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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

548 Thoughts while Meditating with Trees

Day 548 Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Thoughts while Meditating with Trees

Let us hold in the light all those seeking to live a simple life.

- A Reflection by Brother Toby

Dear friends,

Sometimes, you can look across at a loved one and tell that she or he is in a different world than you are. Of course, it can be a sign of early senility, but it can also be a spiritual gift. My friend, Robert Duncan (1919-1988), wrote a beautiful poem that contains these words:

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow

as if it were a given property of the mind

that certain bounds hold against chaos.

I have learned to become mindful of the fact that chaos must not be allowed to dominate the now-moments which are so essential to our existence in the adventure of life. Certainly massive chaos could dominate our concern for the future, but we must resist.

I have been deeply troubled by what is playing out in the Middle East. It is almost like the script of a play with many acts.

ACT 1. Colonial Imperialism dominates Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

ACT 2. September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers are destroyed by terrorists, killing 2977 people.

ACT 3. The United States initiates a war of revenge which lasts for 20 years, costing many lives and incredible financial resources.

ACT 4. As the United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan, a suicide bomber kills 13 Service Members and 169 Afghans at the Kabul airport.

ACT 5. The president of the United States promises retaliation.

ACT 6. A drone attack probably kills one person associated with a terrorist group and 10 members of an innocent family, including six children. The youngest child to be killed was two-year-old Sumaya. A relative asks, “Why have they killed our children?”

ACT 7. 10 years pass. In 2031, will the same tragedy begin all over again?

That will depend on a group of Afghans who are now teenagers. My hope is that they will choose a peaceful future, and that nothing any other country does will force them to take a more perilous road. It is only a hope and I won’t live to experience what actually happens. Nonetheless, I worry and sometimes have nightmares about children dying in a war. I need to find emotional and spiritual equilibrium concerning such chaotic catastrophes.

Robert Duncan found he was able to return to a meadow as a balance against the bloody chaos of the Vietnam War. Another peacemaker strongly opposed to that war was Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-), affectionately known as “Thây,” which means “teacher.” He found his balance against chaos in trees, or sometime a single tree. In 1974, Thây wrote:

Yesterday afternoon, I awarded the poplar tree in my yard the Nobel Peace Prize. I really did. I came to the tree and asked him about institutional violence. Since he did not give me the answer right away. I sat down by his feet and waited. The yard was covered with colorful leaves. The air was fresh. I suddenly forgot that I was the questioner and that the poplar tree was to give the answer. Both of us were simply sitting there. In fact I was sitting and he was standing. We were both enjoying ourselves.

Taking inspiration from Robert Duncan and Thich Nhat Hanh, I decided to hobble over to the bench where I used to sit with our beloved Sister Marti (1939-2016). There are three trees near the bench which Marti loved. So, to borrow from Robert’s poem, “Often I am permitted to return to Marti’s three trees.” I just sit there and remember.

The old apple tree was probably planted around 1910. This year, it attracted many beings. The ravens loved to fly to the top branches and peck away at the apples without being disturbed. Adult wild turkeys brought their offspring to the buffet of fallen apples that lay on the ground. Our friend Michael chanted in Hebrew on his ladder as he harvested apples for delicious cider, apple sauce, pies and more. Now, most of the fruit has been picked. I share one of Marti’s haiku:

A few apples left

forgotten on the old tree –

useless and peaceful.

Is the tree telling us that when we cannot do anything, it is enough to be peaceful? I would like to think so. There is something else that this tree gives us. It'll soon be autumn and its leaves will turn to beautiful red and gold. In the winter, those leaves float to the ground, but I hope that doesn't happen too soon. There is both a reality and some pain in what Marti wrote:

Many colored tree

your leaves are so beautiful.

Please don’t let them go!

