Lunch break at work…I pull out the computer to write. I have a drawer full of jawbreakers, and I’ll have a few of them and call it lunch. There was food at the meeting earlier, so I’m good anyway. The jawbreakers come from a client who always has his pockets filled with them. Each time he comes to my office to go over some paperwork, or for help with paying bills, he reaches into his pocket. Pulling a handful he drops them into my hand like a pile of jewels. And I am reminded of the importance of giving and receiving, and how so often the rules of this job and this role don’t allow me to accept very often. They also don’t allow my clients to give of themselves very often. So I’ll savor this jawbreaker and think of the kindness of Dan, bald and big-bellied, a Buddha in a parka who always makes me smile.
The jawbreakers remind me of being 10, how I’d get a quarter and go to the store to buy a brown paper sack of them filled with them on a Saturday. Back when penny candies really were just a penny. I’d stretch them out over that whole day, trying with each one to suck on it until it was completely gone, and always instead end up chomping down on it before there was nothing left. An experiment to see it pass from form to nothingness that I was never able to wait for, but instead had to hasten along.
Saturdays in my mind are filled with so many memories of sweetness in that way. The penny candy. Cartoons and cereal fresh out of bed. Riding my bike as far as it would take me. Going to the movie theater to see a matinee for fifty cents. I wonder why with such sweetness already in my life that I needed that bag of candy. Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” talks about how so many people in the pioneer days in America spoke of heaven being a place of “sweetness and light” because there was so little of it in their actual lives. There were no lights other than the that from the fireplace or stove. Sugar and fruits were non-existent. So they’d dream of a place where what they lacked was there in abundance.
I don’t think my life lacked that sweetness at that time. In the way that some people just like sweets, and some don’t, I was always on the side of those who liked it. And I was pretty good at savoring it, even with that tendency to always bite the last of the jawbreaker. But I could entertain myself, loved being outdoors. Give me a good book or a pile of Boys Life magazines, and I’d read all afternoon. There were places that were sweet to me, the beauty of the woods across the street, the little pond in the center of that woods, and farther down the path, the rotting little shed that still stood in the bottom of the hollow. Even the air in there was sweet, filled with the smell of dirt, and rotting wood, the kind of wood that was wet and spongy, and seemed to still hold a shape and semblance of wood though magic only. Green light slanting in the windows after filtering down through the trees overhead, a bench against one wall and only jars with rusty mason lids, or no cover at all.
And still that urge for sweetness. A sweet kiss. The silence of a snowy winter night, or the brutal clarity of stars when it’s 20 below. I was aware in times of depression how sweetness was a balm and a protection against pain, misery, and what…boredom? A chocolate donut, provided a few minutes where the world and my life for a moment were a pleasure, a brief respite. Life is brutal and short, some say. Which might be true, but even when I don’t see them there are such moments, fleeting as they are, of sweetness. And at times such as in depression it seems we can’t find them, or don’t see them. But they are there.
The third noble truth the truth of joy. Or is it sweetness. To breathe is sweet, each breath a wonder, to have a body and senses even with pain or craving is sweet.
There was a man walking across an open field, when suddenly a tiger appeared and began to give chase. The man began to run, but the tiger was closing in. As he approached a cliff at the edge of the field, the man grabbed a vine and jumped over the cliff. Holding on as tight as he could, he looked up and saw the angry tiger prowling out of range ten feet above him. He looked down. In the gully below, there were two tigers also angry and prowling. He had to wait it out. He looked up again and saw that two mice, one white, the other black, had come out of the bushes and had begun gnawing on the vine, his lifeline. As they chewed the vine thinner and thinner, he knew that he could break at any time. Then, he saw a single strawberry growing just an arms length away. Holding the vine with one hand, he reached out, picked the strawberry, and put it in his mouth. It was delicious.
I loved that story the first time I read it. Even as I was frustrated that it didn’t seem to have an ending. “But what happens to the man?” my mind shouted out. I wanted to know, how does it turn out. Is he saved?
These days I know that the story is sufficient. Caught for this short moment between birth and death, with danger and uncertainty around me, the moral being that in any moment there is sweetness to be found. Life gives us strawberries. And jawbreakers.