I once facilitated a high school literature class that included reading Annie Dillard’s book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Dillard begins chapter two by sharing that when she was a small child she’d sometimes hide a penny in her neighborhood for someone to find.
She’d write out directions with chalk that lead to the penny, with statements like “Surprise Ahead” or “Money This Way,” and imagine the excitement of the person smart enough to follow the directions to the prize.
Later in chapter 2, Dillard refers to nature as providing “lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.”
She says: “The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.”
Dillard is suggesting there are all sorts of kindnesses out there just waiting for us to find. The warmth of the sun, the scent of a flower, the laughter of a child, these are all intended to remind us that the world is a wonderful place.
By simply being alive we are provided opportunities to be the recipient of what Dillard calls “a generous hand” (substitute another phrase or word if you prefer). Additionally and equally important, we also can serve this purpose by strewing “pennies” of our own out into the world.
Through acts of ordinary thoughtfulness and kindness, like holding open doors and smiling at the people we meet as we go about our day. By taking one extra step to notice and then do the nice things we can do.
Several years ago I facilitated an online kindness class called Kindness Blessings that involved the reading of a book called “My Grandfather’s Blessings” written by Rachel Naomi Remen.
Early in the book, Remen tells the reader that most people are given more blessings than they receive. I found this to be a very important concept and have spent a lot of time over the years thinking about it.
For one, I think it means we need to refine our ability to receive things. But I think it’s even more than that.
It has more to do with refining our ability to NOTICE things, both the things we receive and the opportunities we have to offer.
While facilitating that online class I was laid flat by a stomach virus. I hadn’t been that sick for several years and, to put it in perspective, the prior time was with appendicitis, no fun and games.
My wife and older daughter were away, and my younger daughter was home with me, apparently with the same bug. On top of that, we were away from home at the time, living in France for a year while on sabbatical.
Being sick and alone so far from home could cause one to feel very lonely. Instead, a neighbor showed up with bread and soup. Another friend not only asked if there was anything she could do, she phoned my daughter’s school to make sure they’d know she would be out for a few days.
Maybe these things sound small, maybe not.
Put another way, in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” Dillard asks, “But who gets excited by a mere penny?”
That’s our problem, isn’t it? We think that what we offer or what we receive isn’t big enough, as if finding a penny hidden by a 6 year-old child isn’t a big deal.
Dillard goes on: “It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.”
The look on my neighbor’s face when she delivered the food and the tone of concern on the phone when speaking with our other friend was moving. They may have been among the kinds of things that at one point in my life I would have missed or, worse, taken for granted.
Instead, as I lay in back in bed that night reflecting on my day, disturbed by periodic stomach cramps, I was filled with gratitude:
“The world is in fact planted in pennies.”
So among our important roles in life include taking time to both plant and find “pennies.” While doing that, I encourage you to imagine that everyone else is doing the same thing.
Surprise ahead, indeed!