A confession: there is a kind of envy that sometimes creeps up in me when I notice famous people, like authors with many popular books, or those widely praised or described as “influencers” and “visionaries.” (Especially when those books are most similar to my own one book.) I grapple with the fact that in the great scheme of worldly success I often feel like a nobody, and more so in my life today with chronic illness and retirement isolation. Margy reminds me that it is only human to feel such feelings. My critical thinking also notes that in the capitalist system, these hierarchies are meant to elicit self-hate and hunger. Hierarchy and domination are the underpinnings of all oppression.
Taking a brief walk today, I imagine my ancestors curious and baffled at this strange descendent who is a writer, who has strange cravings for fame. They never thought about such things. Then I remembered a poem I wrote many years ago, and went looking for it. I had titled it The Inner Wounds of Class Oppression. It is still a healing incantation for me.
Every day, envy gnaws at your fingers.
Your eyes watch the movers and shakers
climbing into dream cars, Going Places.
You want to be Somebody. You would ride,
eyes averted from the rear view mirror
where all of the Nobodies recede
like small dark flies to brush away
from smooth shoulders.
Every day, anger fills your gut like a pile of bricks.
Your own hard shoulders ache to reach in
and hurl them forward one by one.
Your ears would strain to hear the glass
shattering and rubber squealing,
as the fine white shine of the dream machine
careens sidelong off the grade
into a deep obituary.
Every day, you clutch at the bark of trees,
knees trembling, moved and shaken.
Your fingertips feel for hidden messages
left there on some other blue morning when somebody
was repeating poems into gnarled crevices,
quiet voice seeping down the edges of roots
into rock under sand: Remember who you are.
Precious as soil. Worthy of the sun.
On December 23rd, a severe rain and wind storm passed through Maine, after also creating havoc with storms and snow in other states. In the early afternoon, I was sitting in the living room, and suddenly heard some sort of clattering outside. I had previously gone out in the rain to right overturned trash barrels, and so I went out again to look around. At that moment, Margy was driving into the driveway from an appointment, and she asked me–did you see the crabapple tree? Going round the side of the house, this is what came into view: one of the ornamental crabapple trees in our front yard had suddenly cracked through its trunk and fell over. It didn’t land on anything or damage anything, which was a relief, but the tree was dead.
A couple hours later, our electric power went out, along with many other thousands in Maine–though only a segment of the people on our street. The thing with power outages is–you never know if it is going to be a brief interlude, a few hours, or a few days. You enter this limbo time of unknown duration. We waited until dark, and then lit our wood stove–thank goodness our house had this wood stove when we purchased it. It is a very fine wood stove, and it will heat the entire house when needed. We don’t usually use it except for emergencies. But in fact we had used it just a week ago when our heat pumps were being repaired. We have a few flashlights and candles, so we lit those too. And I could connect to the world via my cell phone, and Facebook.
However, I have to acknowledge that it felt very dark, the sun setting at 4 p.m., and not rising until about 7 a.m. Keeping up with wood in the stove was exhausting. It was hard to just relax with the uncertainty of it all. After a Friday of warm and windy rain, the temperature dropped on Saturday to a frigid 12 degrees. I was worried about our refrigerator food, and the freezer in our basement. I covered the freezer with a few blankets. I put the food from the fridge freezer into rubber tubs, and put them out on the back deck. Then, an unexpected grace–our neighbor Brian came by, and offered to run an extension cord from their house to ours–they had not lost power. So by this gift, we were able to plug in our refrigerator.
Before the storm, we’d purchased a round shrimp plate for a holiday treat–so Friday dinner was shrimp and cheese and crackers and cucumber and carrots. A little picnic. Margy had also boiled some eggs before the storm, and we had some sliced ham, so those were other meals that didn’t need cooking. On Saturday early evening, I got a text that the power should come back at 7 p.m., but then it did not. I felt such disappointment then, and crankiness, and boredom. Later, we tried to work on a puzzle, but without a good light source, it was mostly frustrating.
