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Starting Point

Day not defined by a nickel


I once went to a writers’ conference in Boston. The conference included classes in which the teacher read short stories written by the students. After the story was read, we would critique the story. One of my classmates, a middle-aged woman, sat near me as her story was read. She squirmed and doodled on a pad as her words were absorbed by the class.

The teacher finished the story. The assault began. At first it was nice and gentle -- like a soft warm wind that comes before a hurricane. The first respondents liked the story. The characters were real, there was a flow, nice imagery. The woman beamed as if she had at last discovered a group who knew her inner truth, her inner worth.

In the story was a five-word sentence: “The vase cost a nickel.” A man raised his hand and harrumphed, “No vase costs a nickel.”

The finger was out of the dyke. Hands shot up. There was an outpouring of comments about the cost of a vase and where such might be bought. Someone shrilled that the question of the nickel price threw the rest of the story into a false light that she had not seen before until the vase problem was introduced. Someone else tried to come to the rescue of the woman, who was by now doodling with a fury. He said that he saw a vase at a flea market in Vermont that went for three cents. The woman kept making tighter and tighter circles.

This went on and on. The woman finally could no longer take it, and she stopped her doodling and stood. Her voice cracking with emotion, she swore there was truth to the nickel vase. And she said that she would not change it. She started to cry. She gathered her things and walked out of the room. The teacher followed her, but the woman never came back.

A man said, “That was some reaction over a nickel. She really lost it over five cents.”

But maybe the nickel was not the issue at all. Perhaps there were other things bothering her that took their toll in the form of a nickel. Things did get out of hand, and one critique led to another. By the time she lost her composure the goodness and beauty of the rest of the story no longer seemed to matter.

A small thing can cause such pain.

Any day’s events can be like a vast collection of nickels. Taken all together they constitute a great wealth: They are the goodness that is human life, for life is like a ceaseless gift of one nickel after another. But there might be a tarnished one in the bunch.

Take that for what it is worth -- a five-cent piece and nothing more -- and value it for its contribution to the accumulating wealth that is your life. Don’t estimate the worth of a day’s wealth through one smudged nickel. Take it for the small change it is and get on with the story that is your life this day.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000