This Magnolia tree was planted in 1986, the year that my son David was born. David now has a son himself and is a person who shines all of the time, because of his empathy and his talent as a musician. This tree does not shine like that. Most of the time it does not attract attention. It is easily overlooked. But in the spring, the Magnolia bursts into fantastic beauty when the surrounding trees are still bare and drab. To me, this tree is a promise of new life. Yet, there comes a time when it’s beautiful blossoms drop to the ground. Marti saw the Magnolia, for most of the year, as vulnerable but standing firm.

Like a tree she stands

in her simple innocence

with no protection.

Marti wrote this shortly after her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer was confirmed. She had hoped the tumor could be surgically removed, but it was too late. The high point of the month was a wonderful walk in the woods she had with David, our daughter Holly, and many others. I believe the Magnolia was in full bloom as we walked past it. As I see it today, memories are very much alive within me about the people I love. That is something to hold onto no matter what catastrophe surrounds us.

Starcross is a beautiful place. But Northern California lacks the autumn colors of New England. So 40 years ago, I decided I would remedy the situation. For once, my efforts to “improve” on nature were successful! To the North, South, East, and West of our little chapel, I planted a Liquidambar, also known as “Sweet Gum” tree. The first tree did not do well. I feared I might have made a mistake in my choice of trees. However, when I planted the second tree, the first one shot up like a rocket!

Now, all four Sweet Gums are over 60 feet tall. Looking at them, I have a sense of the significance of community. During the AIDS pandemic, I can remember looking at the trees and realizing that AIDS was not an individual problem. It was wrong to look at it as if my friend Steve “had AIDS.” The United States had AIDS — the world had AIDS! As a compassionate local priest put it to a self-centered congregation, “The church has AIDS!”

If we are ever going to find solutions to big problems, we have to recognize that the community must respond for the common good and not just individuals for themselves. This has been painfully revealed in the present COVID pandemic.

In the autumn, the leaves of the Sweet Gums slowly turn from orange-red to brilliant scarlet. It's not uncommon for a neighbor or a stranger to stop and say how much they appreciate seeing these torches of color on the hill by the chapel. We all have an obligation to improve the beauty of the community in any way we can.

This is a busy time of year. With schools starting and garden harvesting in full swing, we often don't take time to notice what's happening to the trees. Here at Starcross, we are getting ready for the olive harvest and preparing the various things to sell at the holiday season. Marti usually organized these matters. People loved calling in for orders or information and having a conversation with her. She missed it when she could no longer manage. She needed rest because of her illness.

There are times when each of us needs to rest and often we see it as some kind of a defeat. I know I do. Sitting and looking at a Sweet Gum tree, Marti wrote:

One amber leaf falls

from the otherwise green tree,

hurrying to rest.

Marti felt we all needed each other to bring out the beauty that is in each of us. The last prayer she spoke in the chapel was,

Let us hold in the light all those seeking to live a simple life.

These thoughts bring me peace, as I rest on the haiku bench by Marti’s trees on an afternoon in early autumn.

Brother Toby


Step By Step: Accompanying Each Other Home

A Zoom Retreat Morning with Diarmuid O’Murchu

Saturday 9/18/2021

We invite you to join our Zoom Retreat Morning with Diarmuid O’Murchu with this link and passcode:

Passcode: 1234

Meeting ID: 519 315 8573

One tap mobile

+16699006833,,5193158573# US (San Jose)

+13462487799,,5193158573# US (Houston)

Timetable for Sept.18, 2021

09.00 – 0915: Welcome and Introduction (Emmaus Team)

9:15 - 10:00: Diarmuid: First Input

10:00 - 10:20 Breakout Groups

10:20 - 10:45: Open Forum

10:45 - 11:00: BREAK

11:00 - 11:30: Diarmuid: Second Input

11:30 - 11:55: Open Forum

FIVE Minute Stretch Break 12.00- 12:30 Diarmuid: Third Input

12:30 – 12.45: Open Forum 12.45 – l:00pm: Closing Remarks and Closing Blessing (Diarmuid and Victoria)

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