I once heard a story about a man who kept two jars of jelly beans on a high shelf in his kitchen. One day, he’d looked up his life expectancy, and counted out the number of weeks he was expected to have left to breathe the air. Then he counted out that same number of jelly beans and dropped them—plink, plink, plink—into this first, enormous glass jar. He left the second jar empty, and put them both on the shelf.
Every Sunday, this man used to go into his kitchen and take a single jelly bean out of the first jar and drop it into the second. Plink.
At first, the second jar looked pathetically empty, of course, with only a few jelly beans scattered along the bottom. But as time went by, the second jar filled up—first covering the bottom, then adding layer after layer until one day he noticed that the level of jelly beans in each jar was equal. There it was: Half of his remaining life, gone.
I don’t know what happened to him after that, but I wonder. Did he keep on with his Sunday habit, watching the weeks of his remaining life dwindle? Or did he toss the whole experiment into the garbage, disturbed by the starkness of the visual reminder that most of his life was now behind him? What did he do on all the days in between Sundays, knowing that when the week was up, he’d have to move a jelly bean to the second jar? Did moving it change the way he chose to live?
If it didn’t, then what possibly would?
I’m not supposed to be writing about the man with the jelly beans. I’m supposed to be writing about robins, because this is a nature column and it’s springtime, and the robins are back in my neighborhood, hopping around my yard, yanking worms from the garden. Their red breasts are such a welcome spot of brightness against the dull, brown grass. In the mornings, I can hear their songs drifting through my open windows, and I’ll hush my children to hear.
Most robins are expected to have only a short time to sing. Most simply don’t survive the dangers of their first year, bringing the life expectancy of the entire species down to 13 measly months. In 13 months, a robin may be born, fledge, and live for one glorious golden song-filled summer and then when the weather turns, they may take off for warmer lands. When the earth tilts back toward the sun they may return to build a nest, hatch their babies, and watch them fledge. A 56-jelly-bean life expectancy. There would be no second summer. All the more important, then, that they sing during the first.
I know it’s uncomfortable, to consider mortality in stark and unforgiving terms. We are perhaps the only species that does so. We are capable of looking ahead to a day when we, too, will cease to breathe and occupy some space on our earth. It takes courage to face this. Instead of jars of jelly beans, I have two small children to remind me of the passing days. Each time they mark a birthday, it staggers me. Each year I can’t help but do the math in my head: one-eighteenth of my time raising them passed, one-ninth, one-sixth, one-third. It seems my skin is still warm from the first time my newborn babies curled like kittens on my chest. Now they tap my shins with their heels when they sit in my lap. A day is soon coming when I’ll never pick them up again.
How is it I no longer have babies? How is it they have learned to speak—to write!—full sentences? To propel their own bodies all the way around the park where I used to carry them on my back? To run into the arms of their grandparents hardly bothering to look back when I wave good-bye, hardly noticing my departure? I still remember when separation made both of us cry.
Children make my years fly faster. I can’t pretend, as I watch them outgrow their shoes every few months, that my life is stuck in a holding pattern, that I too am not growing older with them. My first jar dwindles. My second grows fuller with every passing week.
If robin babies fledge and fly in the blink of an eye, it’s easy for us to perhaps believe we are luxuriant in our life spans. Of course, everything is relative. Consider the wealth of the robin’s days when compared to, say, the mayfly, which will not live to see a second sunrise. I find it a matter of holy fascination, then, that the mayfly spends some of its limited hours congregating on a small patch of earth and, of all things, dancing.
Compared to the robins and mayflies, perhaps, we’ve got time. It might be tempting to believe that, at some point in some unguaranteed summer, we’ll have more time to sing our own songs, join in the dance, or—I address you literary mamas—write the stories of our souls. Even as the time dashes away from us in an ever-quicker game of catch, we imagine the day when we’ll have those empty hours, waiting to be filled. Once the baby is sleeping through the night. Once the children have gone off to school. Once the children can drive themselves to school. Once we have survived our teenagers and they have flown the nest. Once we’ve paid for college . . . it could go on and on forever. We cling to the belief that eventually we’ll just get past this season, and that’s when we’ll sing our songs, that’s when we’ll write. It’s tempting to think that maybe then we’ll have the time, the maturity, the force of will, the strength of soul to actually write it.
What would you write, though, if you knew there was no second summer?
No one is guaranteed a second summer on this earth. I could try to bury this thought in the back of my mind, but I like to keep it right up front. The knowledge that time is limited has done much good for my writing.
Having children is what made me get serious about writing. I don’t like to admit it—the fact that I was kind of lazy about writing before, that I’d write “when I felt like it,” when inspiration struck, or when I had a deadline. What’s worse, I wrote short stories that didn’t matter to me, or blog posts that I thought would help me gain a following. I spent a lot of time trying to get re-tweeted or pinned or noticed. I wrote a lot of things that I would never care to keep in a portfolio, that I did not wish to leave as a keepsake for my children’s children. I wrote a lot of things I would never waste time on if I had remembered I only had so many jelly beans left.
I suppose I felt like my life would just wind on and on, and one day I’d get around to the writing that mattered to me. Having a baby who sprouted up into a five-year-old kid right before my watching eyes made me realize: Five years isn’t a long time. It’s not a long time to love your babies. It’s not a long time to write what matters.
This is my last of 13 columns here at Literary Mama. I’ve had 13 months in which to sing my song. The thought I wish to leave with you all: Love your babies, and write what matters. You only get so much time to sing.