With Thanksgiving approaching, a time of celebrating bounty and blessing…with the end of another year approaching, a time of looking back, I found myself thinking once again about harvests…and a conversation several years back that started with a plate made of pink Depression glass.
A plate for decoration, not eating. For hanging on a wall. To be passed down to succeeding generations.
My mother was examining it as I came in the room. I couldn’t recall seeing it before and was mildly curious. While I don’t know now who originally owned it, I do remember my mother’s words, or at least some of them…that there was “no one to leave it to,” and then: “We’re dying out.”
Now, various branches of my family are alive and well and reproducing. But the section of tree of which she spoke has only three limbs, and two of them – my brother and I – are middle-aged, unmarried and childless.
At first I was a bit offended, with a knee-jerk “What are we, chopped liver?” attitude about that plate and its line of succession. It was a family piece, and I was family, and I wanted a connection with those who had gone before, and…
Who would I leave it to?
We were dying out.
* * * * *
It’s curious how a decorative pink plate can trigger a certain line of thought. As I held that plate in my hands, I felt my heart sink a little. Normally I spend very little time regretting my lifelong singleness or lack of progeny. But that delicate plate had come, in a matter of moments, to represent barrenness.
Which now seems rather silly. It was, after all, merely a piece of glass.
But I was thinking, I have no one to leave this to, if I do end up with it. And then I started wondering what I would leave behind me…since I had no offspring. No obvious legacy.
Yet after a minute, standing there in my mother’s dining room, I felt what has been called a “still, small voice” enter my mind. One that said, as if in answer to my unspoken question:
“But I gave you poems.”
At least that’s how I remember it.
And it had me remembering a couple of other things.
The first was a line from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, wherein Jo March, alone in a garret and feeling a little melancholy, says to herself:
“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence, a morsel of fame, perhaps…”
Jo’s story ends differently than she anticipates, as fans of the beloved classic well know. But I also found myself remembering another artistic spinster, with a much different fate: Victorian governess Blanche Glover in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. Rescued from that profession, which she describes in her last letter as “hell on earth,” by poet Christabel LaMotte, she continues her painting, which (spoiler alert!) is not enough to provide her with a livelihood when an “Intruder” threatens the independent life they have made together. Even a small understanding of the extremely limited choices for most women of Blanche’s time is enough to sympathize with her choice to end her life in the Thames.
Blanche, like Jo March, has been given a gift, a seed to plant – but, unlike Jo, she could not see a harvest.
And isn’t that something a writer faces on an almost daily basis? Who will read my book if I write it? Is anyone reading my blog? So I published something…now what?
If no one ever read a word I wrote…would I still write? Would there be any purpose in it?
That was the question at the end of the road started by a pink plate of Depression glass in my mother’s dining room.
* * * * *
With aching poignance, Blanche, unable to afford further supplies for her art or to face the thought of returning to her former profession of governess, writes in the suicide note that also serves as her will:
“…I feel strong in the trust that my Maker will see and forgive all, and will make better use hereafter of my capacities – great and here unwanted and unused – for love and for creative Work. It has indeed been borne in upon me that here I am a superfluous creature. There I shall know and be known.”
Almost every artist, of whatever medium, wishes to “know and be known.” The question I found myself pondering was: if no one ever appreciates your gift – ever purchases it, reads it, views it or admires it…if there’s no “harvest,” is it worth even planting the seed of a book, a painting, a poem, a song? The answer was complicated for me by the belief that artistic talent is a gift from God. Why would He give a gift if it was only to end up “wasted”?
That’s when I knew I had to rethink my definition of harvest.
Unchurched, secular Christian I may be, but somewhere deep within me the same small voice that said “I gave you poems” was still whispering, even more quietly. In the end it didn’t really matter if “the world” never saw or cared about a word I wrote. What mattered, for me or any other artist, was that a gift had been given, for whatever reason, and to give it up or bury it because it might never be seen or appreciated was not acceptable. Perhaps, sometimes, the harvest is simply the words themselves, or the melodies, or the paint on canvas. And God’s appreciation, not man’s.
Words will be my children, my legacy, to be used in trust that the one who gave the gift will provide the audience…even if it’s just an audience of one.
I may have to remind myself of that repeatedly. But every time I do, that plate really does become nothing but a piece of glass.
* * * * *
How about you? Do you have a talent or gift that you feel has been unappreciated, or that you fear will be? What does your idea of a harvest look like? I want to hear from you.