The Tree

The Tree had been there as long as she could remember. As long as her mother and grandmother could remember. As long as Great Grandad could remember. As long as anyone who had ever lived in town could remember. Pictures in old newspapers featured the tree: People posed in front of it on the 4th of July, Halloween, Christmas, even Easter, in the days when they still had the big Easter Egg Hunt in the town park.

“Meetya at the Tree,” was as often said as hello and goodbye.

In school she learned it was Quercus kelloggii, the California Black Oak. But it was always The Tree to everyone in town. It was big and tall and gnarled, its limbs all crooked and twisty, its waxy leaves dark, dusty green; and, well, it was just beautiful to look at.

But now, Mom said, The Tree was sick. It was a danger to the passing cars. It could fall down at any moment. That lightning flash last summer was the final blow, she said. The Tree was already weak from the disease, and the lightning had burned out what little healthy tree flesh was left.

So it had to come down.

Everyone in town was there. They did it early in October, on a Sunday, right after
church services for the town’s three congregations. But regular people outnumbered the church-goers gathered on the sidewalks. Not everyone believed in church, but they all believed in The Tree. They even loved it.

Even the contrary folks, people who wouldn’t talk to each other if they bumped into each other on the sidewalk, all stood together, mumbling their anger and sadness and agreement on what a shame it was. They gathered on both sides of the street, looking at The Tree where it had always stood, on its oval knoll between the traffic lanes, silent witness to all of the town’s upheavals and celebrations.

The tree expert said it was dead; they could easily pull it out by its roots.

But that old tree hung on tight. They put chains around it, hooked the chains up to a big tractor. They pulled on it for nearly an hour, but they couldn’t budge it. A cheer rose from the sidewalks each time the tractor choked, died, had to be restarted.

So then the tree expert, in his big boots, old jeans and flannel shirt (even though it was a late Indian summer that year and at least 90 degrees in the shade) climbed the tree and began to cut chunks off of it. When all the chunks were on the ground, there was a big, flat-topped stump about two feet tall. The tree expert had a bucket of stuff to pour on the stump to kill it.

That’s when the mayor stepped in and said, no, they couldn’t take the stump. They had to leave it as it was. A few days later, there was a little plaque by the stump, and they planted some flowers on the knoll, and it made a nice memorial to the town’s best friend.

About a month afterward, the tree expert wrote to the mayor. The Tree had been 372 years old, and he was shipping a cross section of the trunk to the town so they could put it on display. No one in town cared about that. It wasn’t really their tree, only a piece of something dead that used to be alive. A fossil.

The following spring dozens buds appeared around the base of the stump. Pinky brown shoots of strong young branches reached out to the warming sunlight. Yellowy green new leaves unfurled, then darkened to a familiar velvety dark green as summer moved on.

What grew there was a funny looking bush, full and green and lush with leaves, but all around a hollow centre. Eventually, it was bowed, shaped and trimmed to look like a solid mound of green-ness in the California summer dust. But everyone in town still calls it The Tree. And everyone in town, from kindergartener to nonagenarian, can still recount the history of that stubborn old tree.

©2008, Ramona K. Silipo. All rights reserved.

Deference? and Gratitude

When we got home that night, I asked my husband, “Did you notice that they were treating me with deference?”

He said, “Yes.”

We’d spent the late afternoon hours of tea time with our meditation teachers, and their extraordinary toddler, Lily.

I’d had a painful and frustrating underground journey from Saint Pancras station to Earl’s Court, where our teachers live; one of those frequent tube malfunctions that you take in stride – unless you need the lift; and the breakdown is the lift, in fact, all the lifts, because all the electricity in the station suddenly went off.

So I was in considerable pain, leaning heavily on my cane, when I arrived. Our teachers had never seen me look quite so affected by pain, and the worried look on their faces was touching, but also embarrassing. I assured them that I was all right as I asked for the water to take the painkillers the moment I sat down.

I was still aching two hours later, even after taking pretty strong painkillers , when we made our way to the Union Chapel where Tom Paxton was giving his last ever concert in London. Fortunately, we arrived late enough not to have to stand in the queue, and we found seats close to the stage. It was a perfect last concert, Tom’s voice as full and rich as when he started out all those years ago. He was going out in style, and I wept shamelessly through most of it. I felt drained afterward.

