Tag Archives: The Reefs

A Life Made From Crumbs


Image courtesy Pixabay

In this story, I will attempt to weave together a stale Nutrigrain bar, a trip to Bermuda, the loneliness of mothering, two sparrows, and an Anglo-Saxon parable from the Venerable Bede.  Hold on to your butts, kids, because THIS is where a liberal arts degree can take you…

Last week, I took the two littles to the beach for a week.  And you know how–even on vacation–you’re still The Mom?  Butt wiping, breakfast fixing, tantrum abiding, sunscreen applying Mom.  I hit a point on Wednesday when the black cloud of sadness that nips at my heels caught up with me, all because of a stale Nutrigrain bar. When I asked Carlos if he wanted Cheeries for breakfast, he said “Yes!”…but he didn’t eat them.  So I gave him some grapes, which he stomped into the carpet.  So I asked him if he would eat a cereal bar and he said, “YES!”  He didn’t.  He smeared it into the rented yellow couch and giggled.

It broke me.  My motherator locked up.

I retreated to my bedroom where, in the space of two minutes, my frustrating morning escalated into a sobbing fit.  “I will die alone. No one gives a shit about me.  Why should they? I can’t even feed my kids.  I suck at taking care of them.  No one takes care of ME. I am so tired and lonely and tired of being lonely and this is just the way life is and you might as well suck it up.  This is as good as it gets. You are born alone, you die alone, with some yammering and distraction in between. Oh, and you’re overweight, you haven’t written in a week and that spot on your belly is probably ringworm.”

At that moment, in that despair, I saw my life as this long string of me waiting to be handed whatever was left over, whatever was unwanted, whatever was not quite good enough.

I was still holding the remains of the Nutrigrain bar.  Instead of wiping it into the wastebasket, I slid open the glass door and stepped out onto the balcony.  I crumbled the apple filling onto the glass-topped cafe table then stepped back inside.  I took a deep breath and sank into the rented yellow chair to stare listlessly out the window from the air-conditioned comfort of my room.  Because when you’re going to have a snot-slinging fit about how miserable your life is, it’s best to do it while enjoying the view from a beachfront condo while your two healthy kids watch PBSKids in the other room.

Within a few minutes, a sparrow hopped onto the balcony railing then down to the table.  She pecked at the crumbs before flitting away.  She came back with a companion and the two of them made a feast from my leftovers.  The smashed cereal bar that had broken my spirit–to them it was a banquet beyond imagining.

As I watched them reveling in their treasure, I remembered a little sparrow from Bermuda, when Richard and I went there for the first time in about 2002, maybe 2003.  We stayed at a fantastic resort called The Reefs in a cliffside room.  One morning, a sparrow perched on our balcony.  It hopped down to the terra cotta tile floor to search for crumbs.  I noticed that one of its legs was misshapen.  It stuck out to the side at a painful angle, but it didn’t seem to slow the little bird down.  That leg was the leg the bird had been given–what choice did it have?  We named the little bird “Gimpy” and we adopted him as our own pet project.

For the rest of the week, I smuggled scones, dinner rolls, breadsticks, tea sandwiches and biscuits back to our room to feed Gimpy.  There was a German waitress at the dinner service who saw me wrapping rolls in a linen napkin.  When I told her why I was doing it, she brought a basket of rolls from the kitchen and whispered, “For your leetle buhd.”

I was sad to leave Gimpy, but it’s not like we could take him with us. He had to live his life, a life of crumbs, but a life of crumbs in Berumda. We had to leave him to that, to love him as best we could, while we could, then we had to go our way.

Now, you Christians are probably humming, “I sing because I’m happy!  I sing because I’m free!  His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me!”  I love that song.  But here’s another thought on sparrows and eternity and whether or not we matter.

The Venerable Bede, a monk from Anglo-Saxon England, wrote this story in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 627, so he’s not on Twitter @VenerableBede):

“When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your lords and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”

All we get is this swift flight through a warm hall, picking up the crumbs from a great feast. It can be enough.  We make joy for ourselves by feeding frail birds on stolen bread.  We make a life from crumbs. We keep flying.

Imagine the delight Richard and I felt when we returned to The Reefs six months later and found Gimpy alive and kicking on the terrace.  That was a good day, a sweet day.  We stood there on the edge of a cliff, in the middle of a vast ocean, in the last year of our life together, and we laughed into the wind because our little bird lived.

That’s the story that came to me last week.  I flew out of that dark place on sparrow’s wings.

There Is This

there is this

New Year’s Eve finds me wistful.  Contemplative.  To be honest, I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve much.  There’s such expectation that it will Be. Big. Fun.  I never seem to be able to be present, even when I’m all dressed in sequins and have a glass of champagne in my hand.  That plodding moment when we count down to an exact moment on the clock…then we find that the exact second passes and the one after it is just another second in the billions we live and no more “new” than the one before it.

Years are created by humans.  The changing of one to the next?  Sometimes leaves me feeling anticlimactic.

Or maybe it’s the cold medicine.  I dunno.

