Faith Gong: Stone Soup

When I began writing this column in 2012, my vision was that it would be a space to record the observations and anecdotes of my young family as we explored our new home state of Vermont. I never expected to still be writing eight years later; given that timespan, it’s hardly surprising that the column’s focus has shifted as my family became less young and Vermont became less new. Somehow, though, I never seemed to lack enough material to generate a new biweekly column. 

Until now.

It’s stating the obvious to say that the restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic have been challenging in many ways, for all of humanity. In my own case, it’s difficult to write a column of observations and anecdotes when my world is now limited mostly to my own house, yard, driveway, and immediate family. (Granted, my immediate family is quite pleased when I include them in columns, but I’ve become more concerned with protecting my children’s privacy.) Still, when COVID struck, I determined to make this column a place where people could find beauty and respite from the stresses of life, the ugliness of the news and social media. Nobody needs more hopelessness these days; it felt like one tiny thing I could do to write a few words that might give hope.

But I’ve rarely struggled to find hope as I have this week. This week, as the unseasonably warm weather we’d enjoyed in Vermont gave way at last to a more typical chill, grey November. This week, as COVID cases surged around the world and in Vermont, prompting Governor Phil Scott to issue a mandate prohibiting all multi-family gatherings, whether inside or out. This week, as there is still seemingly no end in sight to the tensions swirling around the 2020 Presidential election, let alone the brokenness it revealed in our nation. This week, as I carry the weight and sorrow of many friends and family members who have recently received bad news or are awaiting diagnoses. 

This week, I was not sure I could write a column worthy of putting out into the world. 

And then a friend’s eight-year-old son reminded me about Stone Soup. 

For those who aren’t familiar, “Stone Soup” is a European folk story that’s been told and re-told in numerous versions. The basic story is: A hungry, weary traveler arrives in a village hoping for hospitality, only to find all doors shut to him. In the village square, he fills his empty cooking pot with water and a single stone and sets it to boil over a fire. Naturally, this arouses the curiosity of the villagers; when asked what he’s doing, the traveler replies that he’s making his original, delicious recipe for “stone soup.” He’d be happy to share, but the soup’s flavor would be improved with just a bit of garnish. So the villagers, once so reluctant to share, begin bringing what they have – vegetables, meat, bread, cheese – to add to the soup. And, lo and behold, it’s the best meal anyone has ever tasted!

When my own children attended Quarry Hill preschool, they participated in an annual “Stone Soup Feast” before Thanksgiving: Each family contributed some food item, and the children and their teachers would prepare a hearty feast for all to share. My friend’s young son, who was classmates with my youngest daughter at Quarry Hill, missed the Stone Soup Feast so much after he graduated that he decided to replicate it at home. 

A tradition was born: Last November, we gathered with two other families to share a simple, delicious meal of soup, bread, and dessert. This year, COVID put the brakes on both Quarry Hill’s Stone Soup Feast and our little family gathering. But it couldn’t stop an eight-year-old boy. 

Last night, my family (even the dog and cat) stood on our septic mound waving and calling out “Thank you!” as our friends dropped off the three varieties of soup they’d made in exchange for the brownies I baked with my daughters. They were led by a laughing eight-year-old boy in a face mask. As they climbed back into their minivan, we shouted out our hopes that next year – Ah, next year! -- we might be able to gather in person once more. Then we went inside and ate our stone soup alone, together.

The obvious moral of “Stone Soup” is about the value of sharing. But this year, I see a deeper moral about human nature. Our natural tendency as people is to stay shut in and safe, to keep our food (and our toilet paper) to ourselves – especially now, as the world out there seems even more dark and dangerous than usual. But “Stone Soup” demonstrates that sometimes all it takes for a delicious meal is one person with a single, inedible stone and the deep faith that people’s better natures will prevail in order to make something good. That deep faith that beauty might still be possible – that’s what makes it come true. 

And, as my eight-year-old friend taught me, you don’t even have to gather in person for this to happen. 

The amount of hope I can muster up today feels like that single, hard stone. But here it is:

This past week, as I felt the cares of the world crushing me down, the sunsets were spectacular. Not just one sunset, but twilight after twilight offered up symphonies of red, orange, and purple flaming amid the wispy clouds. Now that we’ve passed Daylight Savings Time and the dusk falls earlier, I am always out walking the dog and the baby on our driveway just in time for the sunset show. Somehow, these sunsets that lighted a grey November twilight also helped shine a little light into my own darkened spirits. 

That’s my stone. My deep hope is that you will take it and add some hope and beauty of your own. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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