One early morning, deep into the chill of autumn, I rushed to my mailbox to mail my bills before heading to work. The red flag on the side of the box was standing tall. “How odd,” I thought. I had not raised it the day before. I tugged open the mailbox door. Inside was a large white envelope. I took it out, put my bills in its place, and closed the door.
The envelope had my name on it; written in the most elegant handwriting I had ever seen. Curious, I tore it open. Inside was a beautiful invitation. It read: You are cordially invited to attend the greatest event ever. No need to R.S.V.P. Simply show up. (P.S. Look for the gifts.)
Puzzled, I put it back in its envelope, dropped it into my purse, pushed the red flag down and drove to work. I didn’t give the invitation another thought during my busy day.
When I returned home, I pulled the invitation out from my purse. Not knowing what it meant, or whom it was from, I threw it away. The next morning, as I rushed to the car, I noticed the red flag on the mailbox was standing at attention again. I opened the mailbox door. Inside was another invitation:
Shaking my head, I lowered the flag, dropped the invitation into my purse, and drove to work. That evening, when I got home, I took the invitation from my purse, shrugged, and threw it away. On my way to the car the next morning, I saw the red flag on the mailbox standing tall yet again. I sighed. Whoever wanted my attention with these silly invitations was getting on my nerves. I took out the invitation and shoved it into my purse. I drove to work angry.
When I returned home, I walked next door to see if my neighbor Mary was receiving the same invitation. I rang her doorbell. She answered, dressed in a shabby housecoat and old fuzzy slippers. “Please excuse my appearance,” she said quietly as she motioned me to come inside. “I haven’t felt like doing much since Jim died.” Tears welled in her eyes. Her husband of 48 years had passed away six months ago.
“I am so sorry Mary,” was all I knew to say. Mary pulled a handkerchief out from her pocket and dabbed her eyes.
We sat in her living room, making small talk. Finally, I asked, “Have you been getting strange invitations to the greatest event ever?” Mary looked surprised.
“Yes! Ever since Jim died,” she said. “You are getting them too?”
I nodded. “I don’t know what they mean.”
Mary agreed, “I don’t know what they mean either. I throw mine away every day. It’s a nuisance if you want to know the truth of it.”
We decided the invitations must be a prank or some silly marketing scheme. We agreed that we would continue to throw them away. Eventually whoever was sending them would tire and stop.
I threw away my invitation every day for the next few weeks. Autumn eventually gave way to winter. The first snow arrived late one evening. It swirled and danced as it fell under the streetlight. In the morning I saw footprints in the snow. They went down the street and veered off to mailbox after mailbox. “Ah ha! Whoever is sending the invitations isn’t smart enough to cover their tracks. I can catch the prankster and put an end to this annoyance,” I thought to myself.
That night I sat up with a mug of hot chocolate, staring out of the window. I dozed off a few times, but the red flag on the box was still down each time I awoke. I had not missed the culprit. Just before dawn, the sky sparkled with stars ready to fade into the new day. I was about to give up my watch and go to bed, when I spied a small figure walking down the street. It was an old man, bundled in a moth eaten gray coat. Around his neck looped a patchwork scarf. His hair was long and a bit unkempt. A large leather satchel hung over his left shoulder.
I watched him walk past Mary’s mailbox, straight towards mine. “What if this old man is crazy?” I wondered. “Dare I confront him?” My frustration with the annoying invitations outweighed my fear. I marched out to the mailbox just as he was pulling it open.
“Oh, there you are,” he said with a soft voice. He extended the invitation to me. I snatched it out of his hand.
“What are you up to?” I demanded. The old man smiled warmly.
“I am extending an invitation to you,” he replied.
“Because you are invited,” he said. I looked down the street behind him. Some of the mailboxes had their red flags up. Others did not.
“Why me? Why doesn’t everyone get an invitation?” I questioned.
The old man chuckled. “Everyone got an invitation the day they were born. Some just don’t remember. They have to be invited again.”
I looked over at Mary’s mailbox. The red flag was down. “Why didn’t you give one to Mary? She used to get one.” A soft breeze blew down the street rustling the tree branches. The old man pulled his scarf tighter around his neck.
“Mary accepted the invitation. She showed up. I don’t need to leave her one anymore,” he said as he turned to leave. He began walking down the street, whistling.
“But… I don’t understand.” I called to him.