It is humbling to realize how difficult I found this time without electricity. I felt disconnected, restless, and bereft. I tried reading the book I had started a little while ago, but it was a heavy subject, and I couldn’t manage it in the midst of everything else. I missed the entertainment and mental stimulation of television or streaming channels like Britbox and Prime. I missed connecting to Christmas Eve services through Zoom. I felt at a total loss. I had imagined that as I grew older, I would become more resilient with age. But I see that I am perhaps less resilient after all, that I am vulnerable and dependent in many ways. When I went to bed, I felt defeated.
For whatever reason, I woke at 3 a.m. on Christmas, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I added a log to the fire, and wrote in my journal. I think then that I surrendered to the situation I was in–that here we were, in the dark, and we didn’t know for how long–and yet, we were warm, and we had food, and kind neighbors, and offers of support via Facebook. We were not alone. I thought about the people in Ukraine right now, also facing the loss of electricity in winter, and maybe no heat or water, along with the devastation of war and bombs–so much loss and uncertainty. I found myself praying for those folks who were facing so much greater hardships. I acknowledged my vulnerability and exhaustion.
By the time the sun rose, I felt peaceful sitting near the fire, drinking some tea after I’d managed to heat water on the narrow five-inch ridge on the top of the wood stove. I was still exhausted, still humbled by the difficulty of my managing in these circumstances, but somehow at peace with all of that. It would be a lie to say that I was not relieved when our power came back on at 10 a.m. But I am glad I came to some peace within my spirit before the end of our 44 hours without power.
Almost Winter Solstice here! We got our first snow the other day, just a few inches, but enough to brighten the ground. It is good. It seems the long cold nights are infiltrating my spirit, and I feel weary. As I get older, it is harder to rejoice in the season of winter–ice has tripped me up on prior walks, and bruised my bones. COVID has limited our ability to welcome guests into our home, and it is too frigid for visits in the garden. Last week, our heat pumps suddenly stopped working, and we turned to our back-up boiler, but it seemed a little clanky from disuse, so we fired up our wood stove. That sounds cozy, but I find the wood smoke gives me headaches. (Thankfully, the heat pumps were repaired in two days.)
I feel old and cranky and tired with this season. It is ironic that pagan myths often assign this season to an old woman. I wonder if the winter crone is cranky? I am wrestling with how to find the magic of this cold dark season.
I didn’t really feel like getting a holiday tree. But Margy did, so we got this tree from our local food coop. I don’t feel guilty for it being cut, because it was grown for this purpose on an organic tree farm. Seeing how many seedlings try to grow into a new forest in our yard, I know that there can be an abundance of seedlings that naturally never grow up–so this one got to grow to eight feet and then be celebrated. I find myself surprised by how good it feels to have this little tree with us in the house, like a connection to the natural world during a time when that connection is harder to feel. I feel grateful to Margy for pulling us into its sweet magic.
That is my question. How to find the magic of this cold dark season? Can I quiet my mind, rather than merely entertaining it with stories in books or on screen? (though this has often been a season of stories) Can I open my heart, even if I am far away from most friends and family and other loved ones? (reaching out with letters and cards?) Can I embrace the sorrows and fears of age, of my age, my sorrows and fears, and give them a home in this moment? (hospitality has many forms) Can I embrace the silence? Let myself sink into it, floating down like a snowflake, bury myself in the silence like the plants are buried in snow? Silent night.
With these last few quiet days at home, Margy and I were finally (after almost four years) able to take down from the attic all of our wall pictures, and decide how we wanted to decorate the walls of our living room and kitchen. It was especially wonderful to place over our fireplace hearth this print, Stewardship of the Earth, by James E. Francis and Arla Patch. We had purchased it several years ago in a fundraiser for Maine Wabanaki REACH. Here is more information about it from an article in the Friends Journal.
This work of art is a collaboration between James E. Francis, Penobscot artist and director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, and Arla Patch, artist, teacher, and [at that time] member of the communications subcommittee of the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was made for a western Maine community celebration of the native woman Molly Ockett (c. 1740–1816, Abenaki nation, Pequawket band). The theme of 2013’s MollyOckett Days Festival was “Stewardship of the Earth.” James created the central image of the tree that becomes the earth. Arla created the context based on the European American tradition of quilts. James provided the symbols, which represent the four remaining tribes in the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, and the Micmac.
