Recently I visited Arnold Arboretum to stroll among the trees while they were still naked in their Winter dormancy. All season long I had been captivated by these monumental pillars of the natural world while they stood silently in the backdrop. Coming from the West, this was the first time I had ever seen most of these trees in their bare skeletons because the pictures commonly favored them in their full summer attire. It was amazing to experience what a difference it made with all their ephemeral features gone, especially the stillness, the silence. As I walked, a question began to form in my mind: If you removed your beliefs, emotions, opinions, attitudes, politics, and anything else that was fleeting or learned, what form would be left? It reminded me of a sticker that asked, “Who would you be without your story?”
As I walked on through the forest I began to wonder what the bare bones of my truth would look like. What shape would it be? Would it stand tall, dignified, towering towards the heavens or would it be compact, full, and flourish in the shade of others? Would my branches be gnarled and thick? Thin and graceful? Few or many? Would they be limber enough to dance in the slightest breeze or would they provide firm protection from a storm? What about my bark – would it be smooth? Cracked? Soft? Abrasive? Would there be any scars carved in by someone else? Would there be any splits, any broken branches still hanging on, anything that was cut off or lost and now only a stump? Would my roots lie invisibly beneath me, grounding me securely where I stood or would they be visible in their pursuit to reach out and seek more nourishment elsewhere? Would children play around me? Birds nest in me? Lovers lie under me? Would I stand solitary in a large space or would I be huddled unnoticed in a group?
After studying many different arboreal subjects to see if there was one I could relate to, my heart began to sink as the realization crept over me that I had no idea what I was looking for. Never had I paused to take an honest look at what my foundation as a person might look like. My whole life I have been thriving on the ephemeral, clinging to it so that those things may better define me in the world rather than trust my true nature to be enough. Immediately I felt lost and even a bit embarrassed. It reminded me of the Buddhist principle I read about in A Handbook for Mankind that points out how a significant source – if not the source – of human suffering lies in our inability to understand “what is what”, and how I was so illiterate in understanding what is simply within me, before me, as me. How many layers have been draped on by habits, experiences, attachments, judgments, attitudes and perceptions? How often am I acting in a way that is wholeheartedly responding to and existing in the present moment? In just the bare bones?
Solemnly I continued until I saw one tree that was enveloped by vines so aggressively thick that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. While the vine was obnoxiously choking the tree to a certain extent, its lush leaves and buds provided a very attractive alternative to the empty branches they consumed. The greenery hung down to create a canopy over the trail that was intimately inviting and it was easy to imagine how beautiful it would be in bloom. They seemed very similar to the Rhododendrons I had become acquainted with in my neighborhood. Standing underneath them felt safe, hidden, and protective. Being in this proximity made it very easy to forget about the tree itself if it weren’t for the trunk peeking out from between the thick ropes. Only after walking a distance away from them could you actually see the tree in its entirety as its branches rose above the canopy onward to the sky just like its unaffected neighbors.
Perhaps this was the tree I had been looking for. Having a difficult past has left some features that are tightly wound and more prevalent to the outside world than myself. While they are obviously from a source that was harmful, there are aspects of them whose familiarity can be attractive and even preferred by those who meet them. If I am stripped, would people still enjoy the organism before them or would they miss the foliage of my past’s vines? Would my foundation be able to support itself, or would it collapse in the places that were weakened from being choked? As I stood there with my hand on the trunk looking up into the tree, I understood how the past has become so entangled with my concept of identity that there are places where I too cannot tell where one begins and the other ends. Oddly enough, like this tree, they can seem harmonious yet competitive, pleasant yet turbulent, and it would be difficult to imagine the form of either without the other. But maybe the point isn’t in trying to separate the two, maybe it’s simply being able to stand there long enough to take an honest look and finally allowing myself to appreciate what is what.
© Mayme Snow