There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. – Conclusion of Darwin’s The Origin of Species
Ava’s college roommate Elaine said that the reason that Ava was so content, so unflappable, was that her family had never moved from their house in the small town of Groton. Elaine would also throw in that Ava had the happiest childhood of anyone she knew – no divorced parents, no incestuous uncles, no poverty, no mentally ill siblings. All these things were true, of course, but it was clear that people still found Ava’s contentment mystifying. After all, Ava’s two siblings had grown up with the same stability, but did not have the same imperturbable air that Ava had.
Her profound sense of security was anything but mystifying to Ava herself. Ever since she could remember she had felt like someone was taking care of her, that everything would be fine. And that someone would be God. While she and Clair had a picture of Jesus with a lamb on their bedroom wall, it was the Father that Ava knew would take care of her. And it was more specific than that – it was the hand of God, the right hand of God – one hand coming down out of the sky to reassure her, hold her, pat her on the back. The image never changed. Ava not only felt that the hand was there, she was sure that it would always be there. When she was old enough to read Psalm 138, “you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me,” she knew she wasn’t the only one who had ever felt it.
Ava’s family were Baptists, but not of the evangelical variety. The children went to church and Sunday School and vacation Bible school, but these things just reinforced what Ava already felt. Her mother was an active member of the church; her father attended only on holidays and for parish cookouts and fish fries. Pretty much the same level of religious training and observance Ava saw in the families around her. When she was thirteen, and her friends were getting baptized, Ava did so too. She enjoyed the experience – even the frigid April water in the swimming hole they used – but it did not change anything. As a baptismal gift. Ava received from her maternal grandparents a thin gold bracelet with a mustard seed embedded in glass hanging from it. It came with this verse from Matthew: The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. Ava always wore the amulet on her left wrist, and, in difficult moments, had a habit of fingering the little ball of glass.
Growing up, Ava never had nightmares; she seldom worried about anything. If a worrisome thought came into her head, she simply reminded herself that God would take care of it. Of course, bad things happened sometimes. Her favorite cat, Pumpkin, got hit by a car. Her grandparents died. Her first serious boyfriend broke up with her in front of all their friends. Such events saddened her, but she was never really frightened or in despair.
Ava fell in love with her husband Jake when she was finishing her degree in elementary school education at the local state college. He was an aloof Episcopal, but agreed to join Ava’s church and participated about as much as her father had done. That was fine; Ava knew that God was looking out for him anyway. After a first miscarried pregnancy, they had a son and named him Luke. He was a healthy and easy child, but there were other challenges. About the time that Luke started school, Ava was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a lumpectomy and then radiation. Ava’s mother came to stay for two months and they got through it all. Ava would fondle her mustard see and complain once in a while about tiredness, but never about her situation. Ava’s oncologist noticed. She was amazed at how calmly Ava endured the surgery, the treatment, and the trauma of her brush with cancer. “It must be her faith,” Dr. Benson said to her nurse. “It works like a placebo.” When radiation was over, Ava engineered a family celebration and never brought it up again.
While Ava’s calmness was remarkable, Jake was a worrier. He loved his wife, though he could not begin to understand her. He, too, wondered if her equanimity was due to a placid childhood, never moving from the same house, no divorced parents, no major trauma. He himself was the product of much moving around (father in the military), his parents’ divorce when he was an adolescent, and a major auto accident in his senior year in high school which left him with scars and a bad knee, but paralyzed his friend who had been driving. Initially, he shared the view that nothing bad had ever happened to Ava, so she did not anticipate that it would. After the lost baby and the cancer however, she did not change. Jake simply scratched his head and worried enough for both of them, balancing (as in happens in most married couples) for Ava’s talents and deficiencies. A typical conversation might go like this:
“Luke was supposed to me home from the movie by now. Maybe I should go out looking for him.” Jake would pick up the car keys and bite his bottom lip.
Ava would take the car keys away from him. “He is only fifteen minutes late. It’s hardly even dark out and he probably went home with Jack and will call any minute. You’ll just embarrass him if you go round him up.”
And sure enough, Luke would call or come bouncing in the back door looking for something to eat.
When Ava’s calm was noticed and questioned by their friends, Jack would say, “Ava had a great childhood. She just thinks the world is good and everything will be fine. She’s very reassuring, but she can also drive you up the wall when you want someone to worry with.”
The people in Ava’s prayer group at church admired Ava’s faith. “She’s a rock,” they would tell you. “When one of us is in despair, she says that all will be well, and she means it. She really believes that God is looking out for us all in every situation. She believes it so well, that you sort of have to believe it too!”
The women in Ava’s yoga group envied her equanimity but also found it a little hard to take. “Smug is what I would call it, “ said one of the chubbier practitioners. Others found her confidence a poor exchange for the empathy that they were looking for. “Don’t tell me it’s going to be OK or God is going to take care of it. I know from experience, it’s not and He won’t,” said a woman whose husband drank and whose daughter was the single mother of three. “And I wish she would stop saying she’ll pray for us – I know her intentions are good, but does she really think that is going to change anything? Well, actually, I guess she does. ”
Ava’s neighbors all refused her invitations to go to church with her, but appreciated the fact that she never brought it up again. They also appreciated the casseroles she brought when something bad happened, and the oatmeal raisin cookies she contributed to any celebration.
People credited Ava with her son Luke’s even disposition. If he were asked about his mother he would say, “She’s worries over me like any other mother, but she doesn’t scare me half to death. As long as you don’t lie to her, she doesn’t freak out.” Among his friends this was high praise for a mom.
