My eldest daughter who is in sixth grade this year went on a school trip to Saco, ME where they spent 4 days at an ecology school on the coast. She has become, like most 12 year olds, annoyingly loud, brash and very social. She thinks she is pretty hot stuff. So, she was very excited to leave our quiet home to be with her other loud friends for a few days, 24 hours a day.
She thoroughly enjoyed the trip. That was last week. She has one more week of school before spring break when we are going to Washington DC. I over heard her talking to her sister, a 4th grader, about how much she enjoyed these last few weeks, mostly she said, because each week she had something to look forward to, before actually doing it, and that the looking forward to it was half the fun. She said, “I love thinking about the fact that next Saturday we’ll be pulling into the train station in Washington DC!”
First, I wondered if her week at school really was that tough that she couldn’t enjoy it as it was! But ultimately, I think she’s right — there is something about waiting that is important to the human condition. Perhaps she doesn’t realize it now — but waiting, as looking ahead, is not just waiting for fun. It is instead about allowing our human condition to transcend the times and places to which we are tied, and discover in the traumas and tragedies that necessarily go with being tied to time and place, freedom.
We grow up being taught that some are the artist type and some are the science type. Perhaps our teachers did not set about dividing us into these camps. I think they did not. But somehow we find that our freedom to move easily in both worlds is battened down and we look outside ourselves for inspiration — outside ourselves for what is literally the breath of life — and we gasp because it is not there. To wait is to learn to be solitary — to learn to breath on our own. And when we do that, over a life time — we begin to glimpse what the prophets of the great religions of the world have tried to show us — that we are not as we seem, tied here and at the mercy of time and place.
My daughter’s whispered sharings reminded me of E.B. White’s pig Wilbur who, consternated by his own limitations of time and place, born out in the death of Charlotte, which he can only mourn, not understand, watches what she left behind — the egg sac.
All winter Wilbur watched over Charlotte’s egg sac as though he were guarding his own children. He had scooped out a special place in the manure for the sac next to the board fence. On very cold nights he lay so that his breath would warm it. For Wilbur, nothing in life was so important as this small, round object — nothing else mattered. Patiently he awaited the end of winter and the coming of the little spiders. Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch. The winter ended at last.
“I heard the frogs today,” said the old sheep one evening. “Listen you can hear them now.”
Of course that egg sac does hatch. Wilbur is delighted with the hundreds of new friends. That is until they fly off to make homes of their own. He cries himself to sleep that night.
But like all good stories, Wilbur is led, finally to understand. And while he delights in three of Charlotte’s children who stay to make Zuckerman’s barn their own, he is set free at last by the love of Charlotte. E.B. White concludes:
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often someone comes along who is both a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
There E.B. White ends. Here we begin.