AVALON MAGAZINE – Martha’s Vineyard, MA
Richard Skidmore has wrote this wonderful article entitled Grace Happens for the Spring 2012 edition of Avalon magazine. Richard is also involved with the marketing and public relations of Avalon.
The whole story …
One of the attributes of grace is that it is graceful— elegant, nimble, light-footed, and fluid. The progression of events that begat the sticker under discussion here can now be traced, but the subtle, supple twists along the path seemed random until the story was complete.
To begin: In 1980 Tricia Newell Bennett bought her first car, a Volvo 144. She had been told by the owner, “There’s only one thing wrong with it… the radio doesn’t work.” While looking the car over, a bumper sticker caught Tricia’s attention. Navy blue with white block letters, it said “Grace Happens.” Driving off she thought, “Oh, I should at least try the radio, see how bad it is.” But it worked! Reflecting on her now-perfect used car, Tricia decided she would never have a car without a “Grace Happens” bumper sticker on it.
“An unmerited gift to man by God” is the dictionary definition of grace, and a good place to start. But also, Tricia notes, grace is all the unexpected good things that happen in your life just when you need them to happen as well as the unexpected things that might seem bad, but have a good result, like missing a plane that then crashes. Some people call that “divine delay”. Another part of the grace concept that reverberates with Tricia is the idea that no one is exempt from grace: you don’t have to be a “believer”.
Fifteen years, five or six cars later, in 1995, Tricia had bought another. “I went to a bookstore in Northampton MA called Beyond Words to get a new sticker, as I had for each of my previous cars. They didn’t have one, nor did any of the other stores that I knew had carried it. So I called the company that made them in CA. They said, “Sorry, we’re no longer making Grace Happens.” So she thought, “Oh no, I can’t live without one of those stickers!”
Tricia, who was then, as now, living on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, had a friend named Anika Hodson who lived in Chilmark. “We were meeting once a month for what we called an ‘artist’s afternoon’— a standing date for doing something creative. I told her that I needed to make a bumper sticker. She said “Great, let’s make bumper stickers.” So we ordered some sticker paper, and she and I, and her then 8 year-old son, Russell, sat down to draw and color bumper stickers. I was working on a sticker, but wasn’t happy with my handwriting. So I said, “Russell, would you do me a favor and write Grace Happens for me?” He was happy to do it, so I spelled it out for him because he was learning how to write. It was an irregular shape, so we just cut it out the way it was. I stuck it on the back of my car— put it on a little crooked, giving it even more character— and people would see it and say, “My gosh, that is so charming.”
Russell’s birthday was coming up, so Tricia decided to have it printed like a real bumper sticker and make enough copies so he could give them to his friends and classmates. She did a bit of cutting and pasting to get it in a straight line and fit it in the rectangular format of a traditional bumper sticker. Russell was into clubs and spikes at the time, so he’d made the “s” with spikes on it. She cut the “s” in half and brought the two halves together making it into a star, then added two more points to the star and put it between “Grace” and “Happens”.
But there was an additional element to the design. Tricia’s parents were both professional musicians. Her mother, who had an interest in physics, met a viola player, someone she played string quartets with, who had known Albert Einstein. They became friends. The friend, when younger, had worked as Einstein’s assistant, and was still plagued by the memory of having been fired by Einstein for not believing in God.
“My parents were always talking about art, and God, and life and music. So I listened to these discussions all the time as a kid. My mom’s friend told us that Einstein had said, “If you don’t believe in something bigger than we are, then there is something wrong. If you think of snowflakes and the wonder of mathematical formulas, the edge of the universe or infinity— if you think you’ll ever find the end point of that— or see infinity— if you don’t have wonder about these immense things that have no edge— there’s something wrong with you. When we think there’s nothing larger than we are, we are defining everything by the limits of our own understanding.”
