I saw an Instagram post this week that I just can’t stop thinking about.
A maple tree had been leaning alarmingly close to power lines, so the utility company took it down. The tree wasn’t in good shape; termites had been hollowing it out for years. But still, it takes a long time to grow something that majestic, and it’s sad to see it on the ground.
This particular tree was on the campus of our local Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Unbeknownst to them, the maple’s gradual dying had created a space for life to thrive. A colony of bees had moved in, becoming fruitful and multiplying for years–until the chainsaws arrived. The felling of the tree didn’t bother the bees; they were in their winter cluster, with the queen at the center and her worker bee ladies shivering around her to generate warmth. It wasn’t until spring, when rising temperatures and blossoming flowers brought the bees outside in search of pollen, that the College discovered their bee problem.
I don’t know their initial reaction to this discovery–if it were me, there would have been a lot of hyperbolic shrieking–but their response was amazing. They called our neighbors, Rachel and Ofer Yehezkel, who operate Spring Honeybees from their back yard. The Yehezkels suited up, bringing a smoke pot and a contraption that looks like a strong-but-gentle shop vac. Over the course of three hours, they carefully cut apart the downed trunk, vacuumed out the entire colony–over 40,000 bees, including the precious queen–and relocated them to a hive in their own back yard. Once the colony is well-established, Rachel and Ofer will move the hive back to the Rabbinical College. There, the bees will continue pollinating trees, flowers, and vegetable gardens in a two-mile radius, making some pretty delicious honey while they’re at it.
When I first glanced at Spring Honeybees’ Instagram post, it looked horrifying; seeing all those bees inside the open tree trunk gave me the willies. As I pondered the story, though, I realized what an amazing image of hope and perseverance it is for our times. It’s a tale of how many things that looked like tragedy and disaster actually worked for good, because of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of both bees and human beings. Literally, a swarm of life had emerged where it looked like there was only death. How fitting that this happened around both Passover and Easter–the holy days that remind us of God’s power to change our mourning into dancing.
Collectively, we have had our fill of mourning, as COVID-19 has been the source of so much devastation. There’s been literal death, of course–561,000 souls in the US and 31.2 million worldwide, as of this writing–but we’ve also experienced the “death” of our usual way of doing almost everything. Much of this has been tragic. But buried in all this loss and disorientation has been a hidden thriving. We discovered that business-as-usual isn’t always for the best, and that there is more than one way to do almost anything.
If you’d asked me in 2019 if I had ever considered giving a Zoom retreat, I would have responded with a blank stare. My pivot to virtual retreats in 2020 was made out of expediency–a way to keep working and offer spiritual nourishment to people who could no longer come out to my programs. In these gatherings, however, I encountered so many people who never could have come out to my programs. The mother trying to get her six-month-old daughter to sleep, for example, could not have attended my Lenten evening of reflection even if I’d held it just a few miles from her home. Neither could the woman viewing it from a hospital bed in her living room. And the best two-hour retreat in the world would not have drawn participants from both California and Northern Ireland, as one of my early offerings did. This means that the need was always there, but I couldn’t see it until the pandemic forced me to do things differently.
I keep hearing stories like this. Ask almost anyone how their year has been, and after a legit litany of woe they will reveal a few hidden gems–the obligation it was a relief to put down, the surprising joy discovered in quarantine, the novel experiment they’re glad they tried. Like bees in a fallen tree trunk, life emerged where it looked like there was only death.
After an unthinkable year, the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine has given us hope of a return to normal at last. LIke many of you, I am longing to resume travel, choral singing, and raucous family gatherings. In other ways, though, I hope we never return to normal–by which I mean “the way it’s always been done.” If we’ve learned anything from the coronavirus—besides the fragility of life and the importance of social responsibility—it is this: there is always a different way to do a thing. And different–as my friend Lauren DuCharme says when speaking about diversity–is not another word for bad.
Whatever your new normal is, may your ordinary (and far-from-ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed.
Call to mind again that image of honeybees thriving in the rotting tree trunk. How has the “death” of your pre-pandemic routines created space for life to thrive? What do you want to hold on to, even when this whole wretched mess is behind us? I’d love to hear about it. Kindly share in the comment section below!