Monday, March 28, 2011

We Who Stand As Trees

Two weeks ago one of the young sawtooth oaks in the backyard was still clinging to its winter leaves – tight little wrapping paper tubes of brittle brown. The bigger leaves were long gone; these were the recalcitrant ones, the obstreperous children determined to have their own way.

The air was warm that morning. The sun was bright. The verbena I’d planted last summer at the corner of the deck was already blooming purple and spilling over the concrete edgers I’d put in place to keep it contained. What was the oak tree still doing holding on to winter?

I started wondering how, exactly, the tree’s new buds might force the leaves to fall, how the sap might begin pumping in a rhythm akin to a heartbeat, each pump jarring the leaf a little looser until eventually, like the criminal hanging by his fingertips from the 30-story ledge, there was nothing to do but drop. I could almost see the sticky life-juice pushing through the thin bark, could almost hear it screeching with false bravado, "Hey, you! Yeh, you, yesterday’s news, outta here!"

A couple of days later I pulled into the driveway (in daylight, thanks to the time change) and saw the oak tree covered, ballooned in Coke-bottle green buds and matching leaves. The armature of branches was all but completely hidden by the froth. Not a single brown cylinder remained. Not even on the ground.

I’ve grown accustomed to the natural world’s prestidigitation. It cannot be watched closely enough to observe the change as it happens. It performs its magic in secret, under cover of darkness or solitude. Overnight the grass needs cutting. In the afternoon you water a rosebud; in the morning it is in full flower; by evening it is fading.

But this was different. Not the ordinary wizardry of spring. That many leaves do not drop and disappear that quickly.

Still studying the suddenly voluptuous tree over my shoulder, I started toward the back steps and noticed the pine cone seeds. They fanned out over the carport floor like fairy dust, salmon pink translucent wings weighted down by seeds the color of doe eyes. They’d been lifted from their trees of origin, carried across the landscape between earth and sky, and deposited at my doorstep by invisible gusts of warm spring wind.

And, of course, that is how the oak tree got naked so quickly, too. The wind. Warm spring wind.

The new buds chafed for the dead leaves to fall of their own accord and the dead leaves held to the branch with righteous anger. The new buds, full of new life, impatient to see sunlight, feel raindrops, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen trembled with anticipation while the dead leaves trembled with fear. Neither could do anything but wait.

Wait for the wind. Wait for the outside force. Wait for the shaking that would strip to naked the strong skeleton and re-dress it in newer, better attire.

We all like to think that we are the managers of our lives, that we make the choices and create the timelines, that the decisions of when or if to hang on or let go are ours and ours alone. To take that approach occasionally may be appropriate, but to live one’s entire life that way is to live in denial.

The truth is that we are all trees. We sprout leaves. We produce fruit. We offer shade. In season. But seasons change. And so we must stand in the wind, roots holding us up straight and tall, and watch as it blows and gusts and tears away all that is dead in order that we may see all that is alive.
Copyright 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Age to Age

It is grainy and gray, faded and fragile to the touch, a newspaper clipping from 1966. I am bent over it with a combination of amusement and incredulity. The caption says that it is a photograph of Girl Scout Troop 370 on a field trip to the Statesboro Herald. It identifies the twenty or so girls, row by row. There in the middle is my name.

I don’t remember the visit to the newspaper. I don’t remember Mr. Coleman showing us the printing press. I recognize very view of the faces in the photo. That is the incredulity. The amusement arises from the smile – the goofy, tight-lipped grin – on the face of the little girl that was Kathy Bradley. I can’t help laughing out loud.

And I can’t help staring.

Ten years old. That would be fifth grade. Mrs. Trapnell’s class at Mattie Lively. That was the year my friend Gail got rheumatic fever, the year I got so good playing marbles with the boys at recess, the year I got my long ponytail cut. It was the year I went to Mrs. Russell’s classroom for reading, was the narrator of the end-of-school program and spent a week in June at Camp Safety Patrol.

I remember all that, but I don’t remember this imp, this scamp, this child who might just burst at any moment from the sheer volume of joy that has risen up through her chest and into her face. What has made her so cheerful? Is it the jaunty green felt beret? Is it the excitement of the field trip? Or is it just being ten years old?

"The great thing about getting older," Madeleine L’Engle, the writer best known for her children’s fantasy books, once told the New York Times, "is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been." The quote comes to mind later as I find myself contemplating the little girl with the silly smile. If I have not lost her, where is she?

Certainly she remains in my still-strong penchant for the cookies she sold, but I am not certain that I can detect her features in the face I see in the mirror each morning. I cannot swear that her curiosity or self-confidence or insouciance lingers in the posture I feel compelled to maintain most days. And I am absolutely sure she is not racing me to bed on the nights when life’s inevitable blows leave me spent in body and spirit.

It wasn’t so many days later that I saw a couple of Girl Scouts camped out at a grocery store entrance, card table covered in cookie pyramids of Thin Mints, Trefoils, Tagalongs and Samoas. I watched from a distance, listened to their sing-song voices call out, "Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?" I was stopped cold.

The words, the timbre, the chill in the air became the shaped notes of a song I knew by heart, its sheet music locked in a bottom drawer of my memory. Right then, right there, the ten-year-old me showed up from wherever she’d been hiding, vacationing, held ransom.

She dropped a cool, slick marble in my hand and my thumb bent to shoot it. She handed me a Blue Horse notebook and I spread the pages open across its spiral wire to see fat, loopy cursive vocabulary words. She offered me a pair of stark white Keds with a blue rubber label on the heel and I tightened the laces to go outside to play dodge ball.

I looked down to straighten my badge sash and when I looked back up she was gone. Except, of course, she wasn’t. She was exactly where she’d always been. With me. Inside me. Me.

I will always be ten years old. And fifteen. And thirty. And forty. I just may need to be reminded

Copyright 2011