I was five years old when I received a lesson on focusing less on abundance. It took many years before I appreciated the truth the lesson held for me.
My sister and I were packed into the front cab of my father’s truck, as he headed out to retrieved firewood. Our typical routine was to help load the truck, stacking the logs in the back or handing them to my father to place in secure rows. We would then help with any clean up necessary, if my father was cutting down a troublesome tree in someone’s yard. On this occasion my mother was joining us, which rarely happened.
My sister and I would usually take off into the woods for as long as we could, until it was time to get to work. We were free to go as far as we wanted. All we had to do was make sure we could still hear the chainsaw in the distance, so we could find our way back to the truck. We usually went our own way, rarely running into each other in the deep woods. I would collect flowers, explore, sing to myself and talk with the plants and animals.
On this trip we were going to a small town called Ellington, if you could call it that, as it was really a few houses scattered in the countryside deep in the back woods and rolling hills of upstate New York. I loved the drive out this way as the momentum of the truck going down the steep hills would make my stomach drop, like a roller coaster. After many joyous ups and downs we pulled up a long dirt drive, partially overgrown with weeds to arrive at Elton’s house. I was familiar with this quiet, grumpy old man as we had come here for wood a few times before.
Elton was a recluse and seldom spoke. His back was hunched over causing his eyes to fixate on the ground. He would have to tilt his head to the side to look you in the face. He was not a pleasant man to be around. He was even a bit scary to me as a small child.
Elton had a calico cat, apparently not by choice, as we often witnessed him drop kick the cat out the front door as we arrived. He would unhappily scramble his way out to meet us, as if nothing were unusual with his treatment of the cat. (Sometime later my grandpa took the cat from Elton and brought her to his home, where she lived out the rest of her years in relative peace.)
On this occasion, with my mom present, we went inside Elton’s house. I watched as he got ready to take us into the woods, to show my dad where the trees were that he could chop down and haul away. I stood in the small room filled with clutter and garbage as far as the eye could see. One thing that stood out to me, and caused me to question, were the dozens on near empty glass Heinz ketchup bottles all over the house. “Why were there so many ketchup bottles?” I asked myself. They were on every table, stand and counter top. All that remained in each bottle was a stubborn bit of ketchup at the bottom that was near impossible to get out.
I watched as Elton pulled his old, worn overall coat on and headed toward the door. My mom tried to make conversation, asking Elton how he was doing. Elton only grumbled an incoherent response and walked out the door. We followed him to the barn as he climbed onto the ancient tractor he needed to ride through the back fields and out to the tree line. His body was too crippled to make the distance by foot. We walked slowly behind the tractor, as the wheels slowly turned over the rough pasture grass, painfully marking the way ahead.
Once we arrived at the designated spot my sister and I were free to take off on our own. We didn’t often come to these woods, so there was much to discover. We found a blackberry patch not far away and began picking the sweet, ripe fruit; eating as much as we could before loading our hands and pockets to bring back berries for our mom. When we showed her what we had found she pulled a tissue from her pocket and carefully loaded the berries inside. She said, “Go offer some to Elton first and then we can share the rest.” I walked slowly over to the tractor with my sister and mom and watched as Elton was offered the berries.
He looked up, eyes bright and grabbed the tissue filled with berries we had picked. In seconds, one by one, he devoured them all; faster than I had ever seen him move. I was shocked and horrified. We were supposed to share the berries. I wanted my mom to have some too. It was special that she was with us on this day, but Elton had eaten them all- shoveled them into his mouth without a single gasp for air. Never once looking up or pausing to consider.
As we stepped away my mom quieted my soft protests saying, “These are really all Elton’s berries, as we are on his land.” I sulked away, back out into the woods, to find more gifts I could bring my mother. I didn’t understand what had transpired that day, not until I had grown and experienced my own periods of struggle and reflected back to that moment in the woods with Elton.
I had no compassion for the ketchup bottles strewn about Elton’s house, the isolation and the hopelessness that surrounded him. I judged the dirtiness of what I saw and the cruelty with which he treated the cat. As a child I was unlimited. I lived with full access to the abundant offerings of the woods. I had no awareness of lack. I could always find something to nibble on, beautiful flowers and treasures of great personal value to me, while exploring in the woods.
I didn’t know hunger, only the unlimited potential of abundance. Years later when I felt the fear, stress and hopelessness associated with scarcity, as a young adult, I began to understand what I had seen as a child. I had been frustrated with Elton asking “Why did he devour the berries? Acting as if there would never be any more.” I couldn’t see he was starving, that he was home bound, with little to no money and lived on ketchup to survive. All I saw was that he was crippled, angry and alone.
When he received those bright, fresh berries in his hand it was as if his whole being craved them like a drug. He was living at the base level of existence- not in a place of gratitude. He expressed no appreciation for the gift he received because he was not capable of doing so. He took the tissue and consumed the berries without awareness.
As a child I took what happened personally and begrudged his selfish act and as mean behavior. I couldn’t comprehend the larger experience. I was too caught up in my bountiful world of abundance and what I had intended to do with the berries, the excess, after I had consumed my fill. I was proud to give them as a gift to my mother and now they were gone and the grumpy old man had taken them.
That’s how I came to learn the importance of stepping out of my world of plenty to gain empathy and compassion for those who have a different reality. I could no longer be mad and frustrated with Elton’s behavior after experiencing that place of fear and scarcity myself. If we can have empathy for where others have been and where they are coming from it is far easier to reach out and offer a helping hand, to give, without resentment or judgment.
Elton had no idea how to receive. He had shut the door on receiving any light into his world long ago. My later understanding as a young adult opened my heart for love to flow in for Elton. I replaced judgment with forgiveness and love for frustration.
I have learned All of our experiences are important, even the ones where it appears we have stepped out of the perfect flow of life, of receiving the abundance of the Universe. It is then that we are reminded to have gratitude, appreciation and ultimately compassion. In the end it is all perfect and a necessary part of growing in Spirit.
These experiences on our path instill deep heart wisdom and a great love for all who surround us. We are all doing the best we can, with the circumstances at hand. Things have not been easy for me lately and I am in gratitude for the reminder, so I can embrace love and compassion for myself and others.
With that I say, “Thank you, Elton, for scarfing down my precious berries. I am glad that for a brief moment you could experience the sweetness life has to offer. Please forgive me for begrudging you that great indulgence, the second of bliss you stole, in a life filled with hardship and struggle.”
If you would like to hear more stories of my life check out my book, Shattered Into Being, available on my website and Amazon.