Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Lens of Gratitude

In which we consider trees and Dutchmen, and allow the cats to teach us somewhat regarding the focus of our personal lenses.

Handsome on his house

The routine of the feral cat colony has been disrupted somewhat over the past few days. Cats are creatures of routine, and, as per the recommendations of Alley Cat Allies, we feed on a consistent schedule. I feed daily at around noon; other neighbors and caregivers feed at different times. This provides some structure for the cats. They know when food will be on the back deck, and usually they're waiting for me.

Our schedule has been, as I said, disrupted over the past few days. If you've ever read the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, you'll have heard of the hearty Alianthus tree, also known as the Tree of Heaven. And if you've ever met the breed personally, you'll remember. You'll know exactly what I mean when I say the tree is essentially impossible to kill. Hack it down, it grows back. Poison it by painting something like Ortho or RoundUp on the bark or leaves, and it will indeed die down, but it's back in the spring. "Hardy" doesn't even begin to describe the tenacity of this tree.

Not that I'm a tree killer, mind you.
 I grew up, as I may have mentioned before, on the desolate, drought bedevilled and windswept plains of the Panhandle of Texas, where trees are incredibly rare and therefore practically sacred. Someone has noted that, in the Panhandle, the best parking spot isn't the one closest to the entrance, but the one in the shade. Trees in that scorching environment are beloved and cherished. My many years in Missouri have not succeeded in eradicating my love and respect for trees. Every tree is sacred. It kills me to pull  one up, even the tiniest seedling.

One of the things we love about our century old house in the City  is its yard full of trees. Mulberry and Maple, Elm, Oak, Redbud, Crab Apple, Pear, Dogwood, and Alianthus. It's not that huge of a yard, so we definitely have an urban woodlands going here, which is fine with me. Five of the trees are enormous Alianthus, Trees of Heaven. Four of those are in the fenceline.

Now, these Trees of Heaven were huge long before we ever moved in. The fence was even built to incorporate the trees into its structure. They are beautiful, soaring as they do above the house, providing a shady canopy over the homestead. It would be perfect if the electrical lines didn't also run right along the fenceline.

Gentle Reader, I confess that I do indeed like my electricity. It powers things like my computer, and my Kindle, and the lights, not to mention the hot water heater. Although I'm all for living as simply and as minimally as possible, I'm no Luddite. So, until the day when energy technology advances enough and becomes affordable enough that I can do without access to The Grid, the trees and the electrical wires must somehow live in peace. This means that, periodically, the Electric Company must send out the men with saws and bucket trucks to do battle with the trees.

The last time they came, a few years ago, it was after several months of my harassing them. Courteously, of course, but harassing none the less. They trimed the trees along the back fence, but left the stumps at least six feet taller than the top of my head. I did meantion that Trees of Heaven are trees with super powers. The next spring, the two trimmed trees each sent forth slim branches from the mutilated stumps, ten or twelve per stump, reaching like blonde tentacles toward the heaven. Since these tentacles were sprouting about six feet above my head, I was unable to reach them to cut them down. All I could do was watch with aggravation as they grew and grew--Trees of Heaven grow amazingly fast---until they were entangled once more in the power lines.

My aggravation sprouted from the fact that I had begged the trimmers to hack the Alianthus all the way back to the fenceline, where I could follow up with annual trimmings on my own. This they had declined to do.

And so those stretching tentacles grew to become branches the thickness of my thigh, twisting through the lines that carry power to a whole block. Then, Gentle Reader, the ice storm known as Stormageddon arrived. Daily, I eyed those heavy, ice encrusted branches swaying in the wind, and hoped they would not come crashing down onto fragile power lines.

Then we got a note on the door from the Electric Company. "We'd like to trim your trees," it read. "Please sign below if you give us permission." A phone number was also helpfully provided.

I signed, and called. I chatted with a very polite man about the Trees of Heaven. I mentioned that if the trees could be cut back to where I could reach the new growth that was sure to come, I would keep them pruned. He was non-committal. I pointed out that not only did the Alianthus along the back fence pose a threat to the power lines, but so did the two along the side fence. He said he would take a look. Not promising anything, mind, but he would take a look. That's all I could ask. I wasn't particularly hopeful.

Then, Friday, the men with the saws and bucket trucks arrived. You can't miss it when they do; the sound of gasoline powered saws at the break of day is unmistakable. The feral cats took to their heels and were not seen at all while the men and their saws were present. The spousal unit was home sick. I was still gimping about from my fall on the ice. We were having coffee at the kitchen bar with Treasure the Calico Cat when the buzzing and whirring began.

"Ha!" I crowed, peering out the kitchen window. "The tree trimmers have come!" He looked at me dubiously, not sure if this was a good thing or a bad.

"Why don't you go out and tell them 'thank you' for coming," I requested. "And see if they won't trim the trees down to the fenceline." I'd been using a cane since the fall on the ice. I shook my cane at him invitingly. "I can't get out there," I said.

Because he loves me and puts up with my oddities, the spousal unit got up from the breakfast table, put on his coat and hat and gloves, and hobbled out to chat with the tree people. (Remember that he was himself home sick.) I peered helpfully out the kitchen window to lend moral support.

When he returned and was hanging up his coat, I querried him, "What did they say?"

"They said they're not allowed to cut more than a few feet from the wires," he said. "I think it's going to be the same as before."

I grumbled into my oatmeal and tried to focus on the positive.