A theme of the four directions, which comes from both Native American spirituality and ancient Celtic tradition, is depicted as the night sky for the north; the sun rising over “second island” next to the Passamaquoddy land of Sipayik; the midday sky for the south; and the sun setting over the White Mountains for the west. “Agiocochook” (home of the Great Spirit), also known as Mt. Washington, is included in the western sky.
Blueberries are included for the role they have played in sustaining Maine native peoples historically and to this day. Maple leaves are in the upper corners to honor the development of maple syrup by the Wabanaki.
When we put this picture on the wall, along with a few others around the room, I found myself feeling rooted and joyful, at home in a deeper way than before. It was as if some mysterious magic had created a circle around us, and we were aligning into harmony and beauty.
May that beauty bring us hope and strength as we enter a new decade, a decade that will be pivotal in our collective stewardship of the Earth. May we human beings find a way to live in harmony with all of our relatives on this planet that is our home.
Life holds a strength that will not be extinguished, that will crack open the most oppressive of constraints. When I was in Tenant’s Harbor, a few weeks ago, I saw this spruce tree growing out of a huge boulder. Its roots were literally embedded in a crack in the rock itself. I wondered if a seed had found a tiny patch of soil within a crack, or if in fact, the seed, rooting, had created the crack in the rock. But however it first took hold, the roots were now literally splitting the rock in two.
I don’t mean to reduce a boulder to a metaphor for something bad. I love these boulders that populate our landscape from the time of the ice age. They also harbor all sorts of life in the forms of lichen and moss. But just for a moment, I do ask its indulgence to borrow a possible metaphor for hope in these times of despair.
There is so much about which to feel despondent right now. Migrant children confined in tent prisons away from family. Trans friends being erased from official acknowledgement or protection. People in Gaza and Yemen being starved and bombarded with weapons made in the U.S. Misogynists and racists gunning down innocent people in sanctuaries for prayer. Leaders who belittle other people and stir up hate and destroy the earth for profit and greed. I could go on and on. We are facing dire futures, caught in the grip of suffocating destruction.
Tomorrow there will be a vote in our country. Things will get better or worse. I will vote. But I don’t put all my hopes in the vote. As we saw in the election of 2016, elections can be interfered with. (Our own government has also interfered in the elections of other countries.) There has been a concerted effort to suppress the votes of Black citizens in Georgia, Native Americans in North Dakota, others. There are voting machines that cannot be trusted to report votes accurately. I hope that in the vote, things will get better. I hope that so many people vote that we can overcome the suppression. But my deepest hope is not in the vote. My deepest hope is in the power of the spruce to crack the boulder, the power of the earth to restore itself, the power of the love we hold in our beating hearts.
There was one more thing about the spruce. It was not alone. There were two trees growing the crack in that boulder. You can just barely see the second smaller trunk behind the first in the photo above. But here is another photo, a close-up from behind. Two trees–both of them might be said to be caught in the boulder. But they are not caught. They are growing strong, green, full of life and energy. They are cracking that boulder together. And so we humans, too, must not face these despairs alone, must find each other and join our strengths together.
A boulder seems to be hard and unyielding. Roots seem to be gentle and soft. But the rock does yield to the tree. Remember that.
I am feeling an paradox today. I began this search for greener housing out of a desire to live more in harmony with all beings of earth. It grew out of a deepening experience of our interconnection in an earth community. Yet, the disruption and labor of moving from one place to another has chipped away at that felt sense of connection and I have been out of balance and spiritually exhausted.
What helps me to start finding my way back into balance are the walks I take most mornings near our new home. I go out our back door, and then wander in our neighborhood, some days over to the Hall Trail near Capisic Brook, other days over to the trails at Evergreen Cemetery. I’ve found a huge old grandmother tree a few blocks away, the oldest one I’ve seen so far. Given the season and lack of leaves, I don’t even know what species it is, though I am wondering about Maple, since there are maple seeds on the ground nearby.
Along my walks, the cardinals have been singing their most beautiful dawn songs, naming their territories and wooing their loves. I am a tree person and a cardinal person and so I stop to put my hands on this tree, and I stop to listen to the cardinal songs, and try to catch a glimpse of them, usually bright and beautiful near the top branches. There are cardinals in our own yard too. So day by day, I hope to restore my strength, to reweave the threads that are torn and frayed from the move.