He stopped and turned. In a kind voice he said, “My child, you must figure it out on your own. It’s up to you to accept the invitation or not.” He turned and walked to another mailbox.
“Was he senile?” I wondered. I almost felt sorry for him. I went back into the house and sat at the kitchen table. I opened the invitation. It read, just as the others had, “You are cordially invited to attend the greatest event ever. No need to R.S.V.P. Simply show up.” At the bottom of the invitation it read, “P.S. Look for the Gifts.” I scratched my head in wonder. I waited until a decent hour, folded the invitation into my pocket and walked over to Mary’s house. I wanted to solve the mystery of these invitations once and for all.
Mary greeted me at the door, dressed in a lovely outfit. Her hair was up in a pretty bun. She wore a big smile. It was the first time since Jim’s death I had seen her look happy.
“When did you accept the invitation?” I asked her. Mary’s eyebrows shot up.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
I told Mary about my encounter with the old man. “He said he didn’t give you an invitation anymore because you accepted and showed up. “Where did you go? What was it all about?” I begged to know.
Mary shook her head. “I didn’t go anywhere. Heavens, I’ve been too busy,” she smiled. “I decided a few weeks ago to stop feeling sorry for myself and get on with my life. I didn’t want the few years I have left to be only half lived. I want to live each day to its fullest. I realized there was a gift in Jim’s death. It made me look very carefully at my own life. It made me want to be fully alive, to open my heart to love and to put aside fear and frustration. Now I volunteer at the hospital. On the weekends, I take food to the shut-ins across town. I’m going to plant a garden in the spring. I don’t have time to go to any event. I am too busy living and appreciating my life. I don’t know what the old man meant,” She explained.
Mary saw a gift in Jim’s passing? I fished the invitation from my pocket and put it on the coffee table in front of us. “Mary, read it again please,” I asked.
We read it together. Mary figured it out before I did. She covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh my!” A tear rolled down her cheek. “I did accept! I did!” She beamed through tears of joy.
The words on the page settled into my heart. “You are cordially invited to attend the greatest event ever.” God was inviting me to my own life. “No need to R.S.V.P. Simply Show Up.” All I had to do was show up, to be fully present, to choose to live my life to its fullest. “Look for the gifts.” There were gifts every day and I had been missing them. I couldn’t see them anymore. I saw only my problems, my shortcomings and failures. I focused on the ways people had hurt me. I worried about the future and felt guilty about the past. God was inviting me to see and to live my life from a different perspective.
I reached out and gave Mary’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Thank you, for the gift of your friendship.” She returned the squeeze. We sat for a while in silence, taking in the enormity of the invitation. “I need to go home,” I broke the silence with a whisper. I hugged her goodbye.
I walked home slowly. I felt the winter sun upon my face. I listened to the snow crunch softly under my boots. I heard the birds celebrating the day. I watched clouds collecting on the horizon. More snow was on the way.
When I got home, I pulled out a pad of paper. At the top of a new page, I wrote, “The greatest event ever: MY LIFE! One by one, I wrote down all the things for which I am grateful. All the people I love. All the things I love about myself. I listed everything that makes my life enjoyable. I saw the gifts. They were easy to see.
Next, I wrote down my fears, sorrows, frustrations, resentments and anxieties. I wrote down all of the things I don’t like about myself. I wrote down all the ways people had harmed me. I wrote down all the ways I thought life had sold me short. I was a long list.
I went through the list and looked at each item I had written. I opened my heart so I could see a new perspective about each item. I looked for the gift in everything that I thought was bad, or wrong in my life. I had never looked for gifts in the things that frightened or disturbed me. But they were there. I finally found them. The fear, frustration, guilt, sorrow and resentments I had been feeling faded away. I felt alive again.
That night I went to bed and prayed, “Dear God, help me change the way I think and feel about life. Help to live in love instead of worry. Help me to forgive instead of a hating or fearing. Please help me be accepting instead of judgmental. Help me to live in joy instead of sorrow, no matter what happens in my life. Dear God, help me to not throw away the invitation from you another day! Help me show up. Help me to always see the gifts in everything and to be grateful.” I said amen and fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning I peered out of my window. Snow fell gently on the new day. I looked over at my mailbox. The red flag was down. I smiled. Peace washed over me as my heart opened to the love that was all around me. I had accepted God’s invitation to attend the greatest event ever—my life.
I was looking for the gifts. I was simply, showing up.
(Copyright 2005 Dr. Jennifer Leigh)