquisite those strawberries must taste.

Whenever I remember this scene, it makes me hold my breath. To live each moment as if it was my last. Each taste, each smell, each sound, each touch...fully present. Ah, yes. The strawberries!

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