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The Empty Plate

By: Donna R. Wood, Existential Coach

For many years, as long as I can remember, my grandmother and great grandmother held to a tradition that I have no idea of the true origins. Perhaps it was something they came up with on their own, or maybe it was something that has been handed down for centuries. In my Celtic research, I have found several references to different variations of this tradition, but I cannot say that my grandmothers’ tradition came from these. It is the tradition of the ‘Empty Plate’.

I don’t know if I am the only one to have noticed, or took the time to ask why, but my grandmothers would always set an empty plate at the holiday table. When I was old enough to count is when I first discovered this. Grandma would ask how many people do we have today, and I would count them one by one. Then she would hand me that many plates plus one. Once I had told her she had given me one too many, and she replied, “No, it is just the right number. Maybe you miscounted.”

We set the table and placed all the chairs around. I was certain every time there was an extra place at the table, but when it came time to eat there was never an unoccupied chair. As a child, I was baffled by this. I counted and re-counted many times. I asked Grandma how she always knew to add one plate to the table. Her only response was, “There’s always enough for one more.” By the appearance of my grandparents’ kitchen, I never doubted that as a fact.

It was several years later when I noticed that each holiday there was always one unexpected guest. Sometimes the guest was a happy surprise. Sometimes the guest was someone who had nowhere else to go, or someone who just showed up at the door. Not a single year passed that the empty place at the table was not filled by someone.

When I became a parent and we had holiday meals by ourselves, I continued this tradition, and continue to do so. There has not been a single holiday in which that plate has not been used. Most often the place has been filled by those who have nowhere else to go. It has been filled by those who have been used, abused, thrown away, cast aside or just alone in the world. We have entertained people from every walk of life, from all over the world.

I am grateful for those who have and will use the empty plate. I realize how much I need them, more than they need me. I confess, for many years it was the act of carrying on what my grandma had always done, but today, it is different. Maybe, just maybe, Grandma knew something all those years that I never recognized, or perhaps refused to recognize. Maybe she knew that when we sit down to pray, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest…” it is a prayer that will always be answered, in the immediate.

Have a Merry Christmas, and may the empty plate always find a use!

Breaking the Chrysalis

The butterfly is a flying flower…  ~Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun

by: Donna R. Wood

Most people at the age of five dream of being something extraordinary like a firefighter, doctor, lawyer or some other high level profession, but not me. I wanted to be a flower. Flowers were soft, delicate, and beautiful. My grandma and I would pick wildflowers in the fields and ditches along the highway, bring them home, and put them in a vase on the table. I would marvel at the menagerie of colors and design. Oh, how I wanted to be one of them. They were perfect in every way.

That’s the trouble with people; none of us are perfect. We go through life collecting imperfections born out of bad decisions, mistakes, or even through circumstance. We hold on to these imperfections, packing them neatly inside and drag them with us wherever we go. We become so weighed down by all this unnecessary self-perception of imperfection, we cannot begin to imagine the idea of taking flight in life.

I dragged around bag after bag of guilt, worry, bitterness, and regret. The weight of these bags became more than I could carry, but I insisted on taking them with me wherever I went. I would try to fly, only to find myself confined in the chrysalis of the life I had made for myself. I had constructed walls around me so high and thick that no one could get in, and in the process trapped myself inside.

It was dark in that chrysalis. Yet over time, the darkness became a source of comfort. It was familiar. I knew each pain and suffering by name and date. I knew all the characters that had played a role in their creation. I would reminisce in their moments of completion. I began to live in the memory of all that had been, and my world became very small, ending where the chrysalis began.

One day, I stopped struggling to get out. I just stopped. It was a pointless effort. I couldn’t do it. I thought I wasn’t strong enough. I thought I wasn’t perfect enough. In reality, I wasn’t brave enough. I was scared of all the new pains and sufferings that might be out there. It was painful inside the chrysalis, but the risk to emerge was too great. All the what-ifs came into play. What if I get hurt again? What if I’m not good enough? What if…what if…what if… If a butterfly stays too long in the chrysalis it will die. It will suffocate in its own skin, never having felt the soft summer breeze that lifts it to flight.

Every chrysalis has a weak point, a place in the wall that can and should be broken. But how? I learned, inside the chrysalis, where the source of true strength lies – inside us. We have to take that deep breath and expand until the walls break, and we are free. When a butterfly is inside the chrysalis, at the moment before it emerges, it swallows air from the outside world to expand its thorax and break the chrysalis open at the weakest point.

When the butterfly emerges it is no longer a caterpillar. It cannot carry the extra baggage from its previous state with it. The butterfly must leave behind the days of being a caterpillar. It must leave behind the days of struggling to survive – to find food, hide from predators, and live each day until the next. It must leave all the pains and suffering of its caterpillar days in the ruins of the chrysalis. Only then will it truly be free to fly.

Although a butterfly spends but two weeks in the darkness of the chrysalis, shedding its past self, I spent almost three years. Transformation does not happen overnight – for the butterfly or for people. The most frightening moment of the process is in the moment before emergence. Break the chrysalis anyway.