For a long time, I have been saying to whomever might listen that my fantasy is to live in a zero-carbon home, a home that is so energy efficient that it doesn’t put carbon into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, or use energy that is based on fossil fuels. There is more to it than that, but ultimately, I am hoping for a way to live more in harmony with the whole of the living earth, to live as if our human future holds life-sustaining possibilities.
So, my partner and I have started on a new adventure toward this greener living. We have decided to downsize from our current home, and look for a smaller home that could be retrofitted to approach zero-carbon efficiency. It is an adventure full of anxieties and tensions, so I decided to create a blog journal as we go. I want to remind myself of the core values involved in this transition, and the grace and magic available to us when we take steps toward our deepest earth connection. It is also a way to honor the challenges we face as we seek to create change.
Our house with trees
There are so many things we love about our current home–it is a well-built ranch-style house on one acre of land full of grand mature trees–large maples in the front yard, and tall oaks, pines, hemlocks, spruce, and birches in the back yard. We have such privacy and beauty around us when we go outside, and this place has been a teacher for my journey into deeper connection with the earth. There are birds and chipmunks and other critters who wander through. The house is full of light.
So why leave? For one reason, there are limits to what can be done with this house toward greater sustainability. It doesn’t have the right alignment for solar power, for example. Secondly, it is out in the country/suburbs, and totally dependent on automobile transportation for every human need. So even if the house could be made more efficient, the location is oil-dependent. Thirdly, and perhaps most basically, it is more house and land than we really need, and expensive for us to maintain and take care of. We couldn’t afford to do much more than we have already done toward greener living in this house. And as we look toward the possibility of future retirement, we realize we couldn’t afford to stay here at all on a retirement income.
One essential part of this process of change is the grief that emerges when we contemplate letting go of a home we have loved, and these trees that are older than we are. When we open our hearts to the land, we open our hearts to the particularity of a place. This unique place. I have taken hundreds of walks down this road, taken photos of these trees in all seasons, walked to the conservation land and the water district land just half a mile away. I’ve cross-country skied back behind the yards and houses through little paths in woods out to hidden fields. I know where the lady slippers bloom in the spring. We’ve planted flowers and bushes and young trees here, along with blueberries and raspberries.
Can a part of the magic of this change create protection for this land we have nurtured? Only if some new resident falls in love as we fell in love when we arrived here. Maybe someone with more resources could even take this place further on its own path to sustainability. In the meantime, we keep our hands in the soil and our hearts open. We gather this season’s raspberries and keep going outside. Perhaps our love for this land is a part of the magic of this journey.
Next time, I will share our particular dreams for the new home we are seeking…
There was one more communication I experienced with the four directions tree which was not about writing or speaking or even thinking. Sometimes I merely sat, my body balanced between the sturdiness of the main branches, my eyes resting in the translucent green softening the sunlight.
Even then, the tree and I were involved in a sacred exchange. When I breathed, the tree was my intimate partner. The tree breathed out the oxygen that I needed to be alive, and I breathed out the carbon dioxide that it used for nourishment. Our physical bodies are designed to need each other. We give and receive the very substance of our lives. We have been giving and receiving this way for millennia.
We and the trees are neighbors on this planet, but more than that, we are sacred partners, we are kin. We are genetically and spiritually related to each other. If we are open to respecting the trees, if we value the inherent worth and dignity of the trees, it then becomes possible for us to experience in the trees the presence of the divine Mystery.
Breathing and writing, dreaming and remembering, in the sacred arms of the beech tree, I knew I what it felt like to be held by God and to be one with God. The trees teach us that all of us are related; their quiet language sings the song of the marvelous interweaving unity of life on Earth. Remember this, the next time you walk by the trees near where you live. Listen. And then remember to say thanks.
When I write in my journal, I do it on paper, and what is paper but very thin slices of wood? Each time I write, I enter this old partnership of human and tree. We join together to create a magic of exploration and memory which neither of us could do alone. Think of the vast store of human wisdom and history found in libraries around the world. All of it would have been impossible without trees to hold our words in their keeping.
