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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Joshua's Tree

Portland was hit with a surprise snow storm yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t a surprise to me, as early yesterday morning during my walk with Happy-dog through the park near my home, I could smell the potential for snow (I even documented my snow-sense in an email to my daughter, who is visiting family in France, announcing to her that I thought it just might snow. And it did!). We received a couple of inches in a few hours, the big fluffy flakes that fall when the temperature is hovering around 32 and there’s a mixture of warm and cold air in the atmosphere. Of course, once it began snowing, around 2:30 pm or so, the part of my brain I use for work went on strike and all I could do was look out the window and watch to see if the snow was going to accumulate or not. When I was sure that we were experiencing a real storm, I strapped on my snow boots, and Happy-dog and I headed back out to the park for a very long session of marveling and frolicking.

As the duskiness came, and the snow kept falling on us, I felt sad for my fellow Portlanders stuck in the bumper-to-bumper traffic I could see on one of the main commuter routes that flanks the east side of the park. I heard the cries of geese trying to fly through the snow, and the wails of ambulance sirens, so I gave a little prayer for whoever was in the accident toward which the ambulance was attempting to rush through the traffic and the slush. By bedtime, the real snowing was over and the temperature was high enough that I knew we’d be lucky if we woke up to still find snow blanketing our city. In bed, preparing to sleep, I wished it were still snowing—do you know that sound when it is snowing at night, when you are under the covers in bed, trying to fall asleep? And the quality of the light outside, even at night, when there is snow on the ground? How would you describe that sound, that light?

I am glad to report that when I woke up this morning, there was still snow on the ground, though it was melting. And that I didn’t have to go into work, as I’m working from home one more day, pretending to be on vacation (though I’ve only just been able to reactivate the work part of my mind—the snow had to be melted enough for me to be able to place my attention elsewhere.). This means that Happy-dog and I got to enjoy a last session of marveling and frolicking in the snow. We were out this morning for a nice long while, running sometimes, walking sometimes, sometimes stopping to look at the various water fowl, all of whom I’m in love with and learning how to tell apart (thanks to the field guide I received as a Christmas present!).

Toward the end of our walk, I decided to disrupt our regular routine, and rather than walking around the casting pond, we walked parallel to it through the big stand of trees that live in between the highway and the east edge of the pond. As we approached the last tall tree (a big spruce, I think), I thought I detected something out-of-the-ordinary about it; in fact, I saw something which caused me to stop in my tracks, catch my breath; I could feel my heart jump. There, wrapped around the bottom third of the tree (which is the shape of a huge Christmas tree), were yards and yards of ribbon garland, dark red and gold, about 8 inches wide. I quickly glanced around to see if any of the other trees were decorated this way, and none were. Then I wondered how long it had been decorated in this way – how many days had I not been aware of this little sweet miracle? The closer I was to the tree, the more I saw; in addition to the garland, there were little butterfly ornaments attached to various boughs. I walked a circle around the tree and saw blue, red, and white butterflies. They were wet from the melting snow, but intact. (I have many little bird ornaments in my Christmas tree at home, but next year, I think I’ll add some butterflies—how lovely and charming!) Happy-dog started pulling me, wondering why I was walking in circles around the tree (it is usually he who does so!), and perhaps also wondering why I was talking to myself. I was trying to record the experience so I could remember it, and the best way for me to do so is to start writing, which often means talking to myself.

Once I thought I’d seen all there was to see about this surprising tree, I began to turn away, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught site of something under the tree. I knelt down and peered underneath the heavy boughs, melting snow falling on my head, and I found there a memorial plaque, affixed in the dirt. It was in memory of Joshua John O’Leary, on the earth from 1978 to 1997, honored brother, son and friend. Again, I was stopped in my tracks, my mind racing with questions—What was Joshua’s relationship to this tree? Was this the tree he liked to climb? Was this his favorite park? How did Joshua die? Who are his people whom he left behind? Perhaps were his ashes strewn under the branches of this tree? Could it be that his family adorned “his” tree every December, to celebrate him during the winter holidays? I tried to take photos of the tree and the memorial plaque with my cell phone, but the resolution was poor and melting snow kept dripping down on the phone. (I’m notorious for cell-phone-death-by-drowning.). So I ran home through the melting snow, dragging Happy-dog behind me, hoping to keep all these details in mind.

Now as I come close to the finish of writing about my experience, I feel the very strong urge to walk back over to the park – without the dog!—to verify that I’ve got all the details right. The snow has stopped melting, so I can take photos and write notes without big drops of water pelting me. More later.

As I approached Joshua’s tree the second time, I saw that part of the garland had fallen off the boughs since this morning, probably the outcome of the drag of melting snow. My initial reaction was that I would fix the garland, but as I trudged through the slush toward the tree, the thought occurred to me that perhaps the decorations on Joshua’s tree are like Tibetan prayer flags which one hangs outside, allowing them to disintegrate over time, a reminder of impermanence. I decided not to interfere, leaving the garland where it had fallen. Let me also report that it is a good thing I returned to Joshua’s tree, because I misremembered his middle name, which is James, not John. He was, as I correctly remembered, 19 when he died. The inscription on his memorial plaque reads: “Our hearts forever touched. Son, brother, friend we love and miss so much.” Among the butterflies, there’s one who is silver, a detail I missed before.

As I walked back home to finish writing this little piece, the neighborhood blue heron (and my most favorite bird of all) flew overhead, a rare site to see in the middle of the day. I thanked the heron and I thanked Joshua and I thanked his tree and the folks who had the sweet thought to decorate it, and the snow, because the snow, the heron, Joshua, his tree and the other folks all reminded me today that intentional aging is fundamentally about intentional living—a commitment to a certain kind of attention to the smallest, most exquisite details of life as it unfolds in, around and before us moment-by-moment.


Libby Miller said...

Beautiful story! Your story and others like it remind me of how precious life is. To travel the distance of a life long age is a blessing, to do it with intention is a gift from the wise elders who live among the tree of Joshua's and all other living things that surround us. Thank you for the reminder, today as I take my first step outdoors I will dig deep into my self and inhale the life of the natural world around me and send a blessed prayer to the universe. Asking for nothing, I trust the universe and give thanks for seeing another decade of glorious life.

Jennifer Leigh Selig said...

Jenny, your post recalls for me these lines of Rilke's.

"Yes--the spring times needed you.  Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it.  A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing.  All this was mission.
But could you accomplish it?  Weren't you always
distracted by expectation, as if every event
announced a beloved?"

So easy to be distracted. Such moments of grace when we forget to be distracted, and see the Beloved everywhere. Thanks for helping me forget.