I am not one to wallow. When things in my life feel as if they are not exactly all wrong, but far from alright, I tend to remain positive as long as I can, then erupt into a brief intense storm of frustrated emotion that runs over every miserable inch of grief, despair, humiliation, injustice, confusion and loss, finally arriving at a state of defiance in which some major action demands to be taken. But big fixes take time, energy and money not always available. Little ones can almost always be arranged with a little bit of imagination and faith. For me, all it took was a tree.
There are a few things I've come to count on in life, easy to come by and guaranteed to make me feel good. One is riding on a train, and another is a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I will always feel a sense of belonging and clear direction in these two places, however displaced and lost I feel everywhere else.
And so, when my emotional storm cleared, along with my latest credit card payment, I pulled up the Amtrak site on my laptop and bought a round trip same-day train ticket. To NYC. To see a tree. The second I hit “print,” I knew I had found a way out where there seemed to be none only moments before.
3. Pointing the Way
Well, two trees really. One is a bonsai oak, small and magnificent, like an ancient wise guide; the other is a weeping beech, large and compassionate, like a protector of souls. And I needed both guidance and protection. I needed these trees. I was not expecting definitive answers. I just wanted to feel the way I feel in their presence, as if I too am capable of that depth of peace and purpose. These trees know things. These trees know me. The me that has been and will always be riding trains and walking through gardens.
In 6 or so hours, Vermont was behind me and I had arrived in Brooklyn, a light traveler with a backpack and a camera. Unfortunately I was not the only person who thought this would be the perfect Friday in April to visit the Garden. Still, I had faith that my weeping beech would not be so popular given all the newly bloomed cherry blossoms demanding attention.
Lovers of metaphors, this one’s for you. I found my weeping beech dry, thin, bare, unable to connect with the ground and surrounded by a fence. Maybe it’s just late to leaf, but it looked like it had been ravaged by disease or storm, and in no shape, literally and figuratively, to protect itself, much less any desperate seekers of solace like myself. Something in my head said “Lesson One.”
6. A New Sign
On my way to the beech I had passed a tree I don’t recall ever seeing, probably because I was too focused on getting to the beech. This time I made a mental note to circle back to it. You look interesting, I thought, maybe I need to come talk to you later.
The tree is a weeping hemlock, widespread and low to the ground. Evergreen, non-flowering, unremarkable, self-contained, but open on one side for any visitors willing to fit themselves into its inner space.
8. Under the Hemlock Things Are Looking Up
Metaphor lovers still with me? This really is the post for you. I felt immediately calm and welcome. The air under the tree felt different. The density of the foliage muted sounds and light from the world beyond its self-described circle, but did not block it out entirely. Several of its largest branches had reached down and replanted themselves. This tree was working within the space it had, but not limited by it, holding on, immovable, unshakeable and yet strangely delicate and free. This tree knew who it was and didn’t care who else knew or cared. Its message to me was be open to all, but keep your own circle and feed yourself.
9. Bonsai Conservatory
Next I went looking for my bonsai, the one that 20 yrs ago inspired the poem that named my one and only published book of poems. Unfortunately I was not the only one who thought it would be the perfect day to view the bonsai collection. Not only that, but when the crowd cleared, I could not find my particular bonsai. It was 100 years old when I first saw it. Maybe it has been moved elsewhere for proper care. It didn’t really matter, as I had already received all the wisdom and guidance I needed.
After a brief moment to reflect on a bench I left the garden, making a final stop at the gift shop for the perfect t-shirt to honor my visit.
I also found this vintage postcard picturing a little girl in 1926 who looked just like pictures of both myself and my mother at that age.
12. Some Things are Timeless
And speaking of my mother, here she is pictured below, all grown up and with a look of self-containment strikingly, shall we say, hemlockian?
I realized upon arrival in NYC that I could not in good conscience sneak in and out of my native city on one day and not pay a visit to my parents. I changed my return ticket to Saturday and spent Friday night in the apartment that has been my family home for over 40 years. And by the end of the day I knew that I had perhaps not found in NYC everything I want, but I had definitely found everything I need.
That included this old photo of myself, in which I look a lot like the little girl in the vintage photo, and am undeniably, unstoppably happy, a creature of play, a creature of light, looking up, looking on the bright side, which is who I am meant to be, then, now and always.
Before I left the inner space of the weeping hemlock, a piece of bark dropped at my feet. I picked it up and pocketed it, only looking at it carefully later, back at my parents’ house, where I noticed its unusual coloring, rosy pink in the center and muddy brown at the edges. From now on I will always look at this little gift and think of all the soft bright life that exists inside me whatever drains, darkens or toughens me from the outside. I am going to strive to be like that tree in its well-maintained but not impenetrable circle.
Yesterday I was back on another train going in the other direction, back to Rutland after my 36 hour circular journey. Today I am here again at my desk writing this post. There is so little time to get things right in this life, get things going in the right direction, when so much time is spent righting the things that have gone wrong, going back, starting over. But in the end it seems the most important journeys are not back or forward, but inward. Or so I was told by a tree in Brooklyn.