How We Are Holding
I keep turning to trees these dead-of-February, unending pandemic days. I keep reading Howard Thurman’s sermon that begins with a prayer: Breathe through our needs.
Thurman’s father died of pneumonia when he was seven, and his mom had to work long days as a maid. He was mostly raised by his grandmother, who shaped his theology, who sang him spirituals that had been refrains for her while she was enslaved. As a child, Thurman found soul companionship with an old oak tree in the yard. “I could sit my back against its trunk,” he writes in With Head and Heart. “I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them.” As an aging man, he illuminates an oak tree in the dead of winter, in a sermon called “The Growing Edge”:
[A]lways vitality seems to be nestling deep within the heart of a dying plant. A kind of oak tree comes to mind. You have seen it. The leaves turn yellow and die, but they stay on the tree all winter. The wind, the storm, the sleet, the snow– nothing is able to dislodge these dead leaves from the apparently dead branches. The business of the tree during the long winter is to hold on to these dead leaves. Then there begins a stirring deep within the heart of the tree … Its function is no longer that of holding on to the dead leaves. It turns them loose. They fall off. In their places, buds begin to come. What wind, storm, hail, sleet, ice could not do during the long winter, now comes to pass very quietly because of the vitality inherent in the tree.
Yes! I have seen it: the low boughs holding snow, the upper limbs reaching in stillness, as if offering themselves to the birds, as if calling you to look up: branches branching smaller and smaller like capillaries, standing, and at the ends, currents of leaves that startle the eyes: how pale brown could hold enough light to dash the white sky with gold. Veins keep the structure of each dead leaf together, each one holding to the limb, tremoring a bit in the wind, stirring a shard of day unfrozen. Holding, until it’s time to turn loose, I’ve seen that, too, out the window: a shower of leaves sift down, as if from the sky.
I’m holding, my dad kept saying during his long end-of-life winter. He was dying for nine years: heart disease, diabetes, renal failure. Medical interventions kept him holding: bypass surgery, dialysis, a kidney transplant. But his vital organs weakened over time. Fluid kept collecting in his chest. He kept going into acute respiratory distress. He was drowning in his own body. His heart and lungs couldn’t hold anymore.
I’m relieved my dad passed before Covid, relieved my grandparents and my aunts with cancer died before the pandemic. I’m glad I didn’t have to say goodbye through a closed window. At least I could be close when they were laboring to breathe.
Most mornings I sit in a room with their pictures and look out the window at the bank in the back yard. Because of the way it slopes, you can see where the roots meet the trees. One family of roots look like arteries, the start of heart planted in the ground. I imagine the branches are the bronchial tree, the way to the leaves we need to breathe.
Mapping the body onto trees helps me grieve. They seem to embody deep ease, a serene and generative vitality that presides over living and dying, a quiet thriving and a release of energy. We can only perceive it over slow time: scarred bark that marks years of injury, decades of age in rings, knotholes that came of disease, dead leaves that insulate burrows and nests. Even the way trees weather death nurtures the rest of us: felled limbs give cover to creatures and minerals to soil; hollow apses in trunks make animal shelters. Dead roots support the trails we walk and keep their clasp on the living roots, vessels of other trees, holding their places in acres of veins underground that exchange what the forest needs to live.
When trees die, they release nutrients in the earth and carbon in the air to nourish other trees. I feel like my dad did that for me. Sometimes I imagine leaves healing what happened in his body: One time, lying in corpse pose in a yoga practice, I heard the teacher say let the heart rest on the movement of the lungs like leaves on a lake. I imagined Dad’s last gasps of breath were more serene than they seemed, like the oak releasing its leaves.
I’ve been mostly unscathed by the pandemic. I haven’t gotten sick, or lost a job, or someone I love. But I know illness like a stretcher: the one that carried my dad away in an ambulance, the one that carried me when I needed a blood transfusion. I got a cancer diagnosis ten months before I lost my dad. When his heart stopped for the last time, three chemo drugs were circulating throughout my body, decimating cells to keep me alive.
