It’s easy to forget the way life used to be as we sit in the comfort of 2016’s America. I was talking with someone the other day about the McMansion trend happening in the suburbs. The vaulted ceilings, enormous shiny kitchens, three fireplaces in one home – all of which are rarely used and operated by a light switch. Look back even one generation ago, and these traits would have been rare and now they seem commonplace or stale.
My grandmother grew up in a tiny house with her four siblings. Two bedrooms and a kitchen whose walls you can almost touch with both arms if you stretch far enough. Her mother lived there until she died at the age of 92, and the house is still standing. It’s adjacent to my grandparents’ home, and I noted when I wrote her obituary that she was born and died on the same family span of property – a story that almost never happens anymore.
In the front of that tiny house, stood an old tree that shaded the yard and stands central to my childhood memories of family gatherings and Sunday lunches. Shade in the thick Georgia heat as we’d gather with long tables strung together, one right after the other, and food all the way to the end. Homemade ice cream and cousins and games of tag. Afternoons when we’d begin spread all over the yard and slowly move folding chairs to the shady spot as the sun spread a little higher and hotter overhead when the hours wore on.
A limb fell from the tree last week, and as it turns out, much of it was partially rotted, as trees often do with the passage of time.
It was taken down on Thursday, and I drove by yesterday. It’s a weird sight to see that house without its tree out front. The whole landscape I know so well altered and feeling exposed, naked. Raw nerves left open when they haven’t closed yet anyway. Change after change after change. It’s only a tree, I know. Except that it’s not.
So many ancient cultures saw trees as more than wooden branches. They’ve been associated with prayer and spirit and protection for thousands of years. It’s easy to see why that is when you look at an old tree. Its wisdom seems to predate and outlast our own. We watch seasons change and colors come and go on the branches. And after every change and loss in the landscape of our real lives, they just seem to watch and listen patiently – a reminder of both what is temporary and what is eternal.
I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about how I was raised, the things I learned without knowing I was learning them, the truths I absorbed. You don’t really think about these things because they become so second nature to you. But as is always the case with death, my grandmother’s passing has me digging back through the loads of memories buried in my own mind and realizing the ways they taught me what I needed to learn.
Do people do this anymore? Do they raise families in tiny homes and see abundance around them instead of need? Do they know third cousins as well as they know siblings? Do they sit on porches and under shade trees for hours on a Sunday afternoon and talk about things other than work or money or pop culture? I think the answer is mostly no, and that makes me sad but also grateful I’ve led the life I have.
I woke this morning to my daily Richard Rohr Meditation in my email inbox, and his subject line read “Rise Up Rooted Like Trees.” Yes, God, I heard you. I’m listening, I’m listening.
Rohr happens to include Rilke, who has guided me so much lately and tells us, “If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees. Instead we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused. … This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly.” The Earth’s intelligence tells us that things rise and fall, live and die. It tells us that we can’t control what is before us, even with vaulted ceilings or three fireplaces. We forget this though. It is a daily struggle for me, in our modern world, to know that you don’t have to be happy all the time, that sorrow and grief have a place in our lives, that our inner landscape is far more important than our outer achievements.
Rohr expands on Rilke a bit by explaining that in nature, “Nothing stays in the same shape or form for long. Plants and animals seem to accept this dying. All of the natural world seems to accept the change of seasons. Nature fights for life but does not resist dying. It learns gravity’s fall, as it were. Only one species resists this natural movement: humans—you and me. … We are free to cling to our own egoic resources, to climb instead of to descend. But we must fall if we are ever to fly.”
You have to descend before you can ascend, don’t you? Reach deeper inward before you can expand outward. Walk through sorrow with honesty before you can feel real joy. You can only rise when you are rooted.
I’m grateful for the memories I have of lazy summers spent under the shade of that tree, the shelter it gave us for the conversations that shaped my life and who I’ve become. And I’m grateful for it still, as it fell and was hauled away in pieces. It’s teaching me the most important lesson in its absence. Let go, let go, let go. Life makes us shed our skin again and again. It hurts to become something new.