a story by Gilles Côté


Tree   I woke up hours before dawn. Anxious thoughts immediately began whirling around in my head. The preceding few weeks at school had been very stressful. As I lay there in bed, I could not let go of some of those things that sometimes risk taking the joy out of teaching: a pointed remark made by a parent; students testing to see how hard they could push the buttons before all of proverbial hell broke loose; the pile of essaysthat should have been marked two weeks before but which was still sitting on my desk buried under a mound of other things to do; an impatient exchange of words between overworked fellow teachers...

   When negative feelings threaten to overwhelm me, as they did that morning, I try to focus on something that brings me a bit of peace or joy. Searching for a small oasis of rest during those sleepless pre-dawn hours, I remembered an incident which had taken place a few weeks earlier.

   It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny Saturday in early Spring and I was baby-sitting my 5 year old grandson Daniel. The cherry trees and apple trees beside our house had just been pruned leaving branches and twigs strewn all over our driveway and yard. I decided that it was time for some cleaning up. I knew, however, that Daniel would not be able to stand still very long if I did not somehow keep him busy. I therefore asked him to help me pick up twigs. I did not expect much help from him, but I hoped he would be distracted long enough to allow me to get the job done.

   Daniel, I soon found out, had his own agenda. He assailed me with a constant barrage of comments and questions on an amazing array of miscellaneous topics. Every twig he picked seemed to trigger a desire to share his thoughts. He talked to me about the motion of the planets around the sun, about his personal trials and tribulations in kindergarten, and even about the feeding habits of his goldfish. I sometimes stopped to listen. Most often, I just nodded and more or less ignored him. I had things to do and this incessant chatter was slowing me down.

   Thus things would have stood, and the morning would have passed, just another moment in a succession of moments, but for what happened next. For the hundredth time since we had started, Daniel paused with a single twig in his tiny hand, looked at me and half asked, half stated: "I'm a good helper, aren't I?" In response to his question, I did what any good grand-parent would do; I stretched the truth somewhat and told him that indeed he was a good little worker. For a full two minutes after that he was uncharacteristically quiet. Then he turned to me and added with the conviction and self-assurance that only a small child can have : "You know grand-papa, we were made to help each other."

   As I lay awake thinking about this precious bit of wisdom from my grandson, my imagination started wandering. It may have been because I was on the verge of falling back to sleep that I was not at all surprised to find myself in our front yard where Jesus and his twelve apostles were picking twigs. Even the most unlikely happening in a dream does not surprise the dreamer. I found the scene quite natural. After all, the job needed to be done.

    Even when I came closer to them, they paid no attention to me. I could hear what they were saying to each other.

   "I'm the best twig picker anywhere" Andrew boldly insisted.

   "I have 78 twigs. How many do you have?" asked Matthew.

   "I've got more than you" responded Andrew with a satisfied smirk on his face.

   "I'm the fastest twig picker around." Philip boasted as he ran from twig to twig.

   And James muttered impatiently, "Your picking the wrong twigs. That's why our fire never burns properly."

   Before James had finished, Thomas added, "You don't know the first thing about picking twigs. Look at me. I'll show you how it's done"

   "Anyone who is not serious about picking twigs, should not be here." said Simon as he turned his back on the others.

   "If I were head twig picker" said Judas under his breath, "I certainly wouldn't do it that way. We'll never get a good stack of twigs using that approach."

   Peter, who could no longer stand the constant bickering, shouted, "Would you guys stop talking and fooling around. Can't you see I'm trying to work? I'm the only one who does any real twig picking around here!"

Jesus, who was standing quietly by himself a little distance away from them, listened to what they were saying and he was very sad. He bent down and slowly started to write on the ground with the twig he was holding in his hand. Then he looked at the apostles and gently said to them, "Guys, you're missing the point. The twigs are not that important. What is important is picking them together. Don't you know that we were made to help each other? If you're very fast at picking twigs, then help the one who is very slow. If you know a better way of picking twigs, share your knowledge with the others. If you're stronger and can lift a larger stack of twigs, help the one who is weaker carry his load. And you Peter, don't be so proud as to think that you can do it all by yourself. Let the others give you a hand. They were made to help you. Be humble enough to let them serve you when you need help. Only then can they be one with you. Only then can you be one with me."

   These were, of course, but fanciful images and voices created by an over active imagination on that early morn. But I could not help but think afterwards that Jesus would have enjoyed picking twigs with my grandson. Daniel was still too young to be an efficient worker, but he was certainly already a very good helper. He helped me remember that what really mattered was not so much getting the job of learning and teaching done, but that it is the loving in the doing that makes all the difference in the world.

 ©Gilles Côté, 2000