Yet by the time we arrived home, after midnight, greeted by our hysterically happy and hungry dogs, and had fed same, I was wide awake, elated by a wave of love and memory of the fifty years Tom was part of my life; and surprised but more or less happy to know that our teachers hold me in such esteem. I felt deep gratitude for the love and respect I felt in their company and tenderly delighted by Lily, with her devastatingly direct and real affection; and her happiness in her innocent ability to accept and love us as we were.

Unattachment – 50 years getting there

Today, at the age of sixty-eight, I think I’ve finally, finally, finally, learned the value of unattachment; have finally “got” why and how it helps us on a spiritual path. At last I comprehend that unattachment isn’t avoiding involvement or discomfort. It isn’t uncaring or distancing oneself. Rather it is the tool for experiencing life, especially difficult or complicated situations, with compassion and concern but without judgement of other people or oneself; and, thank God/dess, without soul-scorching pain.

Today I learned that no matter how compassionate and caring you are; no matter how calm and comforting; no matter how careful and precise you are with words; there are people who neither understand nor want to understand what you are doing for or saying to them.

Today, I let go of someone whom I hoped was a friend; whom I loved and supported; but who, now, several years after we met, neither needs nor wants what I offer. As usual, this sudden realization was a long time coming, and, as usual, it began with an incident that was mundane, surprising, petty and confusing. After a frenzied exchange of pretty much useless messages that lasted less than a day, I decided simply to drop it. To let it go. I felt completely and absolutely mystified, struggling to find words; she seemed irrational and unable to get what I was saying. It was pointless. The blinding flash in my brain late last night was, “Stop it. Just stop it.” So I did.

Today, this was the discovered lesson: Unattachment to outcome makes life changes bearable. Though the process had saddened me deeply (I had cried while writing e-mails), confused me, and frustrated me, when I accepted; when I sighed and said out loud, “This is what is supposed to happen,” as opposed to what I wished would happen, the pain and confusion stopped.

So today, finally, after fifty-four years, I observed myself letting go without could-haves, would-haves, maybes or any other self-recriminations. I say fifty-four years because, when I was fourteen –I remember this vividly– and stretched out on my bed weeping uncontrollably, my dad knocked and came into my room.

He asked, “Anna-Marie?”

I nodded. “She said she doesn’t want me to be her friend any more.”

Daddy looked at me for what seemed like minutes. He had warned me about her when he met her, but he didn’t say I-told-you-so. What he said was, “You’re too willing to help people. Girls who need someone find you and they take what you give. But they’re never really friends. You’ll be hurt a lot in life if you don’t learn to be more careful.”

He could have gone on to list about half a dozen girls who were my constant companions for a time, sometimes months, sometimes years; then just disappeared as suddenly as they’d appeared. He could have told me stories of his own painful experiences.

But what he said was, “Most people never even have one true friend in life. If you find that one true friend, you’ll be very lucky.”

My mother was more practical and ruthless. “She hurt you. She rejected you. You don’t need her. You’ll meet a lot of people like her, and you’ve gotta’ learn how to spot them.”

It seems pretty pathetic that it’s taken me almost 60 years to learn this lesson. Mama would say that it’s because I’m hard-headed; I got that from my father. Daddy would say it’s because I wanted to help people, and I had no instinct for self-preservation.

What I say is that I am grateful for having finally learned the lesson. Grateful for understanding that unattachment fosters forgiveness. And grateful for my lifelong friends, riches beyond all imagining, because I have many, not just the one my dad hoped I would find.

I do wish that I knew how this episode was assimilated by the other person. What filled her messages were anger, fear, defensiveness, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, vengefulness, disappointed expectations. . .  But these are immediate and emotional responses. I wonder what the longer lasting effects will be. But I will never know.

Meditate Anywhere

One of the best practical aspects of Vedic meditation is that you can do it anywhere. You don’t need a candle, incense or yoga mat. You don’t need to sit in a special posture or hold your hands in a particular position. In fact, the teacher’s guidance is very simple: Sit comfortably, close your eyes for a few moments, and begin your mantra. Don’t worry about thoughts; let them come; then gently bring the mantra  back.

