What do lobsters have to do with the birth of baby Jesus? It’s a fair question. The manger has always been a story of hope and redemption. Humble God, decides not just to become human, but also to arrive to an unwed mother and is first laid in an animal’s feed trough. Not exactly a kingly beginning.
Out of that humble story, however, arises a Love story so contagious, that we speak of it 2,000 years later. I’m interested in Love that is equally catchy. Love that surprises. Love that would inspire the man at the seafood counter, who makes his daily wage selling dead meat, to get out his wallet and promise to add his gifts to those of the Magi and bring resurrection to the creatures in his cases.
Once again, a child brings this hope. A big thanks goes to my guest, Sarah Craighead Dedmon, for this story.
Griffin had become a vegetarian by degrees. First, at age five, he stopped eating red meat. By seven he had stopped eating chicken. He was 8 when he started saying no to foods cooked with chicken broth, and by 9 he was a full-fledged vegetarian. Sometimes we’d get the stray, “Why?” from a quizzical friend, and I would answer, “Because he loves animals.” Griffin became a vegetarian for reasons of compassion.
One of the things I loved about our new hometown in Maine was its small but well-stocked grocery store. On our first trip to buy food there, Griffin and I zipped through the produce section, held our noses as we rounded the corner with the seafood case, and made our way to the dairy aisle. Just a few feet past the lobster case, Griffin was openly weeping.
His tears caught me completely off guard. I had always passed the lobster tank just as easily as I passed the fruit cocktail. But here was my ten year-old son with tears streaming down his face, weeping for the lobsters, seeing them not as groceries, but condemned creatures on death row. His raw emotion, his unvarnished perspective hit my heart like an electric shock. I comforted him, hurried him out of the store, and tried to hurry him out of his tears. It simply wouldn’t do to cry over lobsters in coastal Maine.
Standing by the canned goods weeks later, he looked up at me and earnestly asked how many lobsters he could buy with his birthday money. My mind sputtered. I said, “Oh, honey…”, as if to discourage him. How would we get through life with his heart so open? How could I protect someone who willingly made themselves so vulnerable?
I weakly tried to dissuade him by sending him off to get the details from the seafood counter on his own. He ran off undaunted, and ran back to me with the prices. How many he could buy? $5.99 / lb for soft shell, $7.99 /lb for hard shell. I saw the sense of life-or-death urgency in him. Emotionally, I dropped my shoulders. What could I do? It was his money, it was his heart. I felt macabre as I offered that he could save more lobsters if he purchased the soft shell. He ran off to order $20 worth.
From behind my shelf I heard a man’s voice asking Griffin if his father were here. I reluctantly turned and pushed my cart over to the lobster tank, where he asked me if it was OK for Griffin to buy lobsters with the intent to free them. Yes, thank you. There were tears in Griffin’s eyes. Bruce introduced himself and started to load the lobsters into a small bag. He said, “Don’t worry, buddy, don’t feel bad. If there were more people in the world like you, the world would be a better place. Don’t feel bad.”
Griffin put the white sack of lobsters into my shopping cart, and I rushed us through the rest of our list as if they were only potatoes. Three lobsters to return to the sea, and it was already dusk. As we passed the seafood section one more time, Bruce called out to us. “Hey! The next time you do this, I’ll match you lobster for lobster!”.
Once home, we bundled ourselves up and raced across the street to the cove. I turned the bag out onto the dark beach and shuddered at the waving legs and claws. Of course they had come out on their backs, like giant red spiders. I turned them over, and moved quickly to take the elastics off of their claws. I was making agitated noises under my breath, frightened of the claws and irritated by the whole exercise, but Griffin was calm and peaceful, cooing, “It’s okay, it’s okay”, to the lobsters. To me?
I stepped off the beach into the mud to put the lobsters into a few inches of water. They did nothing. We watched. We waited. The tide was leaving them. I wanted to be home starting dinner. I was in agony. Were they suffocating? Were they too stunned to fend for themselves? Griffin began to fret, too. By the time they came to their senses, I feared, the tide would be yards beyond their reach. It wasn’t going to work.
I loaded them into their white sack, and we ran up the hill and down the road to the harbor, very likely the harbor where our friends had first been brought to shore. The only path to the deep water lay at the bottom of some slippery rocks beside a private pier marked ‘No Trespassing’. I asked Griffin to wait at the top, and carefully made my way down the rocks. I was torn between frustration at my derailed evening, and fear for my son’s open heart, now tied to the lives of these listless lobsters.
I found a small, deep channel in the rocks, and watched the tide push in and out. It would have to do. I put on my gloves and took my first charge from the bag, checking him over for signs of life. He waved his antennae. In he went, I held my breath. The water pushed him backward once, and then he disappeared into the darker depths. I slipped the second lobster in, and he quickly disappeared. The third lobster was not showing many signs of life. What could I do for him? It was so late, too late to find another spot. I dropped him in, and watched horrified as he landed belly-up.
The tide pushed him into the rock, the tide pulled him out. The tide pushed him in again, and he did nothing. High above me, too far away to see, Griffin cheered from the hillside, “We did it! We did it! We did it!”. Utter joy. I looked back to lobster #3, now right side up, but still the pawn of the tide.
I began to pray to every entity I’d ever heard of any human praying to. Please don’t let this lobster die. Please don’t let my resistance penalize this lobster, who is so loved by my son. I made up my mind to never tell Griffin, I made up my mind to leave while there was still some reasonable doubt about his survival, but I couldn’t look away. And then, suddenly, he was gone. I looked again, sure I would see him inches below the waves, but no, he was well and truly gone. I walked back up the hill to an exultant Griffin.
We held hands and walked home past the nets and under the street lights of the salmon factory.
What stories of liberation do you tell around your dinner table? Are you a vegetarian during this season of feasting and how does that go for you? Have you ever pardoned another creature? bug, fish or over zealous cookie froster?