As an adult visiting my parents in my childhood home, there are things which I can be sure will remain constant despite the passage of the time and the changing of seasons. One of these is a warm welcome in the form of a hot meal, anytime day or night, and another is a walk in the local woods with our beloved dog and ruler of the household, Potchi.
I laughed once at my mother, a hospital chaplain, for ‘re-imagining’ Psalm 23 by casting our dog as the shepherd and these very woods as the backdrop for life’s journey; our dog being the one who forces my parents daily – whatever the weather and the inconvenience – into these woods for a window of rest, of breathing and of slowing down.
But this week, I have begun to understand what my mother means. As I walked Potchi towards the woods for the third time in as many days, I felt apologetic towards him for bringing him to the same place yet again. As I don’t have a car, I don’t have the means of taking him somewhere more imaginative. So these woods will have to do… but he must be so bored, I thought.
But sure enough, as we approach the entrance to the woods, he bounds off into the thicket, utterly unable to contain his exhilaration. I smile soft and realize my worry was misplaced; six years of walking the same trail in the same woods, and he is just as thrilled on this day as he was on his first.
It got me thinking about what this could be, this secret that Potchi evidently knows which enables him to possess boundless joy about walking the same path every day – because I’d like to know it. So I watch him: jumping wild through the nettles, sniffing through gathered Autumn leaves and chasing rocks as if his life depended on it, and realize: he is simply noticing. Eyes wide open to what is before him because of course, it is different everyday. The wilderness is dynamic and alive, a breathing Creation, and Potchi has eyes to see it afresh, to receive and engage in an embodied dialogue with it every day, as opposed to looking at it through stale lenses of habit and familiarity.
As I continue walking, I resolve to follow his lead. I revel in my feet wading through piles of crunchy russet from all different trees. I stop and gaze up at my favourite one – one taller than the rest, its fiery spray resplendent in the late Autumn sunshine – and breathe in deep. There is a damp crackle in the air, the smell of bonfires and fireworks, woolly hats and steaming hot tea; perhaps I’m imagining it, but my senses always seem to hone in on images like these as November 5th approaches.
As we approach the tunnel of trees, one of my favourite points in this well-trodden trail, I stop to take in the ‘rain of leaves’ created by a gust of wind, delicate leaves falling like confetti, like a baptism and I am open-mouthed with awe at its beauty.
We snake down towards the lake and the wind is stronger down here; I touch the sappy, green leaves bravely holding onto their branches while their orange counterparts gradually relinquish their hold, falling gently towards the water. Just at that moment I hear a rippling and see two swans skimming the lake’s surface, their webbed feet barely touching the surface as their powerful wings flap in a blur to propel them forward.
Glennon Doyle Melton has said that when people ask her why she cries so much, she tells them it’s for the same reason as why she laughs so much: because she is paying attention.
I was reminded of these words as I wandered with Potchi along the familiar trail. How could I ever have thought that he would be bored by this; how could I ever have thought I would be? And in turn, as I think of my job, of my ordinary life, of the elements in it that I find boring, mundane, pedestrian – perhaps I’m simply not paying attention?
We pass the lake and begin the walk northward up the hill. The trees are taller and more spaced apart here. There is a sense of grandeur and of stories, stories hidden beneath the leaves, weaving through the gnarled roots, weathered and exposed. I consciously try to pay attention, to notice, to follow Potchi’s lead by noticing what is around me, what my spirit is saying as it engages in an embodied dialogue with God who now feels so present, so dynamic, so vivid through Her Creation.
As my spirit engages in this way, I find myself acknowledging the fact that I am tired. That I am frustrated and scared by the effects of a long-running virus which, in addition to physical chest pain, has triggered extreme fatigue resulting in extended time off work. I pay attention to the fact that I am lonely, in the way that one can only be lonely during times of sickness and uncertainty, for despite having a loving husband, family and friends, there is no one who can take on the sickness for me, or even take turns in carrying it with me. I pay attention to an increasing awareness that I am not in control; that I am human and in possession of limitations and flaws, and the fact that that scares me.
Mary Oliver’s words, from her poem Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way, come to me as I continue my slow walk up the hill, the breeze whispering through the leaves:
All important ideas must include the trees,
the mountains, and the rivers.
How true, I think. And then I recall the preceding line – one of my very favourites – in that poem:
In all the works of Beethoven, you will
not find a single lie.
I don’t think Mary Oliver would mind if, for my own pleasure, I mesh the two together and say: In all the trees in the world, you will not find a single lie.
Because I believe this to be true. The trees, vibrant with the presence and spirit of the God who created them, lead us towards truth and away from the lies and the stale lenses that cloud our vision.
The trees bear witness to the truth that we are to embrace the season of lavish, reckless abundance that is Summer; to savour the elegance and beauty that is found even life and death dance hand in hand in Autumn; to rest in the stark clarity and uncertain waiting and yes, even death, that is characterized by Winter; and to rejoice in the new life that bursts forth in Spring, at last. They bear witness to how we are to live well, live truthfully, in every season.
They bear witness to the truth that we are exquisitely hand-made by a spectacular Artist – by Love, with Love and for Love. Yes, indeed, the trees cannot tell a single lie.
As I crest the hill and rest on a wooden bench, watching Potchi leap through the leaves and savouring every last minute of play, I reflect on how the trees, in calling us to pay attention, to rise up to meet the oft-uncomfortable truth of our lives, in the end draw us closer toward the One who was once called the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the one who is Immanuel, God with us, forever and ever. The trees help me to pay attention to my truth, in which I find myself face to face with Immanuel who is already present there, breaking bread for and with me, comforting me and strengthening me for the journey.
We reach the end of the trail, Potchi and I, in respective states of contentment (me) and barely-masked disappointment (him). In turning towards home, my guide-dog – in the truest sense of the word – and I look back towards the trees and in our own ways, I think, both say a prayer of gratitude for the trees.
In bearing witness to the truth, in calling me to pay attention, the trees pointed my spirit towards the God who meets me in my loneliness, my sickness and my fear. The God who is with us in the valleys and beside the still waters, the God who leads us Home.