On the phone with my cousin Richard last night, we talked about how life gives you materials you don’t often sign up for, then you have to figure out what to do with them. “A rabbi once told me we all get a mystery box,” he said, and my mind lit up: that’s exactly it.
My mystery box has all kinds of challenges and blessings in it that are so far beyond my imagination, yearnings, and beliefs of where I would land in this life. The little Brooklyn girl who loved to draw pictures all day, and when tucked in her bed as a New Jersey teen, would listen to Cousin Brucie play the hits on her transistor radio could never have fathomed her life decades later.
My mystery box, as I opened it to another layer, then another, revealed two bouts of cancer, one exceedingly common and the other exceedingly rare, but also three (how did that happen? Well, we know, but still….) children of passionate intelligence and daring creativity. As someone always as in love with places as with people, who knew I would end up marrying a fifth-generation Kansas, and after decades of trying to find a way, actually buying the family land to continue stewarding and protecting? Likewise, I couldn’t have known that the writing and good witnesses at crucial times that would save my life would help me pay it forward.
But perhaps it’s not accurate to say we open the box ourselves: the mystery box opens us. I used to joke with my friend Bobby that we’re here to break our hearts open, and the older I get, the truer it is. Yet what increases our ability to love — as long as we don’t choose the rabbit hole of hardening our hearts and shutting ourselves away from life — also shows us just how fragile, vulnerable, and powerful we are. I hear this in Kelley Hunt’s “That’s What Makes You Strong,” a great Jesse Winchester song. The more we dance with the contents of the mystery box, the greater our capacity to feel life with all its heartbreak hills, annoyance potholes, mercy daybreaks, and glory vistas.
I also love the idea of the mystery box because I collect wooden boxes. Why? I don’t know, but I adore the smell of cedar and other woods, the beauty of a well-crafted box, and idea that little treasures can be gathered and held in such art. Our mystery boxes collect us too, gathering all the parts of us that seemed separate (but truly aren’t) over time so that we can discover more of the whole cloth of our lives.
What we find or what finds us in our mystery box is sometimes terrifying, often beautiful, and always ours. What’s in your mystery box?