The Tree of Life: Leaving the Grandmother

Late afternoon. In the front room of the weathered, 1950’s cottage that for the past two years was my residence in Carmel By The Sea, I sat gazing out the wide front windows. The house felt hushed like the pause after an exhale, and I found myself pleasantly alone and savouring the silence. Within my framed view, the world was mostly green, brown, and blue, with sunlight illuminating the southerly tree against the old wooden fence, turning its raiment of shiny leaves into a glowing sphere of emerald shimmering light, swaying softly in the breeze. Clusters of miniature, sweetly perfumed, cream-coloured blossoms hummed with the intentions of amber honeybees, alighting briefly upon each bud, wings paused for a moment before moving on to suck from the next waiting flower.

Closer to the street and just inside the tall wooden fence, like a grey-clad sentinel at the gate, the old Monterey Cypress that I affectionately called “the Grandmother” stood, her sizable boughs outstretched protectively over the front garden and deck, casting cool shadows that danced like spirits. Stumps of missing great arms bore witness to limbs lost during winter storms through the decades, yet still she rose regally, the base of her trunk wider than six or seven men huddled together.

How many hours have I gazed admiringly—lovingly, even—at that venerable being, her roughened torso twisting just slightly like a graceful sculpture; a daily reminder that all life grows in a spiral and that we are always moving, despite that it seems we’re standing still. The resinous, faintly lemony scent of her silver greenery, an aroma detected most strongly in the early morning or at night when I stepped outside, was simply another aspect of her beauty.

The Grandmother partially framed at sunset

My attention drifted back to the buzzing legions of amber bees loving the creamy blossoms along the south fence, observing the sunlight sparkling amid dark green leaves and branches. It was the time of day that I refer to as “the golden hour,” not long before sunset, when the light seems to illuminate everything it touches, revealing a sacred fire within, and the world is vivified. The simplest of moments, yet staggering in its ordinary beauty; a brief symphony easily missed, especially in a hurry-busy world where nearly everyone is seduced by countless, fleeting distractions.

As I sat by the window, a Rudolf Steiner quote flashed suddenly through my mind like an emerald hummingbird: “Only what we experience within ourselves reveals the beauties of the outer world.” Yes indeed, I smiled, for I deeply concur with Steiner’s understanding that, beyond our immediate senses, it is actually the soul that perceives, especially in matters of natural beauty.

Beauty opens and aligns us, drawing the soul forth.

In that shimmering moment, my spirit felt expansive as gossamer wings within the heart, drawing in the beauty of the golden hour, celebrating it, and sending it back out in a silent hymn of gratitude. My gaze returned to the Grandmother, admiring the shapely curve of her lowest branch just above the fence line, a downward sweeping arc illuminated against feathered, apricot clouds of the sky. She was luminous.

Heeding some gentle tug, I rose from my chair, opened the front door with a soft jangle of antique bronze bells suspended from the doorknob, and stepped outdoors into the fresh air—cool, even in summer. Crossing the deck, feeling the familiar touch of worn boards under my bare soles, and then crossing the cooler bricks, I laid hands upon the great, roughened trunk as I had done so many times before.

Only a few days remained for this admirable being and I, and it felt important to say goodbye. It was she who called me to the cottage, after all.

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A living sculpture

“There’s a great old Monterey Cypress in the front yard,” the landlady said over the phone as she described the house and tried to convince me to rent it, urging me to drive by and check the place out.

I could feel my hesitancy like a thickly coiled rope around my ribcage holding me back, mostly due to the small, attached studio at rear currently let to another tenant. As an intensely private and reclusive person, shared situations—especially with walls in common—have not worked well for me in the past and I had sworn off them. Yet the rental cottage also offered a garage for storage and, perhaps most importantly, allowed dogs, complete with a fully fenced front yard. And somehow, when the landlord mentioned the old Monterey Cypress, a key turned in the lock and I decided I would drive by to look at the property.

As disclosed many times in my years of writing the weekly Soul Artist Journal, I have a long standing love affair with trees. Indeed, I’m an unabashed tree hugger, and often I’ve remarked that if I could peer inside my heart, surely there would be a Standing One growing there; perhaps an old English oak, a shimmering aspen, maybe some gnarled and ancient olive from the Mediterranean. Or, quite possibly, it would be a wind raked Monterey Cypress, native to this foggy peninsula on the central California coast.

