“Watch where you’re stepping!” The old woman hollered from her front porch. Her heart sank as she watched the young man absentmindedly trample her daffodils which were just peeking through the spring snow. The young man never looked up from his phone, he simply walked away, leaving the crushed flower in his wake. Tears welled up in her eyes and she felt a kinship with the crushed flower.
There was a time in her life when she too felt like a burgeoning spring flower, filled with vibrance and possibility. She remembered the feelings of excitement and anticipation, of waiting for her life to start. But now, now she was simply waiting for her life to end. Somehow 60 years had evaporated into a fog of unfulfilled dreams and lost opportunities; she had been alive for 80 years and yet never felt like she had lived.
She was pulled from her reverie by the sound of the phone ringing, she left the dead flower on the sidewalk and returned to her house.
“Hello Aunt Stella! Happy spring! What you up to today?” It was Stella’s niece Taylor calling from what sounded like an airport. She loved Taylor and saw a lot of herself in the woman.
“Oh hello Taylor! What a nice surprise, I’m so happy you called. Honestly, I was just yelling at some dolt for stepping on my budding daffodils. I don’t think that is necessarily what I am “up to today” but it is what I’m doing right now. Not really up to anything specific though…” her voice trailed off as she realized her story was so boring even she was losing interest in it.
“Well, I just landed in Denver and thought I would swing by if you aren’t busy, and it sounds like you are decidedly not busy”
“That would be wonderful! Just come on over and we’ll think of something to do when you get here” with that, Stella busied herself tidying the house and herself for Taylor’s arrival.
An hour later, Taylor pulled into the driveway and climbed out of the extraordinarily-ordinary rental car carrying a messenger bag and a small suitcase. Stella watched from the porch and briefly considered offering to help but then dismissed the idea, Taylor was 45 years old and more than capable of carrying her own things into the house. When Taylor was within arms-reach, she placed her baggage on the ground and reached out to hug Stella.
As they embraced, Stella thought how strange and wonderful it was to be touched by another person. Her mind drifted trying to recall the last time she had experienced human contact. She soon realized that it was the last time she had seen Taylor, almost exactly one year prior. This realization brought about an accompanying thought that Taylor must be in town for a tradeshow that happens every year at this time. She was just about to ask when she realized Taylor was crying in her arms.
Stella resisted the urge to ask what the matter was and instead just held the woman as she cried. She knew that Taylor would eventually talk but for now, it seemed that a shoulder upon which to cry was what she needed. As Taylor pulled herself from the embrace, she wiped her eyes on her shirtsleeve and looked sheepishly at Stella.
“Well, that was quite the hug!” Stella said to lighten the mood.
“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me. I think I’m just really happy to see you” Taylor said.
“Um. Bullshit” Stella countered and she noticed a spark in Taylor’s eyes but flames were quickly extinguished with a flood of new tears. She collapsed on the porch swing and buried her face in her hands.
“I’m going to go grab some tissues and a bottle of wine. I’ll be right back” Stella disappeared into the house and reemerged with the prescribed items and took a seat next to Taylor on the swing. “What’s going on peanut?”
Taylor was no longer crying but she sat staring thoughtfully at her wine glass. “What’s the point of it all Aunt Stella?”
“All what?” Stella replied.
“Oh you know, all of it. Life.” Taylor continued.
“I have no idea Tay. I have been asking God that very question for as long as I can remember. So far, I don’t have any magical answers” She took a sip of her wine and thought as the women sat together in silence. “Have you ever read the book of Ecclesiastes Tay?”
“I don’t need a religious pep-talk Aunt Stella”
“Good, cuz I’m not giving you one. Have you ever read the book of Ecclesiastes?”
“Well, I love it. It is my favorite book, not just book of the bible, but my favorite book. The opening lines are, ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’” Stella chuckled and Taylor laughed along with her.
