I\’ve always been a \”forest\” rather than a \”trees\” kind of person; more macro than micro; more into ends than means. Something inside me always propelled me to get the thing–whatever it was— over and done with, and not fuss too much over the details, but to keep moving towards the goal.
To this day, when I listen to a presentation, as the speaker launches into the introduction I start tapping my mental foot. \”Fine, yes,\” I mutter to myself, \”but what does this have to do with the main topic?\” This makes me an impatient audience, and in the days when I worked with other people, it made me an impatient colleague.
Part of this had to do with years of combining motherhood and career. I wanted meetings to run efficiently so I could take the kids home from day care, fix dinner, and then grade term papers before I got too sleepy to think. I had to keep my eyes firmly trained on the forest as a whole–the family, the work, the survival of both–and could not afford to dawdle or give in to a fascination with a particular tree (forget the fancy recipe and the interesting article–there was dinner to get on the table, and a lecture to prepare).
When Chronic Fatigue Syndrome entered my life, the old familiar forest–ultimate goals, long-range plans, daily discipline and efficiency–went out the window, leaving me only trees, and scrubby saplings at that. The frantic but meaning-bestowing days were gone. I couldn\’t work. I couldn\’t take care of anybody but myself, and that barely.
Last year, Elisabeth Tova Bailey published a brilliant and moving book, The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating. She was bedridden with a severe CFS-like illness when a friend brought her a violet in a pot, and put it on her bedside table. In that pot, there was a snail, and the writer, barely able to sit up in bed, devoted a year to watching that snail and writing about it. How is that for letting go of the forest and focusing on the trees?
I don\’t know that I can ever match that level of tree-gazing, but in the almost two decades since getting sick, I have made some progress. This blog bears witness to it. In it, I often feel, I\’m writing more and more about less and less: putting a log in the stove; making stock out of my old laying hens. Then there is always the variegated past, in which things used to happen. \”Faire quelque chose de rien,\” to make something out of nothing, is a time honored tenet of the French classical theater, and later of the psychological novel. Still, how much substance can you squeeze out of a life in which very little happens?
That all depends on who is doing the squeezing: look at Elisabeth Tova Bailey with her bedside nature preserve; look at Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk. Look at Emily Dickinson shut up in her room. Do you see why I feel out of my class?
The shift from macrocosm to microcosm is not easy. These days, microcosms are not fashionable. I read other blogs; I read Facebook; and I am overwhelmed by the sheer mass of external stimulation that enters daily into these writers\’ lives, as it used to enter mine. Sitting on my Vermont hillside, listening to the silence, I often feel like a hermit and wonder what I am doing here. This is what I wanted with all my heart. The question is, am I worthy of it?
When as a child I used to complain that I was bored, my father would answer, \”intelligent people are never bored.\” True, if they are not only really intelligent, but have considerable spiritual resources. Nelson Mandela through his decades in prison must have delved deeply into the microcosm. And so I add Mandela to my pantheon of tree-gazers.
Deep into stick season, when the leaves are down and the snow is yet to come, it\’s hard to focus on the trees. But I know a forester who can look at the grayest stick and say, \”this here is a nice little sugar maple.\” In his footsteps, I hope to wean my gaze away from the forest and onto a single tree, and not just at the tree, but at its bark, the way its branches angle from the trunk, the almost invisible leaf buds, and the way it holds inside the promise of sweet-flowing sap in the spring.