Tree House

Imagine the earth as seen from space. There are no countries, no borders or political boundaries visible from space. This is what the astronauts have said time and again when they gaze down at our planet. They do not see the dividing lines of countries, the ideologies, the walls and fences drawn in the mind that harden our hearts and separate us from one another. Instead they describe the round blue and green orb with awe, and a mind and heart opening with an expansive sense of wonder, kinship and belonging.

When I look at my mother’s face in this photograph, I see so much more than the face of an almost 90 year old woman. I see a tree. I see the earth. I see a child who is still vulnerable but one who has grown up strong in spite of a sickly and emotionally difficult childhood during the Great Depression. I see one who has been blown and bent. Her skin and flesh are more fragile now and she bruises so easily even from minor bumps and mishaps. And though legally blind she still somehow sees. She sees through the sides of her eyes the outlines and essences of things.

I see the face of a survivor, but also that of someone or something letting go.

She has been reminiscing and appreciating her life lately, and that of our lives together, and describing as much in ways that I have never heard her do before. Her voice sounds so sweet, the edges of anger are gone. And I find myself pulling back as if I could somehow hold this tree, this earth, this heart and life, at a distance. As if to separate myself in some way. Not so much from her, but from the hurt, as if I could. I can’t really do it. Because there is no border, no true boundary, between our hearts. I am the tree that she is. We are all the tree, and the earth. We are the aging marble of blue and green and the sky that contains it. How can we separate that which we are?

My mother is a tree. “I could live in a tree,” she has said countless times. She is the tree in which she lives. And she wears her life now without much bark. She always has, but her bark is so much thinner now. And like Ansel Adam’s Jeffery Pine so curved by wind and weather she still stands. The dark circular rings around her huge green eyes are like the knots on a tree, the type into which you can peer. I do not want to avert my gaze from her eyes. I do not want to withhold my hand from the tender touch of this bark. I want to relax and look deep into those knots and wonder with awe. I want to hear not only to the sound of her voice but the silences that punctuate her speech, that somehow both soothe and scare me. And, like the astronauts so mesmerized when seeing our beautiful earth from space, ask again and again: “Who is this? What is this? Who are we who have weathered much and are still standing?”

I would describe myself as
like a landscape I’ve studied
at length, in detail;
like a word I’m coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime;
like my mother’s face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged.

-Rilke.