A Christmas photo streamed in from Facebook ends up being a personal symbol for this particular period of my life. This has been the most painful period of my life thus far – the kind of sadness that you know will change the entire DNA of your soul and outlook in life. Pardon the melodramatic overtones; I promise I won’t launch into a self-pitying tirade. In the meantime, here’s the said image:
Ok not the perkiest of pictures but this gloomy, chilly tree brings me cheer and hope nevertheless. This Burr Oak tree is situated at the Katy Trail in Columbia, Missouri, where I spent the happiest time of my life as an exchange student. Now I know the Midwest is usually not a dream destination for many, but this little campus/agricultural town has been my utopia for all the wonderful people I met and its unpretentious, scenic beauty. And this tree has always been the epitome of what I loved about this place.
Memory #1: Winter is almost ending and the Olivers (and that’s why I call it the Oliver tree) invite Vanessa and I over to their house which is along the Katy Trail. Vanessa cooks curry while I cook braised pork (something learned only the night before from Eric, a Malaysian student who had the necessary condiments). After dinner we go for a walk and come across this tree. I touch its trunk and take in a deep breath. “It has an old soul,” I declare mystically but no one is really listening as Vanessa and the Olivers are discussing the strict health regime of going for a run every day. (Incidentally, the above photo is from Dr Richard Oliver, who was the Dean of the Physiotherapy at that time and the kindest, nicest host around who kindly “adopted” me even though I wasn’t a health science student under his charge)
Memory #2: It is the beginning of spring and Vanessa the health nut manages to rouse me into going cycling one weekend. Gyfer (another helpful Malaysian student) insists on accompanying us two ladies. We rent bikes and my bike is too high for me and the the meant-for-male seat really kills my butt. We have to make many rest stops because of my problematic butt and one of the rest stops is back at this fateful tree. Gyfer insists on taking a photo at each rest point (there are a lot of photos of me crouch-squatting on the ground, whining) and he snaps one of me at the tree. “Maybe this one you try posing with your bicycle?” he requests of me politely. Below is the result – I may look quite miserable but it’s really just the physical pain. Overall, I really enjoyed myself that day. Cycling for one whole day – I’d like to be that fit again.
And at a more existential level, I notice that both images of this tree show it bare, without a single leaf. But it’s always been there all these years, this Oliver tree, living and breathing, and even in its botak state, it radiates so much presence and soul. And this is how I’d like to be even during the dark, empty times of my life. Realistically, I know that really, what I’m now is just a shrivelled, withered stalk, but I’m reminded of this verse:
“She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who hold her fast.” Proverbs 3:18 (It’s actually talking about wisdom, but isn’t it cool wisdom is interpreted as a feminine entity that all women should try to emulate?)
For now: it is a time to die, a time to kill, a time to break down, a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to cast away stones, a time to lose, a time to rend…but this is just a season of life after all, and there will also be times ahead to be born, to plant, to laugh, to dance, to heal, to love.
Blessed Christmas, everyone.