Visiting a copper beech tree helped me grieve. Every time, it would astonish me: the way the bark wrinkles around the pruning wounds to look like elephant knees. I would sit and let my back lean to the trunk and look up: a sheltering presence, a quiet witness, cradling me. I would go home and write letters to my dad, to tell him how I was holding.
“[L]ife is not through, even in death. Life has an infinite creative possibility,” Thurman preached. “[N]o experience, no event at any particular moment in time and space, exhausts what life is trying to do. There is always a growing edge.” I keep seeing it in a ridge that runs up the trunk of an old sycamore: a raised places that came after bark split in the heat of spring and healed into a seam. It looks like the scar on a person’s sternum from open-heart surgery. I can still see my dad’s scar rising and falling with the neck of his hospital gown during the respites after the fluid was drained from his lungs, the slow work of his bronchial tree, holding. We were so alive while we were dying.
I kept slipping and falling on the ice the winter after I lost Dad. My bone density was depleted, after many cycles of chemo and mass doses of Prednisone. The treatment was controlling my cancer. But I kept fracturing bones: a shoulder, a pelvis, a wrist. My friends and I had to laugh. We called it my Job year.
In his growing edge sermon Thurman preaches on a lesser-known passage from the Book of Job:
For there is hope of a tree,
if it be cut down,
that it will sprout again ,..
through the scent of water
it will bud,
and bring forth boughsJob 14: 7-9
Who knew there is hope of a tree in Job? All I remember is a blur of disastrous happenings: a man gets sick, loses his family and belongings, gets boils on his skin, has other insults to injury. In the wake of his calamities, he has a pity party with unhelpful friends. And then, there’s a contentious conversation with a whirlwind that gives an unsatisfactory answer to the problem of theodicy: if God is all powerful and all loving, why do we suffer?
The coronavirus is mutating. New strains are more contagious. They may evade the vaccine. Why do we suffer? There’s no good answer. Perhaps why is not the question. Maybe it’s how are we holding?
Trees help me cope with sickness and death. They have plagues too: chestnut blight, chronic oak decline, emerald ash disease. They wall off malignant cells so the healthy ones can thrive. Trees of different species help one another survive; dying trees release their remaining vitality into the ecosystem.
As a former cancer patient, I’m aware of how the disease has lived within my body: cell division gone awry, an overabundance of life that was life-threatening. I don’t call myself a survivor. I bow to the dying. I celebrate the dead.
The end of life is a miracle, too. Trees help me remember. They integrate living with dying: the outer layer of bark is a sheath of dead cells, to protect the inner living part, the vascular cambium that circulate water and nutrients from roots to trunk to leaves. The heartwood is dead mass that supports the tree with ancient matter, like bones that hold DNA.
We tend to think of death and life as black and white. Either you die or you survive. All trees are dead inside, and so are parts of me: my cancer metastases have turned to scar tissue, masses of dead cells that mark the difficult miracle of living and dying that happens in every body. Life and death is not an either-or. It’s a both-and; a mystery we can’t understand. But we can breathe it sometimes.
All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash.Howard Thurman
When I told a friend about the hope of a tree in the Job story, she helped me remember that he sits in ashes. I found the passage: He scrapes his afflicted skin with a shard from a broken pot while sitting on a heap of ashes. Job was a pro at wallowing in misery. We all do it sometimes. The third time I fell on the ice during my Job year, I laid there for a few minutes, cursing and kicking the dingy snow. And then my tantrum gave way to crying heaves. The tears soothed me. What my therapist calls grief-relief: a cathartic flood, then a brightening that rises inside. I like to imagine something similar happened with Job: That the wretched skin scraping gave way to grief-relief among the ashes, a healing practice, the magic of a mourning ritual.
It’s Ash Wednesday, and I’m playing priest with a friend. We’re burning a bundle of leaves in her backyard, just enough for our make-shift Covid-cautious ritual: We’ll stand, double masked, and pray for the sick; we’ll incant the names of our dearest dead: her mom, my dad. We’ll each dab ourselves with ashes. Perhaps we’ll well up with sadness that dashes us bright inside. And we’ll go about our day, ashes on our skin, marked with the difficult miracle of living and dying we’re in.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.