by Nancy Evans Bush, MA
In a small scene from Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, Everyman’s wife, Mrs. Antrobus, casts into the ocean a stoppered bottle containing What Every Woman Knows. In the face of global disaster, she is saving something for the future.
As a teenager, I agonized to know the message in that bottle. If only, I thought, if only I knew, it would reshape my life. The secret revealed, I would be transformed from the blundering, over-emotional self of my inner despair to Wise One. It would happen in an eye-blink, like Wonder Woman’s twirling into instant invulnerability.
Alas, it was not to be.
To be quite honest, not only have the secret words never manifested, even the printed words have disappeared. Hunting this evening for the quotation, I discovered that my personal archaeologists have been at it again, carrying away yet another artifact. The Wilder has vanished from its spot on the bookshelf. (Clues abound. I know which daughter is a Wilder fan; besides, her sister’s acquisitions concern only memorabilia and the family photographs; furthermore, the suspect, newly married, has gone to live in England.) At any rate, the book is nowhere to be found. My past disappears around me while I am still using it.
No one, least of all a parent, should be surprised. Mrs. Antrobus’s bottle undoubtedly contained something like, “There are no secrets and no possessions; know that you are already packed to move.”
It happens to all of us. Even the planet is in constant rearrangement. Iowa topsoil blows to the Maritimes; what was once Mt. St. Helen drifts onto the Adirondacks. Bits of the Parthenon reappear on mantlepieces in Cincinnati, and Pacific Island war canoes rest under glass in New York City. A small ornament from Salisbury Cathedral once fell upon my father. It alarmed him considerably but did no damage, and he emigrated with it at the turn of the 20th century to the States, where it sat for sixty-two years on the desk in his study, out of the weather.
Taken singly, the shifts are negligible. Over time, though, one can imagine the world rearranging, flinging off shreds of itself and its manufactures, scattering them about like bits of a kaleidoscope, remaking the face of itself. Always, somehow, it is in motion. As are we all.
What is it the nutritionists say—that every four years our cells totally reproduce? We are made new, without even knowing it. These are not changes on the order of Minit-Rice or Nescafe (“sudden coffee,” a friend used to call it). Convenience foods have changed our moral sense. Real transformation is a slow-cooking change, a subtle shifting over time.
At the office, we have been much engaged with transformation lately. There is talk of a conference to deal with NDE aftereffects—a reflection of growing awareness that although the transforming event may come all in a rush, adjustment to it is apt to be slow and sometimes painful. Further, there has been an increase in contacts with people needing help with their own experiences and their effects, If there are words we could put into a bottle, we do not yet know what they are.
Perhaps talk of transformation is simply in the air. It is that time of year—of angels and Maccabees, a star in the sky and lamps on an ancient altar, the wink of menorah candles and Christmas tree lights caught in the windows of millions of houses. For some there is awareness of another radiance in the private sky. We think of Events, and of lights. Wasn’t everything to be different afterward? Whatever happened to the transformation?
The answer is more simple—and more ordinary—than any of us likes to acknowledge. The message has been washing in for millennia. As Pogo famously observed, “We has met the enemy, and they is us.” We is also the transformation, if there is to be one, and the change, the working out of promises. How disappointingly ordinary it is, and how immensely difficult. No secret formula. Just us, and every day.
How tempting to expect that the Event brings with it an instant Answer! And yet—how long could it have taken for Abram to receive the Covenant? How long for the Buddha to make his trip into the world? How long for a child to be born, even with angels? Oh, it sounds so easy. I will make of you a blessing. Peace on Earth, good will to all people. The hard part has come afterward, whether one accepts the stories as literal fact or as metaphor.
“Inch by inch,” says the children’s song, “row by row, gonna make this garden grow.” That is the way it happens. When the light seems to have gone out, only its recollection like a night-light behind our eyes, then the true work of change can begin. The dazzle and wonder of festival lights and loveliness give way to the ordinary light of dailiness. (What a let-down!) This is when the true work, happens.
Now it is the time of the New Year. We wait the dropping of a ball of light in Times Square, long for the light of a remembered inner experience, and fear the dropping of a nuclear light from the skies. Somewhere in our minds move the dark hosts of Tolkein’s Mordor, the destroying Ecthroi of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door. What is the true work of ordinariness when the missiles are in place, when the other wars go on?
Perhaps it is true that the growing number of near-death experiencers with their altered values and attitudes represent the beginning of a shift in global consciousness. Perhaps it is coincidence, or a perception, a wish, that this be true. I suspect it makes little difference. Whatever the number in aggregate, no one is more than one, and the work is still to be done. Even knowing the blueprint, we can do the work only one by one by one. Ants and tourists carry away pieces of things; one at a time, slates cut from the Welsh hills roof Europe and the world; grain by grain, sands become an aridity of desert or a protectiveness of dune. With every word, with every action, with every smallest decision, we are creating whatever is.
Dear heaven, how triteness takes on an air of such urgency! And yet, it is—ordinary.
This household, like millions of others, watched a much-talked-about television drama, “The Day After,” about the start of a nuclear war over the American Heartland. Mid-way through, as tension reached its height, Adam, 16, headed for—where else?—the kitchen. Hearing cupboard and refrigerator doors opening and closing as the show’s climax approached, I followed, to see him standing there with a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese.
“Oh, Adam,” I snapped, “not now!” Anxiety affects mothers, too.
He grumped back to the living room and slouched unhappily in his chair. From the doorway, I looked at him—in rumpled denim, needing a haircut, his homework not finished. On the screen, young men barely older than he, in military uniforms, barked instructions and pushed levers. It looked all so real. Abruptly, I turned back to the kitchen, took down the box of macaroni and cheese, and put water on to boil.
Adam appeared at the door, an odd expression on his face. Using a phrase more often employed when he wants funds, he said, “What a mom!” Then again, “What a mom!” And with his arm around my shoulder, we turned back to watch the oddly beautiful arcs of missile trails lift into a clear blue sky.
In the face of tragedy, the transfiguration of the ordinary, offering inexpressible hope. This is the way it will happen, moments and actions, one by one by one.
Goodnight, Mrs. Antrobus, wherever you are. And to all, peace on earth.
On Minit-Rice and Transformation was first published in the newsletter Vital Signs, Winter, 1984, and is used by permission of the International Association for Near-Death Studies.