There’s a mighty old oak on the corner of Zeeb and Joy in Ann Arbor. I visited it many times during my grad school days. And I became rather fond of it over time. To say that grad school was a difficult time is an understatement. Experiments failed, progress on my doctorate in biochemistry was slow. And my heart was no longer in the work after I experienced a spiritual awakening a few years into the degree. I would take a break from my world of test tubes, beakers and enzymes by driving a large loop from central Ann Arbor into the countryside surrounding the city. And every time I drove the loop, there was this majestic oak. Standing there on the edge of a farmer’s field. Standing. Radiating its oak presence into the world.
When you really take in the presence of a tree, you can sometimes perceive it communicating to you. So it was with this oak. Its message came wrapped in different words on different occasions but seemed essentially to amount to a mighty dharma shout: I am life! I am alive! Be Alive! At one point during grad school, no doubt on a day when my thoughts turned dark, I imagined my ashes being scattered under that tree when I died. The thought gave me some peace.
Soon the turmoil of those early grad school days morphed into a full-scale dark night of the soul. I was living on East Ann Street by this time. Right downtown. And though my occasional country drives continued, I now took comfort and drew strength from the trees in my immediate neighborhood. There was the maple tree out front with which I’d had a non-dual moment in which self and tree suddenly merged in oneness. And there were oak trees too, on the corner of East Ann and Division. Great tall trees surrounding an old three-story home on the corner. I remember walking home from the lab where I was doing my doctorate in tears some days. Such was the pain of that time. And there these great oak trees were. They had a constant message of encouragement for me. At its worst that dark night seemed to be asking “not less than everything” (to borrow a phrase for TS Eliot) and I made a vow to see that time through to its completion, no matter what it asked of me. I made a vow to myself that I’d keep at it as long as those trees remained standing. Thirty years later, they are still there.
Those days are deep in the rearview mirror of my life now. It’s been thirty years since I finished my doctorate and moved out of the old house on East Ann. These days, my life is a great deal easier. Of course, there are new challenges: friends and family are suffering from illness and old age. And the entire world is embroiled in profound challenges that we know all too well: climate change, a pandemic, racism, and culture wars have claimed center stage. I find myself in a new stage of my life, less convinced that we will avoid further decent into chaos and darkness. Call it maturity or resignation – I prefer maturity – I do not believe that the way forward is going to be easy. Perhaps we are in for a global dark night?
These days, there is an old elm tree outside our dining room that often keeps me company. It’s just outside the window here where I’m writing. Somehow it escaped the Dutch elm disease that killed most North American elms and has grown to maturity. This old elm has been here from before our building went up in 1910 and with a little luck it will be here after I breathe my last. It provides a home to squirrels and birds and makes its presence known by refusing to let anything grow in the soil around its trunk. I am open and listening for its message to me. Unlike oaks, which are rugged and knotted, there is a particular grace to an elm tree. In my mind I picture the great elms of the law quad at the University of Michigan, tall trees arching upwards towards the sky. This gracefulness suggests to me that I ought to be present to my life with the strength of an oak, a sense of grace, and perhaps with a sense of deep time.
Breathing in, I feel my body and my beating heart. Listening, I hear cars driving past and the sounds of distant conversations without coherent words. A plane is flying by and a gentle breeze is moving the branches of the elm. And now I am dropping into my experience: softening and opening. Dropping the worries and opening the feeling senses, I open into a space of timeless witnessing. In this space, there is no time or space. Or all time and all space. There is no birth or death, only this moment, and this, and this. I am present to life’s grand display with a open awareness, witnessing the beauty and the barbarism, the goodness and the horror of it all. Like the great old trees that have inspired me all these years I too can stand still and strong, witnessing it all. As the poet Rilke said:
No, my life is not this precipitous hour
through which you see me passing at a run.
I stand before my background like a tree…
I am the rest between two notes
which, struck together, sound discordantly,
because death’s note would claim a higher key.
But in the dark pause, trembling, the notes meet,
And the song continues sweet.
May we all find that place within where we can be with everything that is. So that we may be with it all and be present to it all without being entirely inundated and consumed by it. And may we find our way to be part of this world: loving, dancing and being with it all until we are ultimately entirely consumed by love’s great dance.
Here’s to our ongoing awakening,