Oxydendrum arboreum: July 15, 2016
Sourwood trees have been especially opulent this year, streaming ribbons of bellflowers rippling in the air currents. I’ve been enjoying the sourwoods on my twice-weekly drive between Montreat and Greenville. And I’ve been wondering about another tree I’ve seen blooming. From the highway I could determine general characteristics. Understory tree. Smooth bark. Pinnately compound leaves reminiscent of sumac. Showy flowers or maybe samaras clustered on top of the leaves. These were usually red but sometimes yellow. What is that?
I searched on-line and flipped through three field guides. I texted a friend; asked around; took a blurry picture through the car window. Finally, by chance I discovered it in the fourth book. Ailanthus altisimma, “Tree of Heaven”, a dioecious, non-native species from China, first introduced to the US in the late 1780s by the same man, William Hamilton, who introduced Norway Maple and Ginkgo biloba, not to mention the Lombardy Poplar that Thomas Jefferson planted at Monticello. Whereas in Jefferson’s day the tree was coddled in greenhouses, Ailanthus is now considered an invasive, environmentally disruptive tree.
Another day, another drive…
Sunday afternoon we drove a rainy six hours to the beach from the mountains. Mark and I were listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. (Believe everything you’ve heard. It’s brilliant.) Kids were awake but getting along pretty well. (A phenomenon almost as noteworthy as Hamilton—a contemporary, but no relation to the ‘gentleman gardener’ above.) At this moment we were 60 miles from Litchfield Beach on a winding two-lane road and trusting in the GPS (“Who’s that girl talking, Mama?”) It was really pouring now.
In the blurry near-distance was a dark line which didn’t make sense. What is that?
Mark started tapping the brakes, then braking harder as we realized it was a tree fallen completely across the road. Two seconds of a panic until we slid into the tree and Wait for it, Wait for it, Wait…we stopped with a decisive thud. (“You hurt my head, Daddy.”)
Mark’s instinct was to get out and try to move the 18-inch diameter trunk off the road. My instinct was to turn off the CD and try to find the hazard lights. I was speaking nonsense soothing things to the children, scanning for cars coming in either direction, noticing the trunk was still partly attached to the stump, worrying about Mark hurting his back, searching my brain for solutions to risks that hadn’t yet occurred to me, picking a place to turn the car around….
Mark, streaming water, returned to the car; I showed him where he could back up to turn around; we backtracked a mile or so and went around. The first time I prayed was when we passed a car heading toward the tree and tried to signal the driver. Please Lord let them stop in time.
Then: thank you God for what didn’t happen to us.
Then, once my hands stopped trembling and the kids had gone back to bickering, once the GPS girl was quiet and the soundtrack was back on….. What’d I Miss?
I realized I’d totally missed noticing what kind of tree it was that had fallen across the road. Two weeks of minutia trying to key out “Tree of Heaven,” but in a moment of crisis, staring at a tree one small meter away, I had no inclination to classify. The primal drive to protect and strategize completely overrode my second-nature trait to identify and categorize.
The depth of focus varies with the circumstance. Sometimes it’s wide-angle: driving while noticing characteristics of an unfamiliar tree. Sometimes it’s close-up—don’t let another car hit us but if it does, here’s what I’ll do.
My mind is better at this specific, contracted focus. It’s the more familiar groove; consequently, the narrow, tightened mind is, oddly, easier to maintain than the spacious, open mind. Think of the mind as any other muscle, (“hold that thought”) and imagine the benefit of allowing it to relax and expand.
Sometimes a meditation practice that helps the mind to open still involves focusing, but only on one thing that the mind can notice without ‘thinking’ about it—like a candle flame, or the sound of rain, or your own breath—so that there is a focus but not a direction. I think of it as a panoramic focus. This summer I’ve been practicing using the sound of the creek behind our Montreat cottage.
I can hold a pretty good stretch of it in mind now: upstream almost to the old Gwaltney house, downstream to where it dives under Assembly Drive to join Greybeard. The openness I’m trying for is the awake awareness of a spacious mind without any expectation—just a holding open and being aware of what is around, but not responding to it. Response equals contraction.
In my years meditating with Quakers, my practice was openness as receptiveness. This is expectant waiting: waiting and trusting that I will feel/hear/discern God. Of the comments I received to the preview of this post, three of them came from Quakers, and all three underscored a distinction between meditation and worship.
Gita noted, “One way I experience waiting worship is that it is a collective intention while meditation is focused on my individual inner experience.” Likewise: “worship is a means of connecting to the Divine with and through others,” wrote Penelope.
Kevin-Douglas offered that meditation and prayer can both be parts of worship. And I loved this: “instead of me trying to will what kind of prayer or meditation or other activity I need…I listen to the Light.”
What a lovely synesthesia. Listening to the Light.
There does seem to be a distinction between meditating with Christians and meditating within a Buddhist tradition. The Quakers have a Meeting for Worship, whereas Buddhists meet to practice meditation.
Even so, many Buddhists talk of Presence—noting that one reaches a state of union with Presence itself, which Christian mystics also experience.
Listen to Joanna Macy in the preface to her translation (with Anita Barrows) of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God:
When I first undertook meditative practice, I did not feel a divine presence, an encompassing Other to be held and supported by, which seemed to be there for the young Rilke.
Don’t you sense me, ready to break/ into being at your touch? [I, 19]
But gradually over time, as the mind relaxed, capacities bred by my earlier Christian experience resurfaced and infused my understanding of Buddhism. The presence that I become aware of, around and within me, is apprehended through an act of rapt, wordless attention, receptive and probing. And what the presence seems to be is the web itself, the thrumming relationality of all things.
I find that when I practice the open awareness of meditation, I am then better able to walk through the world with a posture of expectant waiting. My mind is open to Presence, and can contract and focus on whatever God reveals.
“I am a hole in the flute that the Christ’s breath moves through.” That’s a line from a Persian poet who lived in Iran in the 1300s. His pen name was Hafiz, which is also a title indicating that he had memorized the Quran.
I will sing you as no one ever has,/ streaming through widening channels/ into the open sea. --Rilke’s Book of Hours, [I, 12]
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. May I listen to your Light with rapt, wordless attention.
I am the sourwood that dances on Your breath.