This morning, when I thought I had better things to do, I spent an hour cleaning gutters and sweeping tree droppings off of our back porch roof. I could have been writing the definitive article that would spread across the net and free humanity from religious fundamentalism—-or--ok, emptying the dishwasher.
I would have put it off, the tree duty I mean, but I was up against a deadline. Getting onto the porch roof means I have to wiggle on my belly out a window that only raises part way, and any year now I know that I’m going to get stuck with my top half on the outside and my butt half on the inside, waiting for my kids to come home from school and yank me out.
Wouldn’t it be so much easier to clean up after this tree if I thought like I used to? Normally another day or two wouldn’t increase the risk much, but tonight is Chocolate for Choice, an annual fund-raiser at which all of the best chocolatiers in Seattle – restaurant dessert chefs, bakers, and boutique chocolate makers –all strut their stuff. For a modest donation, you get to wander around and sample it all until you can’t. And then, if you pay for the upgrade, you get to fill a half-pound box with as much chocolate as will fit.
All of the money goes to something I care about passionately, reproductive freedom, (implication: I can actually feel virtuous about this over-the-top ritual of indulgence) which means I don’t miss it even for my husband’s birthday. Hey, honey. Guess where we’re celebrating your 45th? A few years back, I had two extra tickets by mistake, so I brought my daughters, who decided on the spot that it was an entitlement of childhood and—I should have seen this coming-- told their friends. This year, we’re going with six teenagers in tow, each of whom is planning to come home with a box of chocolate to last the week, as am I, of course.
All of which is to say, that putting off the gutter thing seemed high risk.
So there I was on the roof, having only just made it through the window, squatting to dig handfuls of wet brown half-decayed vegetable matter out of the gutter, and thinking, sympathetically for the first time, about these neighbors on the next block who chopped down two hundred-year- old trees that used to create an arching canopy leading into a park. A hundred years of growth was gone in a day, but their gutters are clean and no more leaves can fall on their weedless lawn or their clipped boxwood hedge. Those of you who know where I live are probably thinking, “I didn’t know there were Conservatives on Capitol Hill.” But there are, and I was feeling a sort of unprecedented kinship with them.
So I scowled up at the offending tree, also a hundred years old. (Brynn, who wrote about it for school once, insists that it is a Port Orchard Cedar.) It responded by swaying slightly above me and the back side of the neighbor’s garage, deep feathery green against the white sky. And when I picked up the broom, and as I swept, instead of grumblings, I found fragments of childhood poems floating through my mind– Joyce Kilmer: I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree . . . E.E. Cummings – I thank you, God, for most this amazing day, for the leaping green spirits . . . .
And I thought, Wouldn’t it be so much easier to clean up after this tree if I thought, like I used to, that God had personally given it into our care, that someone up there had assigned me stewardship of this magnificent being, and I could know that I was fulfilling my purpose? For a moment I was wistful. I thank thee, Lord, for most this amazing tree . . . . But then a different voice echoed in my head, my own voice, from a story I once wrote for my daughters: “They were not born for a Purpose,” the old healer said, “But if they seek, many purposes, great and small, will present themselves and ask to be chosen.”
Ah, I thought. I choose this purpose. I, small short-lived creature that I am, human merely being, choose to be steward of this tree, sacred to me by my own choice---even if all I have to offer it is fragments of tribute and protection from my own worst impulses.