At the same time Tricia was working on the Grace Happens bumper sticker with Russell, other stickers could be seen around the island: “Pray For September,” and “We Don’t Care How You Do It In New York” she thought, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a bumper sticker that everyone on the whole island, visitors and locals, could like? One that could unite everyone here. So Tricia took an Einstein quote, “How I wish that somewhere there existed an island for those that are wise and of good will.”, and put it underneath Grace Happens, thinking that was a nice way to make it about everyone — and the possibility of their Vineyard experience.
“I had read a lot of Einstein’s writings, his ideas about life and God and humanity and I’d memorized that quote when I was young. Those early conversations about Einstein really shaped my idea that there was something bigger than we are.”
Her dad had that same perspective on God. “We used to look at things in nature and draw them. Once, in the fall, we were looking at a milkweed with all the little prickly pods and seeds, each with its own feathery parachute, the filaments on the stems. I expected him to say, “Are you ready to draw it?” But instead he said, and this is when I was six, ‘I’m going to tell you something, and I hope you’ll remember it. If anyone ever tells you there isn’t a God, you tell them they haven’t looked closely enough.’ — meaning all the beauty and amazing incredible intricacy that’s part of everything. To this day, nature, the world around and in us, is what continually inspires me to believe there is something bigger than we are.”
So Tricia gave Russell the bumper sticker with Einstein’s quote on it. He passed them out to his friends at the Chilmark school. “I think I printed 125 of them. I’d never spent so much on an eight year-old’s birthday present in my life, but I thought, what the heck.”
“Three days later the woman who was then the buyer for the Black Dog called, Are you the woman who made the Grace Happens sticker? I said, Yesssss? Well, it’s the final day before printing the Christmas catalog and we’d love to put the sticker in there. And I thought, hmmm, I wasn’t really planning to sell it. But I did what I usually do, I looked up at the sky and said “Well?” and I heard whoever I hear talking up there saying, go ahead, do it. So I said, ‘Sure, fine.’ And as soon as I said Sure, it’s fine, I realized that I’d put an Einstein quote on it. And since I was now going to sell the sticker, I had to pay someone royalties for use of that quote. So now the question was, how do I find out who to pay?”
“For me, this is when Grace really began to Happen and emphasizes how ‘grace’ has and continues to repeatedly ‘happen’ throughout this story.”
A few years beforehand Tricia had given an Einstein wall calendar to a friend’s son. She called the friend and asked, “Do you think Jon might possibly still have that Einstein calendar I gave him a couple years ago?” She said, “Sure, he loves the pictures so much he’s kept it on his bedroom wall. He still flips it every month.” So Tricia asked her to look on the back for the name of the publisher.
Tricia called the company, and said, “I’m Tricia Newell and I just made a birthday present for a boy who turned nine and I used an Einstein quote on it, and I’m wondering who you pay royalties to.” There was a pause and the man said, “Who are you?” She explained further and he asked her to fax it to him. As she was talking to him, Tricia faxed the sticker image. Seeing it, he said, “Wow, there’s somebody here who’s going to want to talk to you.” Tricia said ok, and gave him her phone number. Less than ten minutes later a woman called and she said, “So…, who are you?” Tricia told her about the birthday sticker and Einstein quote, and the royalties question. She said, “I can connect you to the right people. Let me call you back tomorrow with the information.”
“The next day, Friday, she called me and said, ‘I just have to tell you how much I love your bumper sticker. I’m going to give you a phone number and the name of a rabbi and you are never to give this rabbi’s name or phone number to anyone. Do-you-understand-me?’ I said I did, and I thought, this is really weird. Then she said, ‘Next Tuesday at two a.m. you need to call this number. You’ll be calling Jerusalem.’ ”
That winter Tricia was living on Squibnocket Pond in Chilmark on the top of a hill high enough to see for miles, with water views in every direction. She got up at 1:30 a.m., and made a pot of tea. It was a full moon and there was snow on the ground, a gorgeous still snowbound night of post- midnight quiet. So at two a.m. Tricia dialed the phone, a rabbi picked up, and she said “This is Tricia Newell calling from Martha’s Vineyard.” In a heavy Hebrew accent the rabbi said, “Ahhhh, we have been expecting your call.” Tricia spent the next two and a half hours on the phone with a panel of four rabbis in Jerusalem asking what her understanding of grace was and why she had included an Einstein quote with the concept of grace on the sticker. It was a polite, multi-lingual interrogation.
