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.

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 is Coming

Yes, it’s almost Thanksgiving in the USA, so Christmas season is almost officially on. Here is a link where you can click a slide show of Christmas trees around the world, and you can read about customs around the world and find recipes from lots of countries.

Spiritual Path – Beginnings

Recently I was asked,  What set you on the path of spiritual development? A little to my surprise, I found myself answering:

My parents, each of whom exuded a unique, and in my mother’s case, fairly eccentric, spirituality, planted the seeds– my dad the seed of quiet compassion, my mother the seed of intense curiosity. From very early on, before age two (I know this because it was before my brother was born) I was fully aware of the presence of my “guardian angel.”

My parents gave me a typical 1950s American Catholic upbringing, which deeply inculcated an absolute recognition of the mystical and metaphysical as reality. Catholic teaching also instills spiritual yearning; it opens up a well of grace that constantly needs to be lived and refilled. I have no use for the Church now, and haven’t for over thirty years, but those two gifts are priceless.

Books, given me by my parents and occasionally by teachers, were the lynchpin of my early spiritual development. I loved spending time alone thinking and visualizing what I read. Through this process I found ideas and moments in history that ignited a spark in my mind and in some other, indefinable part of my Self. At four years old I was reading Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, and my favorite was “The Little Match Girl.” I thought it was wonderful when she left her body and went away with an angel.

When I was about six or seven years old, my dad brought home a big, over-sized book, The World’s Great Religions, published by Time-Life. Richly illustrated with Life Magazine pictures, the book was a treasure trove that I pored over for hours at a time. I never tired of seeing the pictures and reading about the rituals of all the religions.

My mother hesitated for a moment, then said, “You’re old enough, and you have to know about this history.” She handed me Leon Uris’s Exodus. I was eleven years old. Her hesitation, I think, was about the explicit, gruesome details of the Holocaust in the book. But it was primarily a novelization of the birth of the State of Israel, and it made me a Zionist for many years.

In high school, I read The Peaceable Revolution, by Betty Schechter, which is about Quaker thought and the history of non-violent resistance; and James A. Michener’s The Source, which sparked my interest in archaeology. I read voraciously growing up, but these are the books that stayed with me most vividly.

I left the Catholic Church in my early twenties, because of its blatant misogyny and its perpetual inflexibility; but as a child I loved going to catechism classes every Saturday morning; and I learned the catechism lessons by heart. One Saturday, I asked Sister Mary Theresa why there were only altar boys, no altar girls. She replied that she wasn’t sure why, but that was the way it had always been. This presaged later events. . .

. . . in which I left the Church, began my Vedic meditation practice, started channeling spirit guides, worked a whole career in non profit organizations, and ultimately became a convinced Friend (Quaker). My spirituality and spiritual practices moved away from church buildings and external rituals to living in a constant state of awareness of and listening to the Spirit.

Quakers have an expression, “Speak to [or answer] that of God in everyone.” The Sanskrit greeting that transliterates, “Namaste,” says roughly, “I greet that of the Divine in you.” I have found that if I truly try do this, and it’s a challenge, it’s impossible to quibble with the externals of religion.

McKellen, de la Tour and the ex wife

Theatre, for me, has often been a spiritual exercise. Even in the midst of real life turmoil, there’s theatre. Most of my enduring friendships began in the theatre, as did this one.

Date: Fri, 02 May 2003
From: Ramona Silipo
To:  Cheski
Subject: Re: Give an Actor a Chance…

Things are going well here in most ways, but I. has had to get a solicitor involved in order to get to see his children. We are, at this point, waiting for his ex wife to reply to a letter from I’s solicitor. In a last ditch effort, after about half a dozen requests, I. proposed again that they go to mediation. If she refuses again, then he goes to court. We really wish she would just stop all the animosity and avoid the tremendous COST of going to court. But she is one of these short sighted women who is so vengeful she will shoot herself in the foot if it means making more trouble for her ex.

We saw [Ian] McKellen and Frances de la Tour in Dance of Death last night. Amazing stuff. McKellen has changed radically since Richard III and Enemy of the People. This is the first time I have seen him allow a role to inhabit him, instead of imposing himself on a role. Do you know what I mean? It was brilliant.

And I am now a real fan of Frances de la Tour. Her Cleopatra is the only one of about half a dozen I’ve seen that I believed every moment. She was hysterically funny in Fallen Angels. If I were 30 years younger, I’d be writing her a fan letter. God, she’s good. There was a moment last night, a gesture or inflection or something, when she reminded me of you… a kind of vulnerability with huge depths of strength underneath.

