Sardines: A Meditation on Latecomers

My favorite variation of hide-and-seek, learned in one of the many towns I lived in as a child, was called Sardines. In a reversal of the regular game, only one person hid. He or she tried to find a fairly small spot to hide. The rest of us closed our eyes and counted. At the call, "Ready or not, here we come!" we spread out looking for the one who was hidden. Whoever found the hidden one tried noiselessly to hide in the same spot, awaiting discovery by others. Soon many of us were packed in (like sardines), trying hard not to giggle and give the spot away. The last to find us became the next to hide.

Though I hadn’t thought of it in years, I was reminded of this game in meeting one First Day. Like many meetings, we have an ongoing dilemma about latecomers. We should shut the doors, say some; too unfriendly, say others. We should elder those who are always late. Who knows why they are late, say others. And as we revisit the problem every few years in Ministry and Counsel, we also continue to live with it on a weekly basis. I have heard people whisper when latecomers arrive. I have felt people bristle as the doors open yet again. (In our meetinghouse, you must open a door, cross an uncarpeted, wooden floored porch, and, in the winter, open two more doors.) I discovered that the more scattered and in need of external silence I was, the more annoying it was when others came in late. When I came prepared for meeting (in the sense that I did something other than listen to National Public Radio or the oldies station while speeding to make it on time), others coming in late didn’t disturb me nearly as much. Clearly then, part of the problem lay in my control. How could I see things in a different way?

As I was trying to see the positive side of so many latecomers, that childhood game of Sardines came back to me. In remembering that game, I was suddenly able to welcome all those latecomers. The animosity and annoyance left me as I saw that they had been searching for us and had found us only now. As more and more of us gather in the small space, the silence deepens and we all are nurtured by it, and those who come late probably need it as much as those of us who try to be there on time. I felt that wonderful shift of perception as a lighter, truer idea replaced the darker, heavier one. The notion gripped me and I felt the inward shaking that propels me to my feet. I spoke about the game and said that I was now trying silently to embrace each person as they came in, welcoming them into this space where we are all hidden, seeking the Light in each other and in ourselves. Several people have spoken to me since that day and have said that the message I received and shared also helped them let go of the tension felt when the door opens for the fourth time in ten minutes, or the same person comes in a half hour late week after week.

Perhaps others will find it helpful to think of themselves as simply the first one to find the hiding place and to welcome others as they, too, find the small space in which we are all trying to hide . . . and seek.
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This article appeared in SPARK, the New York Yearly Meeting newsletter, in March 2003.