“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
“What do you mean one of our trees fell???”
I was on the phone with Steve, totally incredulous. I mean yes, there had been some gusts of wind tuesday evening while I visited my parents, but I could hardly believe they could be capable of literally uprooting one of our trees.
But when I got home, sure enough…there it was. One of the last remaining vestiges of the apple orchard this neighborhood colonized long ago lay toppled over, 20+ feet long. I fought the urge to cry as I ran my hand down that great living thing, this wooden symbol of the struggle between life and death: half of it had gone sick, infested by some bug and no longer bore leaves, but the other half of it appeared to be thriving, even bearing the beginnings of small, green apples.
I sunk my hands into the rotted roots and wondered at all that was still actively alive in all this dying: little bugs (no doubt culpable for the tree's demise) had carved hieroglyphic like patterns in the wood and scattered to hide as I traced over their art carvings; the bright leaves and soft bending branches were seemingly ignorant of their fate, green as ever, swaying in the wind…as though nothing was wrong.
We are evolutionarily disposed to hate what is dead or dying. Our brains are hardwired to fight or flee from what reminds us of death, and we’ve certainly created an anesthetized culture to create as much mental separation from the normal, gruesome path that nature must take toward decay. So, most of us live in denial. We prefer denial...focusing only on that half-living part, instead of acknowledging the full picture of what we'd rather not acknowledge to ourselves. We're so busy running from death that rarely do realize just how normal dying is in the family of things in constant change.
It feels cruel to me even now as I look out at it from the upstairs window: like watching a beached whale and being incapable of saving it, I feel a little revolted that I’m not out there pouring water on the exposed roots, as if that would somehow stave off the inevitable.
Do all these leaves even know their trunk has been uprooted?, I wonder.
They don't panic. They don't condemn me or the universe with reproaches of what could or should have been. Still they dance and sway in the breeze, still they offer their brightest green, still they welcome the birds to come and perch, still the leaves seem to softly shush me: Child, don't you see? This is the way of everything.
The tension of the whole universe exists between living and dying, striving and letting, pushing and yielding. Right in the heart of all things is that familiar wrenching friction, the tipping point of all becoming: the agony of letting go of what has been in order to make room for what could be.
I remember while birthing my son Rowan, how intense the transition was, how utterly broken apart I felt, how I was certain I was dying, and that I couldn’t possibly have the strength for another contraction. And there in the tension of it all came the awareness: the more I was able to try and relax into the contractions, to let this agony have its way, the sooner my son would be in my arms. But STILL I fought it…my primal brain was on stun, I wanted the pain to end, and don’t we all?
Teilhard often talks about the complexity of suffering and he gets plenty of flack for it. He claimed that this great riot of creativity we are part of in evolution seems to proceed no other way than through pain and suffering. People believe him to make trite and callused statements about human suffering, but I hardly think that a man who served as a stretcher bearer during World War I would have an ambivalent attitude about the horror of human pain.
“We are realizing that within the vast process of arrangement from which life emerges, every success is necessarily paid for by a large percentage of failures. One cannot progress in being without paying a mysterious tribute of tears…”(Teilhard, Activation of Energy, 247)
In other words: there is no other way forward in the creative chaos of evolution than to accept our paths themselves as necessarily tripping us up, bowing us uncomfortably around sharp angled bends, breaking us open into new plateaus, forcing us out of the familiar and narrow stories we’ve memorized and clutch at like mantras, saying:
“But, my life is supposed to look like this."
How do we know that we are not ourselves, while doubled over in pain, birthing a new possible reality into our world? How do we know that we ourselves aren’t being birthed every time life squeezes in around us, pressing all the former options and fluid out of our lungs until we’re forced to take in a painfully sharp breath of air?
The lines that precede the above quote by Mary Oliver’s poem “Black Waterwoods” are as follows:
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side is salvation,
whose meaning none of us will ever know.
What makes something topple? Give way? Go in this direction rather than that direction?
Who the hell knows?
I look at that tree and believe it really could have gone either way: it's thriving side might have fooled us yet... it might have gone on hiding its dying secrets for the duration of my children's lives, OR it might have fallen on our house the day after tomorrow. But it fell on that day and in that way.
The more we travel this evolutionary path, the more the old dying structures of our lives might begin to topple and exposed what was rotting slowly beneath our awareness. And here's the thing (and the sage words of my mother): you didn't cause it, and you couldn't have stopped it.
The only thing left to do is have the courage to accept it.
To carve our way slowly into gratitude and make a beautiful mark out of our pain.
To honor the complexity of life and death, and accept them as the same doorway.
To yield before change in hope and in trust.
To recognize that this great solid thing in your world is only going to be transfigured, never lost.
To understand that that particular tree, which has grown so long in you, is only changing from wood to heat, and that both are serving the one gift freely given: life in its own life turning, making room for more life in a new way.
Be courageous, evolutionaries. We cannot imagine what might be awaiting us beyond the pain of loss...and we're not supposed to. Life does not proceed from "known" to "known." But whatever awaits us on the other side of that hard current of surrender, it's worth the cost of letting go.