Ambient noise isn’t an important factor, either. Yes, you can settle in for Vedic meditation anywhere. I’ve meditated on trains and planes; in churches, Quaker meeting houses, libraries, cafes, art museums; on park benches and sitting on the ground with my back against a tree. I’ve meditated inside quite a few theatres and adjacent areas, including the bar in the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the huge lounge area at the National Theatre. (It’s fascinating to me that, in over forty years of practice, I have never been approached or bothered while I’m meditating in a public place. I don’t know what the mechanism is –psychic? energetic? politeness? what?– but it just doesn’t happen.)

There are, of course, yoga asanas and breathing techniques that can be done before and after meditation to enhance its effectivenes. And a nice, quiet place is the ideal setting. But these are perfect conditions and not always possible.

Regularity of your practice is crucial to realizing its full benefits. There are lots of meditation techniques, and each person’s need is unique, as is his/her steadfastness in regular practice. That daily practice is important, however, and Vedic meditation is very flexible. When you’re running late, you don’t have to skip your meditation. You can do it on the train or during your lunch hour.You can reap delicious life benefits through this simple routine.

For more information about Vedic meditation, these links:http://www.londonmeditationcentre.com/ http://www.newyorkmeditationcenter.com/                                            http://thomknoles.com/

This last one is being updated (as of March, 2016) but is a directory of Vedic meditation teachers around the world: http://www.vedicnetwork.com/

 

 

 

More from my Christmas notebook

Favourite Christmas Music

The first has to be the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin, for the sheer joy and celebration of Christmas. It includes traditional carols, familiar and unfamiliar; some great Irish dance music; and a list of guest artists that includes Elvis Costello, the McGarrigle sisters and Jackson Browne, among others. Great fun!

Rockapella is one of my favourites (or five of my favourites?) anytime,
and their first two Christmas CDs are no exception. The first, Rockapella
Christmas, comprises great arrangements of modern Christmas songs,
including “Silver Bells,” Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song”  (“Chestnuts
roasting on an open fire…”) and a reworking of the Mills Brothers’ hit,
“Glow Worm/It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”  The second,
Comfort and Joy, is more of the same (by popular demand of their fans), and
includes a rollicking “Jingle Bell Rock.”  Both CDS also include new Christmas songs by Scott Leonard. All of Rockapella’s albums carry the following statement: “This is a contemporary a capella recording; all sounds on these tracks were produced by the voices and appendages of Rockapella.”

For more tradtional Christmas music, you can’t beat English cathedral choirs. Some of the best recordings are the old Musical Heritage Society CDS, if you can get hold of them: A Festival of Lessons and Carols from King’s (King’s College, Cambridge University), is a wondrous version of the traditional Anglican Service of Nine Lessons. Also by the King’s College Choir are Christmas Collection and O Come All Ye Faithful, both with lush and glorious performances of traditional Christmas carols.

 Something a little different, you say? What about Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, by Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols? Then there’s  Christmas Guitar, carols arranged for guitar and played by Stephen Siktberg– great background music for Christmas dinner or opening  presents. (Both also Musical Heritage Society.)  Another good, softly playing CD is The Christmas Harp, featuring Andrea Vigh, Deborah Sipkat and Marion Hofmann. Pieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and  Pescetti  are delicately ethereal on this album.  For livelier, but very  mellow, renderings of Baroque and Classical Christmas music,                there’s Christmas Brass, by the Galliard Brass Ensemble.

Finally, there’s Chant Noel, by the now famous Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, who made church music all the rage in the 1990s. There is something mesmerizing about Gregorian chant, and these chants for the Christmas season are no exception.

From my Christmas notebook

Christmas Stories
One of the best Christmas stories I’ve ever read is No Holly for Miss Quinn, by Miss Read. She wrote two series of novels about English village life, and three novels about life in a small English market town from the turn of the 20th century through the post-WWII period.