Toward the end of the conversation, after more than two hours, they told her they had been friends of Einstein and that if he were alive, he would be standing on the street corner selling the bumper stickers with her. “They said that I had absolutely captured who he was as a spiritual person, and that they wanted me to do this, to talk about grace, for the rest of my life! I said, well, actually I’m a therapist and this sticker was just intended to go on my car. He said, ‘we understand that and we think that you should do if for your life.’ The rabbi translated everything I said into Hebrew, they all asked questions in Hebrew, he would translate it back into English and I would answer. Then he would translate what I said into Hebrew and I would hear a chorus of ah-hahs and oohs in the background as he translated what I’d said. The experience was unimaginable.
“The first thing they asked me was how I knew so much about Einstein’s thoughts about God and life, about the snowflakes and mathematical formulas and the universe. The rabbis said no one could have known all of that unless they heard it directly from Einstein, as they had. So I told them that besides my own reading, I’d heard directly from the assistant who’d been fired by Einstein, whose memory was known to be out of the ordinary, who remembered the conversations verbatim, as I did, because I was so fascinated by them.”
At one point one of the rabbis asked in Hebrew, ‘Does she realize the star on the sticker has six points on it?’ I said, ‘No I didn’t.’ He translated that back into Hebrew and one of them commented in Hebrew and they all laughed. By this point we were feeling comfortable, so I felt I could ask, ‘What did he say?’ ‘He said, some people are born Jewish and they don’t know it.’
At the end of the conversation the rabbis said that they controlled the estate of Albert Einstein through the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and were in charge of all of the licenses given for anything related to Einstein. The only companies with licenses up till then were huge corporations, like Hallmark or Scientific American, who paid $500,000 up front for future royalties. Tricia told the rabbis, “Well I just made 125 stickers for a 9 year-old boy. I wasn’t really planning to sell them.” They said, “Oh, we know that, don’t you worry about it.
We’ll tell you who to call and if they have any questions just tell them we sent you.
The rabbis gave Tricia the number of an agency to contact in the U.S. The next day she called and a woman answered the phone. “I didn’t know they’d given me the private number of the president of the agency. I begin to tell my story about needing a license to use a quote by Albert Einstein. She said, ‘Who are you.’ I started to repeat myself, and she said, ‘How did you get my number?’ I told her that I got it from the rabbis in Jerusalem.”
“There was silence on the other end of the phone. ‘You talked with the rabbis?’ ‘Yes, last night for 2 1/2hours.’ ‘Nobody in the world talks to the rabbis. I’ve never spoken to the rabbis, we communicate by fax only. How did you get their number?’ ‘Well, I’m not at liberty to say, but the rabbis said if there was any problem that I should call them back and they would handle it.’ She said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, there won’t be any problem. I’ll just need some basic information from you and we’ll issue you the license.’ ”
“So … I am the smallest company in the world to hold a license from the estate of Albert Einstein and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It turned out that the woman at the calendar company who’d put me in touch with the rabbis was a relative of Einstein’s, and one of the only people in the world who had the rabbi’s number.” A pure, grace happens coincidence. “Now all the paperwork, the license, the information about the rabbis and their number, are in a safety deposit box. It’s precious and protected.”
Part of the background to this grace-full tale is that Tricia, from a young age, had been planning to go to divinity school. She’d been accepted by Harvard and was expecting to get her PhD in divinity there. Then her mother died suddenly, and Tricia had to care for her father who was suffering from dementia. She had to put off getting her PhD.