The Wedding, the Ex-Wife and the Kids

Lately I’ve found myself– sometimes standing in the living room, sometimes during a walk, sometimes while reading, sometimes lying in bed late at night– I’ve found myself reflecting on the happiness of my life, the contentment I feel, and the fact that every single day I feel a deeper connection to and love for my husband. Does this come with age? With experience? With a spiritual (as opposed to romantic) understanding of love? With unconditional love?

A second chance. It can and does happen. We had it, and we took it. And we’ve never regretted it. There have been times of deep and grinding pain caused by my husband’s former wife and his children. There have been deaths in the families. There has been a serious illness that threatened to cripple. So we have known sadness and frustration and challenge. But we feel more connected, more loving and more supportive after each of these times than ever before.

I was in my fifties when we met; he was in his forties. A life well lived always leaves marks; not all baggage is heavy. But second love is more realistic, deeper, more aware of its rarity. It requires patience, forgiveness and tolerance. And acceptance of what cannot be changed.

Curiosity, I supposed, and nostalgia, no doubt, led me to read some of the e-mails between my friends and me when my husband and I first got together.  Here is one of them, from me to a friend of over 30 years.

Date: Tue, 11 Feb 2003
From: R K Silipo
To: “DuRand, Le Clanche”
Subject: From the wilds of suburban Surbiton

Dear Che,

Been ill the past few days with a mystery illness that required sleeping
all day,  moaning at intervals, then sleeping again. Feeling marginally better today,  going to hear Jill Purce, a healer who uses sound, speak tonight at the Siddha Ashram.

We’ve been going to satsang at the ashram on Saturday evenings. It’s very interesting how they have structured the satsang like a Protestant church service, presumably to make uptight English people more comfortable. It begins with chanting, has a little reading and talk, then more chanting, and finishes with food being passed around. One time it was home-made Turkish delight, another  chocolate brownies. Just small bites, but more body than the traditional Host. It’s a nice way to spend two hours, and the young (he looks like 15 to me, but is probably something between 30 and 40) leader of worship is very open and friendly, and a transparently sincere and earnest seeker.

On their altar, covered with beautiful silks, are pictures of their teachers, going back several generations, various Indian deities, Jesus, something vaguely Muslim (no graven images), ditto something Jewish– very ecumenical. In their garden there is a lovely BVM statue, not sentimental or prissy like so many of them are. I quite like her. Other holy people’s statues in the garden, as well.

Don’t know if I told you anything yet about the wedding. We kept it very small, so it was just I’s  father and step-mother (his mother died about 6 years ago) and sister, and my friends Rachel , Julian and his long-time woman friend. We wanted the children there, and they were looking forward to coming, but their mother had other ideas.

The ceremony was very sweet and very brief, about 10 minutes. The
registrar had a great sense of humour, so we were chuckling a lot. But
the actual words we said with such depth and in such a reality as I
have never known before.  We were in the registry office, but I definitely felt the movement of the Spirit shoot through me as we said our vows. It was pretty amazing.

Afterward we went for tea at a place called the Original Maids of Honour tea room, in Kew Road, directly across the road from one of the main entrances to Kew Gardens. The place has been there, in one form or another, since Henry VIII’s time, and ‘maids of honour’ are a pastry created  especially for the old libertine himself.  The current owner of the place inherited it from his father, who inherited from his father, and so on, since 1868.

The weather  was uncharacteristically sunny and warm for the afternoon. The goddesses and gods were smiling on us, I’m certain of it.

Things go well here. Got my passport stamped a few days after the
wedding, so I can work here;  so have been poring over ads and sending
out resumes. The only fly  in the ointment is, of course, I’s former
wife, who uses her children like clubs to try to manipulate him. The
only comfort I take is that someday they will be very angry with her
because she kept them from the wedding and is currently keeping them
from seeing him on any regular basis. She allows an hour here or there
on a Saturday .

The courts here are at least 25 years behind California courts, where they automatically would be granted joint custody, barring any verifiable reason that one parent should be in control. I see a court battle in the future, but not very soon. We must settle into a house big enough to have the children with us first.

Neither charm nor patience nor endurance has ever wrested power from those who hold it. — Frederick Douglass

Why Dogs Are With Us So Briefly

This is another story e-mailed to me by a friend.

A Dog’s Purpose (from a 6-year-old).

Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.

I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.

As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt Shane might learn some thing from the experience.

The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker’s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.

The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s Death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.

Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up,”I know why.”

Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation.

He said, “People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life — like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?” The Six-year-old continued, “Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”

Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply.  Speak kindly.

Remember, if a dog was the teacher you would learn things like:

When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.

Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride.

Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure Ecstasy.

Take naps.

Stretch before rising.

Run, romp, and play daily.

Thrive on attention and let people touch you.

Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.

On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass.

On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.

When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.

Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.

Be loyal.

Never pretend to be something you’re not.

If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.

When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.

Enjoy every moment of every day