Ava’s faith had little to do with rituals or creed. After her cancer scare, Ava slowly drifted away from church, as her husband and son showed no interest and often found other pastimes on Sunday mornings. Sometimes Ava even skipped church, packed a picnic, and went fishing with them or for a drive up into the mountains.
Luke and Jake got along well. When Luke hit adolescence and was starting to be less interested in fishing and rides to the country, father and son discovered a mutual interest in science fiction movies and documentaries about the cosmos. Ava found something else to do when they watched the iterations of Star Trek and such, but she was irresistibly drawn to the ethereal photography of planets and nebulae in the documentaries. She was entranced by the story of the Big Bang and the incomprehensible expanding universe that nurtured one little blue and green planet within it – one improbable blue and green plant. She loved listening to Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and thinking about how the Big Bang spun out the whole universe. Everything. She loved it, but it scared her too. For the first time in her life she didn’t feel safe. Rather than sitting as a very treasured creature in the hands of God, she began to see herself as just random interacting atoms in a creation that was larger than she could even imagine. Certainly larger than she had imagined God’s hands to be.
Now, with her cancer long in remission and life going well, Ava was unsettled for the first time in her life. She fretted and had headaches. She started dropping things in the kitchen and tearing up watching the news. At first her husband found these to be signs that she was just a normal person after all, but he did miss the assurance of a calm and steady partner. As far as he could see, nothing had changed, nothing was wrong. But Ava was different and that was hard. He had to recalibrate his role. “I think something’s bothering you,” he would say after dinner when she had been particularly quiet.
“No, no – I was just thinking about that film we watched last night. Do you think there is life on other planets? Do you think there is a reason there is life on earth?”
“Yes. Earth has just the right about of oxygen and carbon dioxide I guess – although we’re doing our best to screw that up,” Jake would answer as she washed the dishes and he put the leftovers away.
“That show last night said that if the rate expansion of the universe was different by a thousandth of a…,” Ava groped for the mathematical term, “whatever – that life on earth would not exist. Doesn’t that scare you?”
“Not really. Makes me feel damn lucky. If the universe expanded slower, I wouldn’t have been here to enjoy your lasagna tonight. Do you think there’s enough left for another meal?”
And so it would go. When she brought up the size and improbabilities of the cosmos to her yoga group, they just shook their heads, said it was incomprehensible, and asked Ava where she got her new pants and were they comfortable? When Ava brought it up in her prayer group, one of the elderly members said that it was not luck, “it was God’s intricate plan – He surely knew how fast the universe needed to be expanding to create a home for the Garden of Eden.” This explanation did not soothe Ava. It was home to the serpent too, she thought. Never had she considered such things before, and these ideas made her temples throb.
When Ava could no longer pray without seeing an exploding nova rather than the protective hand of God or the benevolent face of Jesus, she went to see her pastor to get help. Pastor Jim just shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what God looks like,” he said. “Dante saw him as a circle of light. I don’t see that as a problem.” He gave her his own benevolent grin.
“But it used to feel like God took care of me,” Ava explained as she fingered her mustard seed. “And the light is lovely, but it doesn’t really seem to care about me.”
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the light,” answered Father Jim. And Ava knew that was certainly true, but it seemed more factual than personal. And the light shone even on suffering people, even on corpses. What comfort did that offer?
But what Ava had lost in personal security (and let us not underestimate what a loss that was), she gained in wonder. She started to take the lead in ferreting out documentaries and books about astronomy and physics, and on Christmas presented the family with a telescope for the backyard.
Ava stopped going to prayer group, and she stopped sleeping through the night. She started worrying about little things – like a spot on her shoulder which was surely just a bug bite – and big things, like whether obliteration by an asteroid or by nuclear war was more likely. She tried not to fret out loud, but the difference in her demeanor was noticeable.
As is common with the push and pull of all good marriages, as Ava agonized more, Jake became calmer and more reassuring. This was confusing to Luke, but like most children he accepted that his parents were indecipherable.
The truth was that Ava was not exceptionally anxious or depressed by life; she was normal. But she had lived in a different way and longed to return to it the way a child longs for a neighborhood he just moved away from. She was motivated to return, but had no idea how to do it. She stopped watching the documentaries, reading the astronomy books, and looking through the new telescope, but the old assurance did not return. There seemed to be no going back.
One day, while Ava had her head in the refrigerator inventorying the contents before making a grocery list, Luke came running into the kitchen looking for his backpack. He startled his mother, who spun around and hit her wrist against the door of the fridge. Her bracelet came apart and shot across the kitchen, hitting the ceramic backsplash with a crack.
“Mom, I’m sorry.” Luke somehow knew that was more than a minor mishap. He had never seen his mother without the bracelet.
They picked up the bracelet; the chain was intact. The glass globe had shattered though, and the mustard seed was missing. Ava couldn’t tell herself why, but it became important to her to find the little seed, and they finally located what was almost definitely the right seed in a far corner.
Ava put the bracelet and the seed in a little dish and left it on the counter in the kitchen. She felt naked without it, but didn’t feel compelled to replace the ornament, and she had new idea where she could go to get the old mustard seed enclosed in new glass. Looking at it one day, Luke wondered aloud whether the seed was still viable. Ava took out an old pink teacup, dug some dirt out of the garden outside, and planted and watered the mustard seed.
And, in a little over a week, it sprouted. Luke and Jake wondered privately whether it was really the mustard seed that grew. It could have been an old grape seed under the refrigerator or a plant hidden in the dirt from the backyard. But Ava was so thrilled that they kept their doubts to themselves. It grew to about ten inches and was transferred to a bigger pot. And Ava calmed down again. She liked the plant better than the bracelet. Yes, she did.