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It is said that Rabbi Simcha Bunim, one of the early Hasidic masters, used to carry two notes with him on which he would meditate. The rabbi’s teachings were never written down, but oral tradition says he taught the following:
Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”
But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”
To be created in the image of God gives man regal dignity. To be made out of common dirt and destined for death is humiliating. Walking with our Creator in these twin realities is the walk of faith.
Along these lines, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wirtes:
In God, man finds both affirmation of himself as a great being, and a ruthless, inconsiderate negation of himself as nothing. This is the main, the dominant theme of Judaism. … Finding God is, on the one hand, the greatest victory which man may obtain and, on the other hand, the most humiliating, tormenting defeat which the human being experiences. … In a word, the dialectical movement of surging forward and falling back is the way of life ordained by God.
Now that’s some heavy shit.
So, like Rabbi Simcha Bunim recommended, I’m going to carry two notes, “I am but dust and ashes” and “For my sake was the world created.” I’m aware that walking the divine tightrope between those two thoughts requires a tension at heights that are often disorienting. Even so, I know from past experience that if I carry only one of those notes I’ll either fall into despair or delusions of grandeur.
Thanks to the Merry Monk of Funk for tipping me off to this band. HOLY FUNK!
Earlier this week I mentioned that trees have been speaking to me. This is nothing new. Here’s something I wrote back in 2006 to give you an idea of what I’m talking about…
Last year on Father’s Day, my wife gave me a crape myrtle. She wasn’t motivated by my love of nature or her appreciation for me as the father of our children. It was no kindness. The gift was born of embarrassment.
When we moved into the house, I promptly removed the scrub oak that the homebuilder had deposited in the front yard. I don’t like scrub oaks. They’re common.
I live in the suburbs. Remember the neighborhood in the movie Edward Scissorhands? That’s where I live. My house looks just like the one next to it and the one next to that and the ones across the street. That’s bad enough, but on top of that, as the homebuilders in Florida put the finishing touches on their middle class developments, they deposit one crappy scrub oak right in the middle of each yard (not unlike a dog relieving himself as he walks from house to house).
So I replaced that scrub oak with a crape myrtle. Crape myrtles have these wonderful blossoms. When they bloom, it’s like a fireworks display. They pop. They come in different colors, but I like white. Next to cherry trees, crape myrtles are my favorite. Sure they’re a little messy, but they’re worth it.
I carefully followed the directions from the nursery. I placed it in the ground with the same care I use when I place my baby boy in his crib. I made sure the root ball was exposed just so. I fertilized it. I watered it. I dreamed of the day that it would put my neighbor’s ugly scrub oaks to shame.
Then it died.
In accordance with the stages of grief, I refused to accept it. Within a few days of getting the thing in the ground, all the leaves fell off and I thought, “Maybe it’s in shock from the transplant.” A couple weeks went by. I scratched the branches and there was nothing but dead wood beneath the bark. I scratched the trunk and a little bit of green gave me hope that it may come back. The weeks turned to months and for all of my scratching and watering and spraying for bugs, all I got was this thing that looked like a dead branch on end, stuck in the ground right in the middle of my front yard.
My wife’s embarrassment grew as I held on to hope against all the evidence. She would comment from time to time that a palm tree would look nice as a centerpiece. I would grunt and go scratch the trunk again. Father’s day approached and she saw her opportunity to be rid of the object of shame in the middle of our well-manicured property.
When I got home on Father’s Day, there was a brand new, potted crape myrtle by the front door with a bow around it. Although cloaked in a gift, I got the message right away, “Get that fucking stick out of my yard!” Of course she would never say that… she doesn’t have to. She’s got too much class. (I am willing to admit, that may just be my skewed perspective, but I’m not convinced. She’s good.)
Either way, it was time to give up. It was time to accept that my dream had died. I scratched the trunk one more time and it was dry as a bone. I looked over at the new sapling and I thought, “Well, at least it’s not a palm tree.” Like I said, she’s good.
I uprooted the old and planted the new. I was even more careful than before. Even though I was sure I was manipulated into giving up, I was glad to be done with “the stick.” As I watered and became acquainted once again with what a crape myrtle looks like with leaves on it, I started to dream again.
