Friday, August 31, 2007

Up a Tree

The thing is––if you want to climb a tree––you have to be willing to put your whole body into it. When I was a child my best friend, Katy, and I had to kick our bodies into pullovers, hips settling on the branches of her backyard tree, before we could straddle them and scramble to our “rooms” on the branches. My pullover days are long gone, but to climb, even an old oak with branches low, flat and welcoming as doormats, you—I––have to be willing to get sap on the soles of our Tevas.

Katy and I were arboreal the summer of 1970. She’d pullover first. I’d hand her our essentials––Fresca, Archie comic books, and a bag of Jolly Rancher candies. Firesticks were our favorite. Occasionally Katy’s mother would bring dinner, hot dogs and individual bags of Lay’s potato chips and hold them up for us to grab. We’d eat on the Living Room branch, then return to our individual bedroom branches, bark biting into our backs.

We loved that tree, but after awhile we stopped living in it. Not because we were afraid of heights, or afraid of being tomboys, or unwilling to suffer bark abrasions, but because eventually our world became wider than backyards and the tree wasn’t on the way to anywhere we wanted to go—the lifeguards’ softball games at Zoeter school, the beach, a bike ride to Taco Bell or Tastee Freeze. Our activities began to require purpose, and climbing Katy’s tree, tucked out of the way in her backyard, served no purpose as we grew.

And so I spent 35 years on the ground, thinking like many adults, that I had no business in tree branches. I enjoy trees. I like to picnic under them, escape into their shade on a hot summer day. I live among the redwoods, their branches a hundred feet above ground sway in the wind and hurtle down like Zeus-launched spears in winter storms. Only arborists and loggers equipped with safety harnesses climb them.

Two weeks ago I was at the Mercy Center in Burlingame completing two years of quarterly weeklong residencies in spiritual formation. The grounds are beautiful and I walked them during silent reflection, wondering when––even if––I’d come back again on my own. I wandered toward the massive oaks that had inspired me two years before, not to climb, but to reflect on how a massive gnarled trunk, twiggy fingerling branches, sharp edged leaves and acorns could all look so different, and all be rightly called Oak. A living example of diversity in a single body that made me think of faith traditions, including Christianity, and my wish that all religions could look at our small parts of the body and rightly say God.

This time, however, the trees wanted me to climb. Why not, I thought? At five-foot-four, I can relate to Zaccheus, the famous biblical tree-climber. I could use a glimpse of Jesus from a new, higher perspective. I chose an oak particularly accommodating to middle age, its low crotch requiring just one big step. Another step and I was lodged on another branch and sat as if in a recliner, leaning against one branch, legs extended along another. I gazed up to find an empty bird nest tucked among leafy tufts. Was it a sign? Time to fly from the nest of this Academy?

I leaned forward to change vantage point and patted another branch, brushing the dried green moss under my fingers as if it were brittle fur on the neck of a great beast willing to carry me someplace I needed to go. There we sat, ancient creature and rider astride its back, the two of us one. I breathed in and out the way Melanie taught us in her sermon the night before, repeating Jesus is our peace. A little later, I heard a leaf blower in the distance, then a squirrel chattered nearby. In those quiet moments when I’d lost awareness of the outside world had Jesus been my peace? Had the tree been my peace? Had the tree been Jesus?

I’ve never been good at unraveling divine mysteries, so I let it go and thought, “Gee, a Fresca and Archie would be nice. It’s been a long time.”

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