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I reach above my head to re-position the newly-washed ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers, my hands still a little wet and soapy.
Then, the inevitable. One of the shakers escapes my slippery grasp and crashes to the floor.
My husband calls from the kitchen, “Are you okay?” But it’s all I can do to just stand there silently, holding my grief gently. I lean against the wall and look down at the shards, too many to even consider repairing the piece. This is an heirloom inherited from my maternal grandparents, who traveled to Kodiak, Alaska in 1976 to visit one-year-old me (and my parents, I suppose). The ceramic has been hand-painted, and it depicts Inuit dancers and drummers in a traditional ceremony of some sort. On the bottom of the shaker is my grandmother’s handwriting noting the date and location.
It’s not that I love the shakers, or even that I find them useful. But they exist as a tangible reminder of my grandparents, a thing that connected us in the past, a thing that connects past to present. And now, here, the thing breaks. There will be no more tangible connection–at least through this thing–of the past to the future.
I feel myself move through the stages of grief rapidly, but even as I struggle to accept this loss I surprise myself with this thought: “The shaker was already broken.”
An old story in Buddhism is that an abbot of a monastery was given a beautiful, expensive tea set. One day, a young monk accidentally breaks the delicate tea pot as he serves tea to the Abbot. He trembles in fear–what will the Abbot say?–but the Abbot joyfully exclaims, “Oh, thank goodness! You have freed me from the fear of breaking this elegant tea pot.”
Or another story: Ajahn Chah, a twentieth-century Thai monk, held up a perfect, lovely tea cup to his followers and said, “This cup is already broken. When you understand that this cup will not last forever, then every moment with it is precious.”
In a way, the minutes that lapsed between my breaking the shaker and my accepting its loss were the only moments when I truly appreciated it. For years it has sat on a shelf, completely ignored. But in its brokenness, even as I was losing it forever, I remembered my grandparents with renewed joy and sorrow. I experienced my loss of them, again, and I reclaimed the joy of all the precious years shared with them.
We do not need to fear breaking and losing our cups, our tea pots, our expectations, our dreams, and even our lives, because they are already broken, already lost.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.