I remember one New Year’s Eve in particular, the last one I celebrated with Richard, six months before he was diagnosed with leukemia.  We had just bought a house and moved in together.  He had finished up a grueling semester of teaching.  Instead of going somewhere new on our traditional trip between Christmas and New Year’s, we decided to go somewhere familiar instead.  We returned to The Reefs in Bermuda for a week of pink sand and drinks in the hot tub.  Ahhhhh.

It should have been relaxing, but I had a Plan.

We had the love.  We had the respect.  We had the house.  We had the commitments.  According to my plan, it was time to get Married, by jinkies.  And what better place to expect a proposal than on a pink sand beach at midnight on New Year’s Eve?  I had it all planned out.  In MY mind.  I bought the black velvet dress with the sequins scattered across the shoulders.  I bought the beautifully ridiculous shoes.  We dined and we drank champagne.  We danced on the veranda to “At Last.”  We wore silly hats.

And instead of being present for all that fun, I was wrapped up in a big ball of resentment because the hours kept ticking by and he hadn’t asked me to marry him even though this was the PERFECT setting and….GAH.  He was blowing it!

My mood improved after midnight when I finally let my plan go.  And got out of those stupid shoes.  We put on sweats and walked down to the beach.  He smoked a Cuban cigar and I drank a last glass of champagne.  Not such a bad night after all, there under the stars and by the sea–once I got out of what was supposed to be and looked around at what was.

A gray-haired man in a tuxedo came down to the beach all alone.  He carried one gold balloon close to his chest.  We wished him a happy new year.  He returned the wish.  He held up the balloon, shrugged, then he started to cry.  “I lost my brother, David, eleven years ago.  Damn AIDS.  I promised him that I’d always remember him and send him a balloon whenever there was a good party that he had to miss.  Seems silly, right?”  I put my hand on his arm as the ocean wind thumped the gold balloon against his chest.  Not silly at all.

The three of us stood there close together while he told us about David.  He held the balloon aloft and said, “Happy New Year, David!  I love you.”  As he let it go and we watched the balloon sail heavenward, I raised my glass and Richard lifted his cigar.  I gave the man a long hug and he returned to the hotel.

I’ve been thinking about that night today.  About David and the gold balloon.  About Richard, who did ask me to marry him, but not that night.  How we live so much of our lives outside of the present, in memory or in plans.  It all reminded me of this poem by Barbara Ras, which I give to you now as a New Year’s wish:


You Can’t Have It All

by Barbara Ras

But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man’s legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.


May you live in the New Year, and what’s left of the one we already have.  May you breathe deep and know that you are loved, the second before midnight and the second after it.

Mope On the Plane

The Reefs, Bermuda

The Reefs, Bermuda

See this hotel?  This is The Reefs and it’s one of my favorite places in the world.  It’s the place where I discovered that Bermuda really does have pink sand, right there on that pristine, private beach.  It’s where I learned to take tea at 4pm every afternoon on that veranda overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  It’s where I learned that fish make a lot of noise underwater.  When we snorkeled around those rocks, right beside the parrot fish and the yellow tangs, I heard a sound like Rice Krispies just after the milk is poured on–the sound of fish nibbling on the coral reef.  It’s where I learned that you NEVER tell other travelers what you paid for your vacation because it turns out that we paid about 20% of what other people had paid to be there!

It’s also where Richard gave me a piece of advice that I remember to this day, especially on Sunday evenings when my brain is turning towards Monday.

“Mope on the plane, Ashley.  Mope on the plane.”

We were sitting in two of those cushylounge chairs on the pink crescent of beach.  It was our last day of vacation in Bermuda.  Seven days of pink sand, conch fritters, evening dances, afternoon tea, scooters, Dark and Stormy drinks in the hot tub, kayaking, snorkeling, and wishes made under the moon gate.  Our flight wasn’t until later that afternoon, so we had stowed our bags with the concierge in order to spend every possible minute on that beach.  He was enjoying himself.  I was pouting because we had to leave.  It wasn’t fair–other people were just arriving.  Other people had another week to go.  Other people came to The Reefs EVERY YEAR.  Some people even got to live on Bermuda.  But not us.  We had to go home.  

I wasn’t talking much.  I was nursing my hurt.  The only conversation I seemed capable of making was, “I can’t believe we have to leave.”  Finally, the man who could shrug off most anything pulled his head off of the rolled up towel he had made into a pillow and said, “Ashley!  Mope on the plane!  You are wasting precious moments of THIS on THAT.  I’ll talk about leaving when we’re in the shuttle or at the airport, but right now….NO.”  

I think that’s pretty smart stuff for a Sunday night.  How much of life do we spend moping while we’re still on vacation…metaphorically?  How much Sunday gets eaten up with dragging our feet towards Monday?  How many days do we grind through in anticipation of vacation?  (I know I am right now…the count is 26) 

So now when I want to stay present in the good times, I remind myself to “mope on the plane!”  Even these days, when my passport has expired and I plan vacations around things that can entertain a toddler.   We spent two beautiful vacations at The Reefs–once for spring break and once for New Year’s.  I was lucky to have pink sand between my toes, even if I had to come home eventually.