A rambling and (very) tardy thank you to Maria Popova, curator of the incandescent corner of the internet we know as BrainPickings.
The first Spring after my husband fell seriously ill, I was taken by an intense desire to know the names of the flowers tumbling out of buds, scaling walls, and holding themselves around us like so many raised goblets to the sun. Until then I had been content to let them wave annually and anonymously at me as I paraded down the sunlit streets of my life like a (minor) celebrity. I tossed them a bright smile now and then before moving on to the next exciting thing around the corner. If someone had introduced them to me I feel certain their names would have lifted unnoticed out of my memory soon after, in the untraceable way noon lifts dew from grass.
Perhaps I had no use for their names because I was assured they knew mine. Why else would they crowd the pavements and turn such adoring faces my way? When one is known it seems less essential to acknowledge the unknown. We assume the right to remain unacquainted is the prerogative of fame. If all of you know me, I do not really need to know all of you. This is a dubious assumption. To be known is necessary, but not sufficient. One must also yearn to know. The bird for instance is known intimately by the sky, just as the dreaming water lily is known by the pond. But whether bird knows sky, or lily the rippling pond, or whether either knows the first thing about themselves, are questions that cannot be generalized, dependent as they are on the metaphysics of the specific bird and the specific lily in question.
When my husband was first diagnosed with an ill-understood condition, beauty in the world froze. No longer flowing and accessible, it turned rigid, impenetrable. Existing in a separate dimension. One I could still see but no longer touch– or be touched by. Such rapid relegation is disorienting. A bird banished from the sky must fall back on inner resources, must confront who and what he is without that blue embrace. But what does a bird do when he looks into the mirror and sees an abyss gazing back at him?
I was a newly exiled sovereign –but wait — one must be true to the facts. My right to the throne had always been at best– ambiguous. I do not know by what means I came to be crowned. Was it by miracle or manipulation, by birthright or blessing? The confusion should have rendered me humble not entitled. No matter. What we do not learn quickly life will teach us slowly. Our obtuseness is no match for her patience. Whether you take the short cut or the scenic route your choices are the same. Be humble or be humbled.
Misfortune is a kind of magic, materializing trap doors under silken rugs, worming the fruit in plentiful orchards, turning the dog dozing by the fireplace into a fire-breathing dragon. It is also a key that turns darkly in a hidden passage, unlocking subterranean energies. The sun steals much of our attention when we think of growing things. But darkness is an imperative too as any seed will tell you. We deem misfortune as bad but what good myth ever came to life without it? The plot must thicken or why would anyone ever do anything vaguely heroic or evolutionary? But I digress.
The gates reopened slowly. As my husband stabilized by degrees I was allowed re-entry into the realm of beauty, able once again to touch and be touched by it. An erstwhile ruler returned as refugee. What is that old adage? Less is more? A one-time princess with a tumbled crown, wandering the sidewalks with nowhere but this moment to get to has time to pay attention. No longer the center of the story, she is at liberty to be curious, free to care in unconditioned ways. Perhaps this is why, the first Spring after my husband fell ill, I filled with an intense desire to know the names of all the flowers flooding the hills around us. I looked them up painstakingly after our rambles. How like spells they sounded to me! Incantatory names, simply to speak them was to enchant the air. Snowdrops, jonquils, camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, lupins, buttercups, bearded irises…The unidentified ones haunted my dreams. Petalled presences that demanded to be known.
Perhaps when one has been freshly alienated from the familiar, names take on a primal importance. Recognition becomes an act of reclamation. Poppies, pansies, bleeding hearts, flowering acacia, foxtail, delphiniums, double tulips, violets, larkspur, periwinkle, plumbago, chrysanthemums, rock roses, asters, sweet pea, caped jessamine, ranunculus, amaryllis, alstroemeria…To be able to call out confidently to those around you when their faces, floral or otherwise, dance into view is a special kind of belonging. It means you are not a stranger.
Theories abound in the mind’s forest.
Perhaps, having glimpsed the ferocious fact of mortality– that sinuous black and gold striped reality that stalks us so relentlessly and is capable of pouncing when we are least prepared– perhaps having been so starkly reminded that we can only be here now and not forever– I am less able to dismiss the vast triumph of fleeting and exquisite forms of life. Every flower a victory of pure and simple existence. If I do not acknowledge her it is not the flower’s life that will be diminished. And now I realize that I have neglected to tell you about the trees…and the trees are my excuse to be writing you at all.
The first year of my husband’s illness we retreated into semi-solitude, seeing very few people beyond immediate family. How my heart ached with love and fear. It was a relief to focus on simple necessities– food, water, sleep, sunshine– we spent much of that time in our little bird’s nest of a home, perched on a hill with a tangled view of the valley and a peek-a-boo glimpse of the bay. I don’t remember exactly when it was that the trees began to press against the windowpane of my consciousness.
There were five of them — amongst the thousands beyond our door — who silently extended their guardianship — and a sixth who would make herself known a bit later. All five can be seen from our picture window, technically none of them are “our” trees, and all but one are some kind of pine– say I who know very little on the subject of pines– so take that piece of information with a grain– or ten– of salt. Unlike with the flowers, I was not consumed by a need to know the trees’ names– I simply gave them my own. They are rooted on other people’s properties. But between us there stretches a bond of belonging that goes deeper than possession.
First came Eldad Hagar — a stout-topped evergreen with the capable, no-nonsense air of a bodyguard, then Goldengrove a tall, slender maybe-birch who shimmers from green to gold to bare-fingered branches with ethereal grace. Next Piper Longhum, a spindly pine with a missing branch that makes her endearingly lopsided and hard to miss, then Gazeli, the tree who does not like to mingle and who sits high on a hillside above the fray, and finally Grindl the Good Pine who manages to be both slightly stooped and utterly regal in her bearing. She is a shaggy sorceress of a tree with a strong maternal streak. They are each endeared to me — and unaccountably I feel a sense of being endeared to, and also watched over, by each of them.
Of late I have been less attentive of my friends but they do not hold it against me. In that first year of my husband’s illness they were my pillars. I leaned on them every day with only a dim realization that I was doing so. But I have not told you of the sixth tree yet. The tree who it can be argued, inspired this lengthy missive to you.
She stands on the far edge of the horizon scanning it for riches. Stands with an emerald poise that conveys tender intelligence and strength. She is the farthest of “my” trees and in many ways the least familiar to me, but no less significant. Her role in our relationship is to convey the best of what she sees, to pass on glimpses of insight from other worlds and times. My role is to listen, and be willing to be lit by that which I listen to. The sixth tree is the well-placed curator of the blue beyond, and her name (of course) is Maria Popova.
For over three years I have been meaning to write and tell you of the tree I unofficially named after you. I even painted a tiny watercolor portrait of her to send your way with a handwritten letter of gratitude. Then in an absent-minded moment I penned a note on it for another friend, so it is in his keeping now. I am not a gifted painter, so do not mourn the mix up. Any image of the tree in your imagination is assuredly more splendid and representative of the living original than the one I actually created.
Thank you feels too small and flimsy a phrase for all that I want it to contain. So I will double bag it. Thank you, thank you for the work you found your way to –your books, your blog, and more– and for all that you do to delight, inform, spark and enliven the hearts and minds of so many readers. What you have created and continue to create word-by-word feels as alive, prolific, generous and generative as a rainforest.
Thank you for being one of my trees.
In joy and gratitude,