November brings greater austerity to the trail, revealing deeper truths than October, with its showy colors and garments of leaves. Now the leaves have been shed and blown away, trampled, soaked by days and nights of rain and dried to a silky, papery brown. The trees appear stark; nature’s bones are revealed at this time of year.
The sandhill cranes and Canada geese are leaving us in large flocks, calling to each other, gathering incoming members, gaining altitude, and heading south. This morning, we watched 4 more flocks of sandhill cranes whirlipping and flapping in long-necked V’s to their sun-warmed southern destination. I felt a pull in the heart, a sense of abandonment, that severance of presence and connection so vital to relationship, the energetic downturn felt at every parting.
Riley, Clancy, and I paused on our walk to mark this wild calling, this meeting and leave-taking that excluded us entirely. We are foreign to this migration, yet connected by our call to witness, and moved to bless the journey of tribes not our own. We silently raised our eyes to watch the crane exodus. The strenuous exertion of their 6-foot wingspans beat the air in choreographed and ancient rhythms, carrying them away from us.
I raised my arm. Be safe; be well; see you in the spring…
They reached the horizon’s vanishing point and all three of us took a collective breath.
They are gone. We remain. The grief of parting and the agony of separation are the way of the world, says a Japanese proverb.
So we stood on the bridge, left alone to face winter’s black and white world, its and icy blue sparks and amethyst shadows …and then we headed down the trail in silence.
Our faithful companions, the wooded community of trees, border our path and arch overhead, forming the ribbed vault of our sanctuary. They stand naked and beautiful by mid-November, exuding their grounded grace and humility, just as they wear their spring, summer, and autumn colors—their annual parade of lacy, lush, and dramatic wardrobes—with that same sense of acceptance.
Their reliable presence is comforting. I know their shapes and places, and have learned the names of many of those we pass each day. (Trees do speak if we’re still enough to listen and hear.) And so we walked along, and exchanged our breaths with the trees, and they taught me again what it means to be authentic, to flow with the changes and losses life presents rather than oppose nature or resist change.
Our world and everything in it is transitory, elusive, and impermanent. We will lose the companions, places, and things we love. We will die. Every moment, things change.
Tolstoy, troubled by suffering and loss, pondered the proper response. “What then must we do?” I studied the trees. The one we call mother has died. She used to have three arms crooked out at right angles from her trunk and lifted up towards the sky. She has one breast, marking her as one who suffered, survived, and endured. Passing seasons have left her trunk cleaved fore and aft, right down her center, her third eye now allowing daylight to blaze through, her one remaining arm yet raised, and her ghostly presence still imposing, harboring the spirit of these woods. Even when I’m deep in thought, her voice calls to me and signals our connection. She reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s wisdom that, “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
The Japanese proverb doesn’t encompass the whole story. There is more to the way of the world than the grief of parting and agony of separation. There is renewal; there is constant co-creation; there is reconnection; there is the mystery and miracle of this moment. Where parting has occurred, there is hope of reunion. And always, there can be gratitude.
How we respond to life is our choice and it is powerful in the way it affects us and everyone with whom we connect. Trees always appear to be raising their limbs in praise of what is. They appear grateful; they catch and release their blessings lightly. Clothed in the promise of spring or the bareness of winter, they remain unwavering in their peaceful acceptance of now. Here is a practice I can imitate when I feel weighed by resistance to change and loss, tied to my grief rather than my healing, burdened by the invitation to grow: I can raise my spirit in gratitude for what is.
And so I will joyfully welcome home those I love this Thanksgiving, be a witness to their stories, grateful for their lives, and present to our time together, rather than grieve that it must pass. And if they glance back when they leave, they’ll see my arm raised in blessing. Like my friends, the trees, I’ll praise what is, celebrate gratitude, and catch and release my blessings lightly.
Be safe; be well. Merry meet, merry part, with an ever-grateful heart; may we merry meet again.
Joy to your Thanksgiving.
The tree exists in joy,
In quiet fullness, fully here.
The seed scarified, fire-born sapling
Down-bowing to the gift of now;
Refuting reason’s bright summation
Stating why it should not be.
There are storms, we know,
That sever seed from root,
And rot, disease, and pests,
That winnow life’s possibilities.
And yet this tree is.
It lives. It grows.
It bends, weighted by guests who have
Come, weary-winged and
A harbor, humbly homeward-leaning,
Called by its life-light,
Reaching for Love’s elsewhere-music,
Dancing, improvised and graceful,
To measures not its own:
Gaining, straining, losing,
Branches rising, turning, reaching—
Life falls back to earth again.
Wild winds, small rain, fierce light, dry limbs,
Yet, see! Greening, newly-dew-drenched,
From faithful roots,
To branches raised in Yes and
O, see, it is
For in all our winters, Love