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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

984: There can also be a tranquil truce in the wars we all fight in life. What makes the difference?

Day 984: Friday, November 25, 2022

There can also be a tranquil truce in the wars we all fight in life. What makes the difference is usually something insignificant - like a falling leaf.

Winter, especially late November and December, can be an arduous time of checking off items on long list of things we “ought” to do. There can also be a tranquil truce in the wars we all fight in life. What makes the difference is usually something insignificant - like a falling leaf.

How does this work? Typically, for me, I am looking out my window wrapped up in my preoccupations, when I become aware of a leaf floating down in front of me. To be honest, I am 91 years old and, at times, find letting go and drifting very appealing. As a result, my winter begins more often with a leaf on the sidewalk, than with a date on the calendar.

For some time, leaves have been falling all around me, but then there is one I actually notice. It has happened on a country lane, a busy city street waiting for a light to change, outside a kitchen window, and once, incredibly, inside an abandoned thirteenth century church atop a hill in Umbria.

Depending on where we were born or the spiritual path we walk, we will experience this time of year in different ways, but we all have similar longings. Like most people, I feel I am always toiling to keep things going right in the world or in my life. I worry about human misery, peace and justice, personal success, family responsibilities, and, occasionally, simply how to stay alive from day to day. Here is where the leaf enters.

From nature’s perspective, the falling leaf helps mark the end of a chapter for the tree that produced it. In our home orchard, we have two pear trees. One, a Bosc, bears wonderful fruit. The other, a Duchess, has never produced anything but really terrible-tasting pears. At this time of the year it doesn’t matter. The work of both is over.

The trees will be bare for a while, and in the spring new life will bring new leaves. Like the tree, can I consider laying down my concerns for a time and accepting that there are chapters in my life story? In medieval times truces between hostile factions were often observed during this fallow time.

Can I stop warring with myself, with others, with the circumstances of my life for a few weeks? If, like the leaf, I come to rest and open myself to whatever is next, memories flow. There have been so many times when love healed sorrow.

December was always special month for my mother. She had known hard times, including keeping a family together during the Great Depression and my father’s long physical decline. For her, Christmas was a time to put troubles aside and taste deeply of the spiritual and secular nectar offered. As we entered the December when she was eighty-two, she had lost her sight and her reason was clouded. It was clear there was now a matter of days, not even months, before her life would end. It was also my son David’s first Christmas. My emotions were pushed and pulled.

I found myself in a busy department store wondering what gift you get a person who is dying. It seems an inane question now, but it was very real at the time. I ended up with a package of “Christmas-scented” leaves. It was an unnerving experience, and I literally stumbled out of the store. It would be convenient to say a leaf fell from the sky, but it didn’t. What did happen was that I dropped the package of leaves while waiting to cross the street, and someone stepped on it. I checked to see how much it was damaged. This was the first time I had really looked at the package. The leaves had obviously been dyed deep autumn colors. That sort of thing usually turns me off. But this time it was all right. They were still leaves. Clutching the cellophane package as if it were indispensable to my family’s well-being, I went into a coffee shop and ordered a very strong coffee. I’m not fond of that stuff, but my mother, coming from southern Louisiana, loved it. The pungent aroma calmed me. I put the package of leaves opposite me on the little round table. Holding the warm cup, I recalled another difficult Christmas.

I was ten, which would have made it 1941, just a few days after the country went to war. We were living in an Oregon lumber town, and money was in short supply. I had become very tired of our poverty and ranted against it. I announced that we could not have a proper Christmas without a fireplace. All the magazine pictures showed families gathered around fireplaces, and most of my schoolmates had homes with fireplaces. My mother thought about what we could do.

She put on her hat, and we walked down to Mr. Gerlach’s drugstore. There, in the wrapping paper section, was a roll of brick-patterned paper she had remembered. We bought it and next went behind the grocery store, where we found a large box that had been discarded. We didn’t say much on the way home or as we were cutting the box to look like a fireplace. But we were both very happy as we pasted the brick paper on the box. I had known my whining wouldn’t produce a fireplace, but somehow we had transcended the issue by doing what we could.

Years later we did have a brick fireplace, but that old cardboard replica was a treasured relic, sitting under the tree every year until it finally fell apart. It is strange how a common box became so important. Perhaps it had something to do with being satisfied with doing what we could. My response to my mother’s last Christmas was clumsy, but I did what I could.

Picking up the battered packet of Christmas-scented leaves, I walked out of the coffee shop. My mother never smelled them. She died a few days later, and my son had his first Christmas. Somehow, it all worked out.

Brother Toby

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