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*Story Source: “Why the Sky Is Far Away,” from The Barefoot Book of Earth Tales

It’s harvest time, and the markets are piled high with early apples and late tomatoes. This bounty is too easy to take for granted. Every afternoon, I unpack my children’s lunch tiffins and throw out partially eaten sandwiches and untouched, cut fruit. I salvage what I can, but much lands in the garbage. On their father’s side, my children are a single generation away from poverty and hunger: their paternal grandmother was pushed out of bread lines in Hungary in the aftermath of WWII. She worked on a communal farm from an early age and labored to grow enough food to survive. She cringes every time she sees me scrape leftovers into the waste bin.

The Bounty Always at Our Fingertips

In our culture of consumption and disconnectedness from the earth, I find it difficult to create an awareness, for myself and for my kids, about the energy that goes into the production of food.  Of course, the problem is not just food, it’s also stuff, all that stuff that comes out of and goes back into the earth. I’d like to learn to compost and plant a garden to teach my children to appreciate the earth’s yield. Since I’m a Jersey girl more comfortable with my hands in a sale rack than in the soil, it’s going to take some serious preparation. In the meantime, I can try to model consumer restraint (especially by staying away from my beloved Target), and I can share myths and stories that create an awareness that the earth’s abundance is finite and exhaustible.

I found a gem on this subject in The Barefoot Book of Earth Tales, a collection I recently picked up in Watchung Booksellers. “Why the Sky is Far Away,” lyrically retold by writer Dawn Casey and vividly illustrated by Anne Wilson, begins like this:

“In the beginning, the sky was close to the earth. So close you could reach up and touch it. And you could eat it! In those days, people always had enough to eat, without ever having to work for it. . . .Whenever anybody was hungry, they just reached up and tore off a piece of sky. ”

Then the people get greedy and start tearing away huge patches of sky, leaving them to rot. Father Sky warns the people not to waste his gift, and at first they heed his warning. But a festival day comes along, and a woman of enormous appetite named Osato drinks too much palm wine and loses herself in a food reverie (like me in Whole Foods). She pulls down huge swaths of sky. One of the things I love about this telling is that Casey describes all the fabulous ways the sky can taste, like “spicy, sky stew,” “honey sunsets,” “citrus storms,” “golden paw paw and coconut milk.” The reader’s mouth waters along with Osato’s as she gorges herself.

When Osato realizes she has taken more than she can eat, she begs her family and neighbors to consume what she cannot, but everyone is too full from the feast. They groan and hold their stomachs as they try to force down the excess Osato has ripped from the firmament. In the end they leave over, “just a bit of waste.” True to his word, Father sky lets out an enormous sigh as he lifts himself away from the earth and away from the reach of humans forever.

The people know hunger for the first time. Osato wails, and Mother Earth calms her with a gentle promise: “I can feed you. But you will have to work for your living. You will have to learn to plow the fields and sow seeds and harvest crops. . . Take only what you need, and I will give it gladly.” The story equates food with labor, which is an idea I’ve been trying to get my kids to grasp for a long time. It also reinforces that we have a responsibility to the earth, which provides us with LIFE. It reminds us that any one of us could go hungry someday.

In a way, this folk tale has accomplished what steady nudging could not with my kids. As we read this story, we all rolled our eyes and laughed at Osato, even as we identified with her. I’m going to try to pack and buy a little less.  I’ll try to keep Osato on my mind as I stroll through store aisles, salivating.

* * *

After a long day, my children got into a tussle over a piece of gum.  My daughter attempted to pry this treasure from my son’s fingers, and he whacked her. After I intervened, he sobbed a heartfelt, “Sorry.” My daughter, chest heaving, panted, “I do NOT accept your apology.” I sat her down and explained, “Forgiveness is also for the forgiver. When you forgive someone, you let go of the anger in your heart and you become lighter and happier.” “Okaaaay, I forgive you,” she sighed and he fell into her arms.

Lest you think I am an emotional Jedi Knight, you should know I ripped this bit of wisdom directly from an ancient Jewish story called “Rabbi Eleazar and the Beggar,” which I just read to my kids from Eric A. Kimmel’s wonderful collection of holiday folklore, Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the story, a deformed and filthy beggar listens through a crack in the door of the temple as the great Rabbi Eleazar gives a sermon about how everything in creation is perfect in its own way because it has been molded by the hands of God. The hideous beggar approaches the Rabbi to express how moved he feels, but the startled Rabbi, riding home on his horse blurts out, “Heaven shield me from such ugliness!” The beggar is enraged and humiliated.  The Rabbi knows he has acted against his own principles, so he begs the beggar for forgiveness. The beggar refuses to forgive him, so the rabbi shreds his clothes and prostrates himself in the dust at the feet of the beggar and refuses to move. Still, the beggar withholds forgiveness. Each of the Rabbi’s four sons try to convince or bully the beggar into forgiving their father so the patriarch can come home and they can have Rosh Hashanah dinner already, but to no avail. Finally, the Rabbi’s daughter speaks gently to the battered and friendless beggar:

“My friend, the One Who Made You has already forgiven our father. He is always ready to forgive. Our father requires nothing from you. Instead, he afflicts himself for your sake. He understands the bitterness of withholding forgiveness, of storing up malice like stones. He will not leave this spot until you accept this apology and drop this bitter burden from your shoulders.”

The beggar forgives the Rabbi, who cloaks him in his own coat, and takes him home to share the holiday dinner.

This story gets to the heart of why the Days of Awe, the days of self-reflection and atonement encompassing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are so powerful. Atonement is not just about recognizing your sins and shortcomings and making up for them through a fast, it’s also about forgiving yourself and those who have hurt you so that you can move on and flourish. Forgiveness is the doorway to renewal. Letting go of negative emotion is the key to a fresh start in the New Year. Thank you to storyteller and folklorist Eric A. Kimmel for giving me a narrative way to express this wisdom to my kids!