I love this book especially for a particular moment during Christmas dinner, when the young boy has a sudden realization about the nature of Father Christmas and in that realization passes from childhood into the world of grown-up secrets.

No Holly for Miss Quinn speaks especially for women who are happily single and enjoy their lives to the full. But it also speaks for the child on the verge of growing up; and for the person who has lonely Christmases; and the person who has too much family at Christmas.

Another Christmas book by Miss Read is The Christmas Mouse, about a young boy who runs away from home on Christmas Eve, and the canny and wise old woman who gets him home for Christmas. Miss Read, whose real name was Dora Saint, wrote beautifully, especially in her descriptions of nature –the changes of seasons, the activities of birds and animals– and the way children interact with the natural world. She also had great insight into the urge to simplify our lives, to leave some of the unnecessary impedimenta behind.
.An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories includes both traditional and modern tales, and the illustrations are evocative and lush. These are stories for grown ups to enjoy and to read with children. Some of the titles will give you an idea: “Burper and the Magic Lamp,” by Robert Leeson. “Ghost Alarm,” by Nicholas Fisk. “The Anarchist’s Pudding,” by Geraldine McCaughrean. Mr. Pickwick’s adventure sliding on the ice is included as well. Several of the stories have sinister or macabre twists, and the Christmas ghost story is a classic form, thanks to Charles Dickens.
 
How about an opening to whet the appetite: “Jeremy James first met Father Christmas one Saturday morning in a big shop. He was a little surprised to see him there, because it was soon going to be Christmas, and Jeremy James thought Santa Claus really ought to be somewhere in the North Pole filling sacks with presents and feeding his reindeer.” — from “Father Christmas and Father Christmas,” by David Henry Wilson.

Stories by Paul Auster, Ann Beattie, Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Annie Dillard, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Smiley and others are included in A Literary Christmas, Great Contemporary Christmas Stories, a collection from the Atlantic Monthly Press. These are stories for avid readers and for those who want to sample the work of some of the most interesting writers of our time. Some entries are excerpts from previous works, and some are topical short stories. A great read for the Christmas season.

For stories in song, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols is very handy. It includes all the verses of fifty Christmas carols as well as the music, and it’s small enough to slip into a handbag on the way to Midnight Mass or Christmas service. The carols are from throughout Europe, some dating as early as the Middle Ages. The book includes a brief history of each carol and an introduction with a short history of Christmas caroling, as well as notes on the carols in performance. Like all Penguin Books, it’s a fantastic bargain.

And don’t forget, there are many editions of A Christmas Carol available, from economy paperbacks to lushly illustrated coffee table versions. The movies are fun, especially the musical, Scrooge, with Albert Finney in the title role; but reading the story with your family or friends is a wonderful way to spend Christmas Eve.

Speaking of the movies, let me put in a vote for the oldie with Alistair Simm as Scrooge. Yes, it’s in black and white. But Simm is such a wonderful Scrooge, and he looks like such a jovial granddad, this is a perfect version for children. The Ghost of Christmas Future is really scary, too, which the kids really like!
 
©2007 RK Silipo. All rights reserved.

Christmas Skies

The word, leaden, to describe the skies, must have been coined by an Englishman. The very definition of the term defines the winter skies in England. It’s a pefect word, too, because it gives not only the colour, a dark, dull grey; it also gives a sense of suppression, a  sense of the  heavy weight on our emotions, here under those skies. When, rarely, the sun breaks through for an hour or so, our elation is dashed by the inevitable return of the leaden skies, often with rain.

This greyness of days is coupled with the long, dark nights that begin to close over us in September, and reach their longest on December 2st. Sunset is earlier and sunrise later each day. Here, it is dark by 3:30 or so, and in a week it will be dark by 3:00.

All of this, for many of us, saps our energy and even deadens enthusiasm for our usual everyday enjoyment of life’s good moments.

No wonder ancient peoples needed to have a festival, a celebration day, in the middle of this season. And no wonder the ancient Christian church picked December 25th, when the days are just starting to get longer again, to be Jesus’s birthday. Who cares when it really was? We need the celebration now; we need to say, yes, the clouds will lift and we will see more light . . . maybe not soon, but eventually.