A few days later it started to look a little dry. I watered it.
The next day, I noticed some leaves on the ground. I quickly picked them up and hid them at the bottom of the garbage can under a couple trash bags.
Each day there were fewer leaves on the tree and more on the ground, until it became painfully obvious…
…the stick had returned.
My wife and I stood there, staring at it. Then she looked at me as if to ask, “What did you do?”
“It’s not my fault!” I sounded like Han Solo, incredulous at the persistent failure of the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive.
I did the only thing I could think of. I scratched the trunk. It was bright green. Life… it still had life. It looked like hell, but it was still alive.
“See? It’s green.” I showed her the evidence that I did not kill again. She said something about a palm tree.
Days, weeks, and months passed. The stick would see me off in the morning as I got in the car to go to work, and it would greet me in the evening as I pulled into the driveway. From time to time I would scratch the trunk and show my wife that it was still green. I told her that it was bound to sprout a leaf sooner or later. While I may have seemed confident, I didn’t have much hope. I had been through this before. But at each scratch, I saw signs of life. So I waited.
I let the yard go over winter. It didn’t need much mowing, and I like to pace myself knowing that the summers in Florida are brutal and that in no time at all I’ll be doing yard work twice a week. A couple of weeks before Lent, I hit the lawn with some weed and feed. We got a little rain and things started to get out of hand, everything really started to grow… everything except the stick.
By the first weekend of Lent I couldn’t put it off any longer. I got some Radiohead going on the iPod and I started trimming bushes. By the time I was mowing I was lost in the music and the lyrics’ relevance to the task at hand.
I began to see the yard work as a meditation… a physical representation of an invisible reality. I had given up drinking for Lent in an effort to exorcise my free will. That’s a story for another time, but the point is, I saw that the yard was my life and things had gotten a bit overgrown. I didn’t need to pull up the bushes just because they had gotten out of control; I simply needed to put them in their right place. I needed to trim the edges of the yard and define a few boundaries. There was plenty of raw beauty and bursting life, but it needed a little tender loving care.
It was wonderful. I sensed the presence of God. I may have looked like a simple gardener, but I was one with him.
As I trimmed around the crape myrtle, I asked, “Father, why won’t this thing grow?” I scratched it again… still green. I thought about the approaching holiday. I thought about life hidden in the ground. I thought about resurrection. I thought about seasons and preparation and timing. I thought about hope. I thought about my life… my yard… the centerpiece of my yard… the crape myrtle… the symbol of the fruit of my labor… the potential beauty… the stick… the fucking stick.
One day, the kids were playing in the yard and my wife and I were joking about yanking the stick out of the ground and being done with it. I was actually considering it.
“Maybe a big rock would look good there.” I suggested. I’m a master at aiki-gardening… go with the flow of nature. If nothing will grow in a spot, maybe the yard wants a rock there. I’ve actually developed some really nice gardens this way.
She responded, “Our neighbors just bought palm trees for cheap from a guy that’s been cruising around the neighborhood.”
I didn’t say anything and went to go scratch the trunk… maybe for the last time. It was still green, but what’s more… I saw a bud.
I shouted, “Come over here and check this out!” We both leaned in to look closely. There were actually a number of buds… burgundy nodes of life, juicy and ready to burst forth in the shape of leaves. Leaves! I think I actually did a dance.
Once it started, it moved fast. Months of invisible preparation gave way to almost instantaneous growth. Every inch of the crape myrtle was covered with visible life within two or three days.
The time of the stick was over.
The creation story tells us that God said let there be thus and such, and there it was. One of the things he “said” was crape myrtle. I believe that the tree in my yard is his created word to me. I have listened and this is what I heard.
“I am doing things that you cannot see. There is life below the surface. At the appropriate time, it will flow with beauty. Wait… it will come. You cannot force a tree to grow and you cannot rush your life’s work.”
I have so many dreams, but I still can’t even pay my bills. I often meditate on the crape myrtle. It has kept me from yanking up my life as I know it… leaves, roots and all. So I wait. I have hope that my life’s work will blossom soon, but who knows.
This may be a good place for a rock… or even a palm tree.