Many years after I sat in the beech tree, I discovered another link. According to Gilbert Waldbauer, the ancient Germanic peoples would carve their runes on thin slabs of beech wood. These were sometimes laced together with thongs to create what they called a Buch, which is the German word for both beech and book.
The tree is our original text, the bearer of all text. When I sat in the beech tree, I was face to face with that perennial yearning of humankind to leave our mark. I too had a yearning to leave my mark on paper, writing my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and memories, creating something new with the magic of words.
Trees have been the foundation of so much human life and culture. The first fuel of many of our ancestors was wood. Our houses are made of wood. The floors, the walls, the ceilings, the window frames and doorways. We are surrounded and held up and sheltered by the gift of trees. Our musical instruments, our tools, our boats, many of our foods and medicines, all are possible because of trees. No wonder we say “Knock on wood” when everything is going well and we wish to protect ourselves from bad luck.
Trees also play a significant role in the crisis we face today for the health of our planet. Deforestation has contributed to global warming, and planting new trees can contribute to reducing the levels of carbon in the atmosphere. I am inspired by the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, founded by Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Beginning in 1977, she organized poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees, and learn small scale trades that benefit the environment while providing a living. Over 40 million trees have been planted in Kenya in the last thirty-six years.
Sometime I wish we Americans could go back to the old European pagan approach to trees. They didn’t believe it was wrong to cut down trees or use their products for their needs. But the old pagans taught that before cutting a tree one must ask permission of the tree. To request its consent acknowledges that we have a relationship of mutuality and respect. Some might say that asking wouldn’t alter the act of cutting the tree. But just compare how consent and respect differentiate acts of lovemaking from acts of assault.
To relate to a tree with respect will change the nature of the use we make of it for our survival needs. I believe that a tree is not merely a tool and resource for human needs. The tree is a sacred Other, with its own inherent value and meaning. How do we know that the tree does not have its own sentient life? Recently I learned that trees emit low frequency vibrations that human ears cannot detect. My lack of knowledge about its language, does not determine that the tree is without a language of its own.
Along with journaling, another form of writing that has been a part of my spiritual journey is to write to someone I care about—not to be sent to that person, but to express what I need to express to them. This can be especially powerful when we have lost someone we love to death. My first romantic partner, Gary, and I were together for six years. After we had been separated for a few years, he was killed in an auto accident. I still loved him, and my heart felt broken at his passing. There was much that had been left unfinished in our connection. I found that I could write to him in my journal—I could tell him all the things that had not been said between us. It was a way to find healing and bring closure to our relationship.
Another side to this writing is to write in the voice of the other person or being. Here is an example of what I mean. I ask a question, whatever question is deep in my heart. One of my perennial questions is “How can I learn to live in harmony with the earth?” I write it down. Then I let the voice of the trees answer the question. I do this literally. I write, “the trees say:” and then keep writing. Here is what came out when I asked this question most recently: “The trees say slow down, stop running everywhere, feel the wind on your face, feel the sun on your skin. Don’t be afraid, you can do this. You belong to the earth.”
It wouldn’t have to be trees. It could be birds, the ocean, the moon. It could be myself at the age of eight. It could be my old love Gary. On a psychological level, in all of these exercises, what I am doing is tapping into parts of myself that hold wisdom. On a spiritual level, we are not separate from trees, birds, the ocean or the moon—so who is to say that if we open our souls we can’t hear the wisdom they might have for us? Writing connects us to the depths of our own hearts, and our hearts connect us to all that is.
Anne LeClaire, a writer I met while living on Cape Cod, said we must take up our pen “like a heat-seeking missile… aiming it for the territory of truth.” We must go to the places we are afraid to go. We so often try to keep our hearts hidden, afraid to expose our secret selves. But LeClaire challenges us: “The heart of the universe is always within our own hearts if only we can be brave enough to expose it.”
Writing is a journey we take to discover who we are and what in us is true. Writing will surprise us. We don’t know ahead of time what will come out on the page, what will emerge within our souls. Like the magic of the ancient runes carved in trees, writing reveals secrets to us.
Quote from Anne D. LeClaire, “Writers and… Risks,” in The Cape Codder, Nov. 3, 2000.