“You’re kidding me. That is in the bible?” Taylor took a drink of her wine. “So it is official. Lovely”
“Well. I do think it is lovely actually. The book was written about 2500 years ago and it is as relevant today as it was then. The point of the story is that chasing after joy is pointless. You can’t find joy in accomplishments, life is not a competition to be won, you need simply to be joyful”
“Now I’m the one calling bullshit. What kind of hippy nonsense is that?” Taylor sputtered. “Look at everything you’ve accomplished, you had an amazing career, you didn’t just let joy happen, you went and found it, you worked for it!”
Stella laughed heartily.
“What? What is so damned funny?” Taylor insisted.
“Sorry love, I’m laughing at myself. Right before you called this morning, I was having a good old-fashioned pity party for myself, thinking about all of the things I didn’t have, all of the things I didn’t accomplish, all of my wasted potential. And here you sit, telling me just the opposite. I’m only laughing because I needed to be reminded of the very thing I am trying to tell you. ‘physician, heal thyself’” Stella smiled at her niece. “Did something happen that’s got you down?”
Taylor was thinking about what her aunt had said. Her aunt whom she revered, the woman who taught her to be fierce, brave, and independent; this same woman felt inadequate and unaccomplished. How could that possibly be? “I guess it wasn’t one thing that happened Aunt Stella, it was just a bunch of small things, some wins some losses, but I guess right now it just all feels like too much motion, too much weight, and no progress or purpose. I feel like Sisyphus pushing the same stupid rock up the same stupid hill only to watch it roll back down to the bottom, over and over and over. I have to admit, it is kind of a brilliant torture. But just,” she paused and fought back a new wave of tears, “why am I being tortured?”
“Good question Tay. Who is making you push the rock back up the hill?”
“I don’t know, it just has to get back up the hill. It is my job to get it up the hill.”
Stella said nothing in response.
“That sounds stupid doesn’t it?” Taylor volunteered.
“Nope. Not stupid at all. Sounds like life. Speaking of Greek mythology, you know the book Atlas Shrugged right?”
“Atlas was condemned to hold the earth on his shoulders. The story of Atlas Shrugged poses the question of what happens if he doesn’t? What happens if he shrugs off the weight of the world? And yes, I am aware that the book paints a rather bleak picture of what happens to the rest of the world if people like me and you stop struggling against the weight that threatens to crush us, but that isn’t really the point I’m trying to make at this moment, so humor me.”
Taylor sat thinking for a moment, “You know Aunt Stella, I think my favorite scene in the story Atlas Shrugged is when Dagny crashes her plane while looking for Gault’s Gulch, and the first thing she says when she regains consciousness is something like ‘We never had to take any of it seriously did we?’” with that, Taylor she smiled winsomely.
“Exactly,” Stella said and grabbed Taylor’s hand “You know my favorite line from Ecclesiastes? ‘Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.’” She paused and let the words wash over her as much for her sake as for Taylor’s “I think sometimes, Tay, that we overcomplicate things. We take on the weight of the world, we find a boulder and start pushing it up the hill, we decide to take things too seriously. We were made to be joyful creatures, living in community with each other and with God. It really can be that simple.”
They were both quiet for a long moment before Stella continued, “Looking back on my 80 years, I don’t think about my career or financial successes, in fact when I focus on those things, I only regret what I failed to accomplish, much like the rabbit hole I went down this morning. But when I think about my life from a place of gratitude and grace, I think about moments like this one, sitting here on a beautiful spring day with a woman I love and respect and a perfect bottle of wine. If your life is exhausting and unfulfilling, try something different. You are not Sisyphus and under no obligation to push the boulder up the hill. You are not Atlas and needn’t carry the weight of the world”
Both women sat in silence reflecting on what had just transpired between them. Stella’s eyes focused once more on the footprint in her patch of budding daffodils. The day’s warmth had melted the remaining snow and instead of the singular crushed bud that filled her with despair this morning, she now noticed a dozen green shoots emerging from the earth. The footprint and the dead flower still bothered her but she was reminded that by focusing on what had been lost, she failed to see what was lovely.