For several days, as the tree people did their work, I wasn't able to feed the feral cats during the day. In the evening, when the men and the trucks and the noisy saws had gone, the cats would come creeping out when I called, banging the food dishes together and rattling their kibbles in the pitcher. And yet, even though their schedule had been thrown off, they were happy to eat. Little furry heads would pop up from inside the kitty palace of hay, from the woodpile in the backyard of the house being rehabbed next door. A few of the braver ones responded to my calling immediately and came running. Miss Cally even rubbing up agaist my leg with a kitty "thank you." Later, looking out the upstairs back window, I could see  the entire colony had crept back, one by one, to the feeding stations. They weren't grumpy. They weren't smacking each other or being territorial. They were happy to be eating. Focussing on the positive. Dinner was way late, but it's here now. Let's eat.

I found that to be very profound. I once ran across an idea, one of those ideas that sinks down into you and percolates, ultimately changing you, sometimes in profound ways. This idea was like that, and it did change me in profound ways, and is still busy working away in my psyche. The idea was this. In every situation there is something of good, something of beauty. Evil and Hate and Ugliness, powerful as they are, are not so powerful that they can eradicate, can tear out by the roots, Good and Love and Beauty. Good is like the tree of Heaven. It is tenacious. It is indestructible. We look at the world, at life, at experience, as if through a lense. We can choose to turn that lens on the Bad of a given situation, or we can choose (with practice and sometimes with much effort) to turn that lens on the good of a situation. We respond to what we perceive.

It doesn't mean the Bad goes away. It most certainly doesn't.  If we keep that lens focussed on the Bad, though, we miss a great deal of Good. In 2005, when  my mother lay ill and dying, her pain and passing were a sorrow and a heartbreak. And yet, the gathering of our family at her bedside was a terribly Good thing.

It may be too drastic of an example. The idea takes some chewing, or it did for me.

My mother once sent me a book, The Hiding Place, and absolutely insisted that I read it. The author is Corrie Ten Boom, and it tells the experiences, hers and her Dutch family's, during the Nazi occupation of Holland. The family helped hide Jews from the Nazis during that terrible time, and were eventually themselves arrested and taken to concentration camps. There, Corrie's elderly father and her sister Betsie died, though Corrie lived to tell their story.

The book is not my normal fare. In places it's even a bit "preachy". Yet I was struck to the heart by so many of the episodes Corrie related. That book is still inside me, percolating, changing me.

On of the most striking things Corrie related was how, when she and her sister Betsie were in the concentration camps, they were both middle aged women at the time, how Betsie insisted  every day that the sisters give thanks, for everything. For food, which was disgusting and sparse. For companionship. For the fleas. Corrie rebelled at giving thanks for the fleas, but Betsie insisted. "We don't know," she told Corrie, "what blessings they bring." So Corrie reluctantly gave thanks for the fleas as well. Fleas in their hair, in their clothes, in their bedding. I marvel at her bravery. I couldn't have done it.

Yet the fleas did indeed bring a blessing. Not wanting to be infested themelves, the Nazi's in charge of the women's barracks stayed away, away from the barracks in the evenings, leaving the women alone, leaving them in peace. Leaving them to comfort and sustain one another.

This is focussing on the positive on a heroic scale.

Today, over my morning coffee, I heard the tree men working, but their saws seemed somehow muffled, somehow not so near. I went out into the yard to see, and they were indeed gone, having moved down the block to a neighbor's house. Coffee mug in hand, standing there in my houseshoes, I surveyed their work.

They had not done much on the side trees. I grumped a little about that. A huge, unbalanced Tree of Heaven still stretehes one heavy limb out over the alley, and I fear it will one day fall, crushing things as it does. A not so neatly stacked pile of pieces of Alianthus trunk had appeared along my back fence. The pile is all higgledy-piggledy right on top of our spring bulb garden. These big pieces of trunk will have to be dealt with, removed. Chopped up and taken to the dumpster. I sighed the heavy sigh of the overburdened. Sawdust was everywhere, covering the deck, in the cat bowls. I shuffled back inside with my coffee mug, flomped down at the kitchen bar. I poured another cup of coffee and pondered.

That stack of Alianthus trunks on top of my bulb garden came from the trees I had asked the men to remove. All the way to the ground, so I could keep up with the trimming. The trees along the back fence line have indeed been removed, all the way down to the ground. I'll be able now to keep up with the trimming.

I thought of the cats tat their dinner he evening before. I thought how they turned their lense on eating that dinner, not on its lateness.

I decided to turn my lens on the Good. Two of the trees that needed to come down have. An impossible task has been made manageable. I struggled with my grumpiness over the two trees along the side fenceline; I struggled with my ire over the cleanup yet to do. It wasn't easy to shift the focus of that lens. But it is doable.

In the end, I retrieved a couple of homebaked loaves of bread from the chest freezer, and ventured out again into the alley. The tree men were still working on my block, so I was able to catch up with them. They looked dubious as I approached them.

I thanked them for their work, handed them my offerings. Told them the truth, that we had been trying to get those trees down to a manageable size for years, and that we couldn't have done it without their help. The two young, bearded men in hardhats and bright orange jackets regarded me gravely. I'm sure I looked disreputable. My hair was uncombed, still in my houseshoes.

Then they smiled, stretched out their hands to receive my offerings. They said "You're welcome!" Then we went our ways, me back to the Cozy House, they on to further adventures in tree trimming.

Perhaps they threw my bread in the dumpster. I have no way of knowing. But I can tell you I spent a much more pleasant day than I would have, had I spent the it fuming about what had not been done. 

At noon today I fed the feral cats. They were looking pretty smug and wise.

1 comment:

  1. Another beautiful post that makes us think. We do need to be grateful for everything - it does have a purpose - even the fleas.