Tricia was very upset about it, but tried to reconcile her feelings. “I’ve had conversations with God since I was a kid. So, I had another one, saying, ‘I can’t believe this, I got into school, I’ve been waiting my whole life to do this and now I can’t do it.’ The voice that I heard, that I always hear in the same way— very clearly— said, ‘Don’t worry, I have a job for you and you’ll know when you get it.’ ”
“So when the rabbis said we think that you should do this for your life, and I was on top of a hill in one of the most beautiful places in the world under a full moon at two in the morning talking to rabbis in Jerusalem about Grace – I could hear that voice whispering to me through the conversation saying, ‘Remember ten years ago when I said I had a job for you? Are you paying attention?’ I had been thinking about it for all that time, wondering, ‘When am I going to get my job?’ So this was, in effect, my ordination, and there was nothing to say, but oooh-kaaaaay!”
A prime case of “divine delay”!
And so it has become a major focus of her life. Over the years, Tricia has received scores of letters and phone calls from ministers, priests, rabbis and other teachers of faith conveying what grace means to them and why they love the sticker so much. Tricia says one of the main reasons they love it is because of the Einstein quote. “I’ve had some of the most amazing conversations, probably of my whole life, because of the combination of a spiritual concept with a scientist attached to it.”
The Grace Happens bumper sticker, with minimal promotion, has gotten around by word of mouth. Letters, cards and emails from all over the world come Tricia’s way. “I just saw your sticker when I woke up in a hut in the French West Indies. Over the door was a sticker that said Grace Happens with your address on it.” “I’m calling you from my cell phone. I’m on the I-10 freeway in Los Angeles behind a big black Mercedes with a Grace Happens sticker on it, and I just googled you. How do I get one?” Around the holidays she hears from clergy of all denominations who want to put one in each leaflet or missal. And, of course “Everyone who has a daughter or wife named Grace orders something for their birthday!”
“You know, the most endearing thing happened at the end of that conversation— the only one I had with them— the rabbis asked if I could possibly send them some T-shirts for their families, and copies of the sticker, so I put together a big package and sent Grace Happens off to Jerusalem!”
Article posted with permission by Avalon Magazine of Martha’s Vineyard. Photo posted with permission by photographer Betsy Corsiglia.
A SHORT (and sweet) …
“Sometimes grace manifests itself as synchronicity — its energy brings together people or events in a soothing, helpful, or dramatic way when you most need it and least expect it. At other times grace is the energy that suddenly illuminates us with understanding, allowing us to see what we had not been able to grasp before. Grace can also lift us into an altered state of consciousness, suffused by an unfamiliar energy — an indescribable combination of love, hope and fearlessness.”
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Do you have someone you’d like to be when you grow up? For me, it’s Susan Branch. If you don’t know her, she writes the most beautiful cookbooks, creates gorgeous calendars, develops material for quilters and generally has her creative mojo overflowing. Recently she began a blog and I love it! Take a look and escape into the wonderful world of Susan Branch.
So, I had to steal her little bumper sticker … I just know we would be friends if only I hung out on Martha’s Vineyard. : )
Anyway, her bumper sticker got me thinking … if we all lived like Susan Branch, we would create our own islands full of people that are wise and of good will. The grace would happen. We wouldn’t need anything fancy. We wouldn’t even need a view…just some good will and wisdom. And where can we find that? And here’s the big secret that Susan Branch doesn’t really know: at eye level with kids. So often, they have that lovely mixture of good will and wisdom.
They give second chances. They love ferociously. They think you’re beautiful. They dance. They cuddle when they need to (or if you need to), offer up a quick “sorry” when the time is right, pause with wonder and stop eating when they are full. They don’t have any pretenses and they tell it like it is. In short, they keep it real.
Just the other day, my sister’s son Peter was crying and my sister asked him why. He looked up at her and clarified the obvious: “Because sometimes little boys cry.” Yep. They do. So, on my list of things that kids do right is Peter’s astute observation: they allow themselves to cry when necessary.
Kids keep it simple. They can sense a fake the way a raccoon can find a garbage can, immediately. They live effortlessly, simply and with profound grace.
I have four kids. One just left to find his own little village full of wisdom and good will. Pray that he finds it, creates it and lives it. I do. And until I see him again, I’m going to hang with my posse: kids. I’m going to search them out, listen and wait because sssshhhh: that’s where the grace happens.