An embarrassing (but true) story about a Milkweed


In anticipation of an autumn retreat I was part of a few years ago, we were each instructed to bring some kind of seed that symbolized an important aspect of our life-story, with which to introduce ourselves into the opening circle. That morning, as I was in a frantic scramble to get the kids off to school, attend to the perpetual crush of loose ends at work, and get myself showered and packed and to the airport, I suddenly remembered this assignment. Casting about in desperation, my eyes landed on the milkweeds that grow at the far edge of the back yard. Perfect! – I’ve always loved how, deep in autumn, the milkweeds’ seed pods dry into a mature openness that allows the winged, gossamer seeds inside to be carried aloft by the breeze. There’s a usable metaphor in there somewhere, I figured….

Still in my pajamas and hollering to the kids to brush their teeth and get ready (“We’re late!”), I ran out into the cold October morning to grab a seed pod…only to find that they were just barely beginning to crack open, still mostly green, the seeds still tightly packed inside. In my rush and mild panic, I quickly thought: “OK, I can speed Nature up a bit – I’ll just stick this sucker in the oven and bake it into maturity while I’m getting ready. Then it’ll be good to go.”

Well, by the time I showered, dressed, and tore back downstairs, the kitchen was hazy with smoke: instead of helping the pod to ease itself open and the seeds inside to loosen into that marvelous, lofty goose down I was hoping for, the oven’s heat had simply charred and petrified it exactly as it was when I thrust it in there. Now here it was, this cramped, brittle, smoking thing. Pathetic.

I had hoped to wax poetic that night about my life being like the lighter-than-air seeds of a mature milkweed ready to be wafted by Spirit’s breath to wherever in the hungry world my gifts might Take Root and Do Good. But that was not the story I could tell. Instead, I passed around my blackened, sorry, oven-roasted milkweed pod – and talked about stress, anxiety, overwork, exhaustion, burnout…and about trying to force myself to be “ready” to be someone I wasn’t yet ready to be, trying to make myself go faster and more frenetically than Spirit knew to be right.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the story I’d hoped to share, but it turned out to be a more authentic portrayal of the shape of my life at the time – I was burned out, charred to a crisp. And it has continued to provide instructive lenses for understanding an all-too-common way of living in these times.

Now, I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this; many of us could tell similar stories about the pressures of time, trying to make ourselves into something we’re not, and so on. But I also suspect there’s an invitation here for each of us to ask what kind of story we want to live by – and about how we align the stories of our own lives with some kind of larger Story of the way things are and ought to be. This is the kind of question that is especially salient in the young adult years and that, of course, remains pressing and powerful across the lifespan. A core question we’re invited to ask ourselves is: On behalf of what kind of Story – toward what vision of the world – do we want to live? And what is the Story that shapes, guides, orients, and sustains our work, our leadership, our daily lives?

What does the “Milkweed” mean to you? What does it evoke?

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