Look to the Tops of Trees – a Solstice Offering

by Dec 17, 2020

These are not easy days. Here in the northern hemisphere, nearing winter solstice, we’re deep in the cold and dark. Add to that the count – ten months of COVID-19. Like the dark, the pandemic is here with us. So are other circumstances – embers of rumination and vigilance amidst persistent political unrest, spark after spark of gross injustice – sometimes exploding, and the unfolding consequences of our world’s changing climate. It’s cold. It’s dark. We’re feeling it.

None of this is made up. All of it calls for attention.

Where to start?

Seeking answers, we’ve found ourselves thinking again of the advice of a precious elder – Mayme Porter, a woman Mary knew as her “fairy godmother.”

When she was 19, Mary’s life met with a big loss. Bigger than having to move away from her hometown when she was 15. Maybe not as big as earlier losses she’d managed – sort of – to forget. But big.

Sometime in the spring of that year, she’d received separate letters from her parents. Each in their own aching way, letting her know they were going to divorce. Divorce.

What do you do with that? The oldest of the four girls, thirteen hours away by car – but with no car. What does it really mean, anyway? And why does it hurt so much? And all the time.

Fortunately, at the time Mary had a mentor. A woman who already seemed old, probably in her 50’s. Mayme Porter was raised on the parched plains of West Texas, born just as the Dust Bowl kicked into high gear. She told of sitting as a child on the edge of a pick-up bed, the threshing vent coughing dusty grain at her feet, slowly piling up to her knees and thighs. Her job was to use her small fingers to clean the grasshopper and cricket bodies from the harvest.

Into the midst of Mary’s bafflement and grief, Mayme managed to insert a small suggestion. Whenever you think of it, she said, look to the tops of trees.

Mayme’s credibility was already sky high for Mary; she’d seen and drawn forward reasons for confidence that 19-year-old Mary hadn’t been able to see. She’d shown Mary how much of learning is actually remembering – drawing on reliable wisdom that’s always right there beneath the insistent thoughts and feelings that take up so much attention.

Look to the top of trees.

Who knows who first said that to Mayme – or if she just came up with it on her own. The suggestion, when we think about it today, has a feel of being passed in some form or another through ancestor after ancestor. By the time Mary was in graduate school, neuropsychology was just beginning to come online. Low and behold, it turns out that Mayme’s suggestion is entirely consistent with healthy neurophysiology. That is, when you lift your eyes  up, you actually lift your mood – just a bit – but a lift, nonetheless.

So, we’re listening to Mayme’s words often these dark days. No matter how high the trees, we’re looking up to their tops. Connecting to all that sustains, to all that’s working right now – in one moment, and then the next. And with that small reminder – there in the treetops – seeing again the web, vast, mysterious and reliable, that makes up this thing we know as living.

We work from here. Seeing more clearly the acts of recovery and repair these times lay bare. We do have what we need – not in isolation as singular heroes, but in kinship with all that is. The kinship that’s always been – among the trees, and animals, the waters and winds.

Look to the tops of trees.

Reclaim the heart that’s always here. We can do this.

Happy Solstice – Happy winter holidays of every kind.