Already I felt heavy with reluctance at moving from my current pied-à-terre in the Carmel Highlands; a magical little poet’s cottage on the private grounds of a stone castle, perched above a sea cove, where the endless chant of the surf serenaded me. A noble Monterey Cypress presided over the chalet’s wood shingle roof with boughs outstretched, and I always felt that somehow the tree was watching over me, even as I dreamed at night, its thick roots sunk deep in the earth just under the bedroom. Yet for half a dozen reasons, the time had come to find a larger place and relocate into town, including the choice to bring our two English Whippets from Hawaii to the mainland as part of a gradual, two-year relocation plan for my partner and I.

Surveying the potential rental, misgivings swirled inside me like charcoal-winged bats at twilight. The cottage was humble and weathered with some obvious wood rot; all the appliances were at least twenty years old, and the kitchen was straight out of the 1980’s; the bathroom, with its vintage 50’s pink tile, hadn’t been updated since the house was built; and there was the sticky point of a tenant at rear in the adjoined studio. Furthermore, this being Carmel By The Sea—a charming village with a white sand beach, routinely in the Conde Nast Top Ten US destinations, and with an outstanding school district—it was not inexpensive. Two other potential applicants were considering it, and I needed to make a decision by the end of day.

Standing outside, as I admired the stately Monterey Cypress beside the front gate, a sense of goodness—wordless welcome, even—suddenly flooded through me. Despite being somewhat worn and unprepossessing, the cottage felt quietly sheltered from the street, set back and protected by a tall wooden fence that offered privacy (as well as a secure area for “the boys”). Given that I didn’t plan to be there more than a year, I decided to take it and hope for the best.

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Two and a half years later, the painted gypsy wagon (‘caravan’, my UK friends say) was finally rolling on. In just a few days, the movers (or ‘removers’) would pack our worldly goods and transport them south to the desert near Palm Springs, a land of parched earth, bright sun, and swimming pools—admittedly a rather strange and unexpected home for this Green Man, but one cannot fathom the Mystery. While I wasn’t sorry to depart the down-at-heel cottage with dodgy plumbing, nor the seemingly endless clouds and fog (part of the “marine layer” caused by coastal temperature inversion) that perpetually drape the town, I would truly miss the great tree by the front gate—a graceful being who kept me company through some dark days and nights, steadfastly offering gentle inspiration and elegant, raw beauty.

Late afternoon beneath the tree

In the golden hour, as the late afternoon shadows played about the garden and bees buzzed contentedly, I could smell the nearby sea and the resinous scent of evergreen branches overhead. I confess that I talked to this tree regularly, as if it were a friend and wise elder. With my hands upon her furrowed, grey skin, feeling the commingling of our subtle energy fields, I spoke aloud while gazing up into the illuminated boughs.

“You know I’m leaving, Grandmother … and I just wanted to say thank you, to tell you again how much I appreciate you.”

Though as a clairvoyant/clairaudient I have “heard” responses before—often as flashes of feeling—in the moment there was nothing but the sense of her long standing presence and energy, a feeling of deep-rooted strength. Patience.

Sometimes no words are necessary. Perhaps it is enough to know that two lives have touched each other deeply, to have witnessed something of the other’s beauty that mirrors our own. How often have I written and said that we are each the Cosmos or Source experiencing its own grandeur and beauty, and that we can only see what beauty we ourselves possess.

Earth loves beauty. That tree, oh my, such a combination of qualities—shape, colour, and form—that pleased the aesthetic senses, especially the eyesight. Illuminated in the late afternoon, her boughs like graceful, silver arms touched with gold and green, she seemed the very embodiment of the living Divine. And with palms on the rough, gently spiraling trunk as I gazed up into the branches against a pastel sky, I felt myself bathed in a glow of heart-opening gratitude.

When we understand that we are beauty experiencing itself, then gratitude for everything, as an expression of that beauty, becomes our only path. Thankfulness not simply for food and water, nature, goodness, or a nearly endless list of things to appreciate, but for our challenges as well—including those people around us who are locked in constrictions of fear, anger, or greed. In their own way, they are teaching us. The higher, spiritual path lies at our feet in every moment, inviting us to repeatedly open the heart.

“If kindness doesn’t work, try more kindness,” said Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Words to live by as we carry our candle of gratitude through the darkness and light.

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In dozens of posts for the Soul Artist Journal, I mentioned the Grandmother and my deep appreciation for her quiet teachings and strength. Nearly every morning, regardless of season or weather, stepping out the front door of the Carmel cottage, I crossed the deck and cool bricks to lay hands upon this tree as part of my morning ritual. A purple amethyst crystal and little tokens were placed at her feet, and I often sat with my spine pressed against her solid trunk for healing, letting our energies fuse.

Offering to a tree spirit

I came to think of the Grandmother as an embodiment of the Tree of Life, the symbolic link between Heaven and Earth—or the World Tree, “a symbol of the conscious bridge between the living macrocosm and the inner universe of the human psyche. It represents all individual life and all knowledge in one holographic field of consciousness and, paradoxically, remains as one entity, whole and complete.” (Mark Ryan and John Matthews, The Wildwood Tarot)

Just as in the archetypal journey of the Tarot where the World marks the end of the journey for the Fool (Seeker)—and the beginning of a new one—the World Tree represents our wholeness and connection with the universal mind.

Similarly, the old Monterey Cypress is a dignified, living manifestation of the suprasomatic sentience of our planet and Cosmos, in which we are all continually steeped: a collective field, a non-localized psyche, a dynamically evolving, animate process in which we all participate, create and are created by. Nothing exists separate from this field, and everything is relationship.

Years ago I realized that my life is an ongoing interconnection with place; that not only am I deeply affected by where I dwell and the living things I share space with, but that I am only my fullest, best, and most soulful when actively participating in that exchange—walking the earth, watering my plants and flowers, feeding the birds, cloud watching, planting seeds, talking to the timid deer or wild turkeys, or simply offering silent prayers of gratitude to our Earth Mother … and the World Tree, too.

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Friend, I know this: everything is alive. Everything speaks. And the world is still full of wild magic for those who can see, listen, and truly feel … but your heart must be open.

Some weeks earlier, standing just as I did that afternoon with hands upon the Grandmother after completing my daily Qigong outdoors, in a quiet and meditative state I heard her plainly say, Your time of departure is near

Not too long after that, on another evening at sunset—a golden moment much like the one described here—as I acknowledged her being and offered thanks for the uncountable blessings in my life, I again ‘heard’ the soft voice in my head.

Thank you for showing me what a human can be

Looking skyward into illuminated branches, my heart swelled with sweet tenderness as a tear welled up in the corner of my eye at her recognition and validation of our conscious relationship.

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A writer’s perch on sunny days

While this was not the first goodbye for a magical old tree and I, it was essentially our last, other than a brief farewell as I exited the wooden gate for the final time and drove away, watching her grand, familiar stature shrink smaller in the rear view mirror and then disappear from sight as I rounded the corner.

Following a few gentle cycles of breath, I inhaled and exhaled, turning my car onto Pacific Coast Highway 1 and then listening as the hum of tires grew louder, still carrying the great tree in my heart.

“In loving the spiritual, you cannot despise the earthly,” said Joseph Campbell.

Indeed. And I continue to love the earthly in its myriad forms and manifestations, knowing that when we tend and feed the world soul with gratitude, we nourish ourselves as well. Nothing is separate.

The Grandmother has been left behind but outside the front door of our new residence in the desert, an olive tree grows—still covered with purple and green fruits in varying stages of ripeness—as another living manifestation of the World Tree. A new relationship begins for me, echoing with remembrances of the olive tree in our backyard in Pasadena when I was a child, and a more recent time living in southern Spain amid endless groves of silvery-green olivos.

Life rolls on. The Great Wheel revolves. Often I muse that our existence is simply a series of passages—a colourful string of endings and leavings, transitions, and new beginnings—that we are meant to experience with an open heart and without holding on. And I know that as we navigate this journey, the infinite blessings of the Universe are available to everyone who seeks knowledge and understanding with a sincere heart. In all dimensions of reality, the Cosmos is an ongoing yes, giving freely of its rich nourishment and grace, assisting each of us to become whom we are meant to be in the current lifetime.

Blessings to the trees, standing nobly and offering countless gifts to human and non-human alike, silently generating the very oxygen we breathe. We are all indebted and interconnected, and the ordinary sacred is everywhere. Each day that I step from the door of my house, wherever I dwell, may the tree(s) I meet help remind me of that bond—and of the Tree of Life—that I continue to walk the path of gratitude.

For everything.

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