Lenten reflections: dead trees, bafflement, and submission

Fittingly, this Ash Wednesday began with a vigorous north wind, the kind that knocks dead branches out of trees and can make you a little leery about walking outdoors. It blew me back to the moment that I first got a glimpse into the meaning of Lent.

I had vaguely thought of “giving something up for Lent” as an opportunity to practice self-discipline and to display a sense of commitment to a “good” life, a sort of spiritual calisthenics that made you feel better, especially when you stopped. The events I recalled weren’t, on the surface, particularly interesting or dramatic, but they allowed me to see myself from a previously undiscovered vantage point; for the first time, I could see I was like a tree filled with dead branches that needed some serious pruning in order to keep growing. Observing Lent wasn’t a way to prove how strong I was; it was a space offered in which I might look at all my dead branches and wonder how I, with the north wind’s help, might clear some of them out, while trusting that I wouldn’t get knocked out by falling timber.

A time for submission—no wonder Lent gets a bad rap. Who wants to submit, especially after a look at the roots of the word: “sub-” is from the Latin for “under,” and “-mit” is from “mittere,” to send or throw or hurl. To submit to something is to hurl yourself under it—“it” presumably being a force much greater than your itty-bitty self, a force like, say, a speeding F350 pick-up. In fact, it might even take some courage to submit to the scouring blast of Lent.

In last week’s post, Martin considered some of the complexities of being from a particular place, ending with a beautifully expressed desire to be here, rooted in this rocky Hill Country soil. Imagine his exasperation when I said last night that I felt like I needed a vacation. My desire to run away (presumably temporary) probably has several sources, but one of them may be an awareness that the idea of Madroño Ranch is taking on heft and weight, leaving behind the dreamy elasticity of fantasy.

I’m reminded of my reaction to our daughter Elizabeth’s first vision test. It had been suggested by her third grade teacher, who had never had a student make so many arithmetic mistakes, especially in copying problems from the chalkboard onto paper. The test results were normal; Elizabeth wasn’t nearsighted, just math-impaired. First I mourned that she would never be an astronaut or an engineer or a mathematician, but then I realized that we now knew more about who she really was; she was beginning to take on her own form, independent of my fantasies for her.

In a lovely essay entitled “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” Wendell Berry (of course) unearths the kinship between marriage and formal poetry: both begin in “the giving of words,” and live out their time standing by those words:

In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.

Choosing a form implies the setting of limits, limits that appear arbitrary from the outside or at the outset, but that can open into generosity and possibility as they are practiced. Even as they limit, these old forms point their practitioners to a way through self-delusion toward truth, through loneliness toward community. Individual failures are certainly possible, but they aren’t necessarily arguments against the forms themselves. In fact,

“[i]t may be… that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

This past weekend we hosted “Hog School” at the ranch, the second in an ongoing series of sustainable hunting/butchering/cooking/eating extravaganzas put on by Jesse Griffith of Austin’s Dai Due supper club. I spent much of the weekend baffled (and not in a good way) by rifle-toting guests scattered across the property hunting feral hogs, by the seemingly effortless magic with which chef Morgan Angelone produced gorgeous and delicious treats from the kitchen (my kitchen, mind you, my philandering kitchen purring in someone else’s hands), by my own mental contortions.

I finally decided to go for a walk where I was unlikely to be mistaken for a hog. Marching through the field by the lake and muttering imprecations against the wind (no birds to watch), the lack of rain (no grass coming up), and the hunters (no long walks available), I decided to climb to the base of the cliffs above me and head back to the house by a new route.

Though they can be steep, the Hill Country hills aren’t exactly the Alps; climbing to the base of the cliffs only takes a few minutes and a lot of grabs at branches to keep from sliding back down in the loose mulch and rocks that just barely hold the hills up. Once I got into the still-leafless trees, I began lurching across the perpetually shifting terrain and found that it was impossible to walk and look at the same time; if I wanted to walk, I had to watch my feet carefully, and if I wanted to look, I had to stop and make sure I was balanced before I shifted my gaze. It made for slow going because, unexpectedly, there was a lot to see that I hadn’t noticed from below.

I found a fine moss-covered boulder that allowed me a new vantage point from which to look down and into the trees and brush I normally looked up at, a posture that causes the painful condition among birders known as “warbler neck.” I quickly misidentified several sparrows, and with an un-aching neck, was able to track down some raucous spotted towhees making rude observations from a clump of yaupons and to lecture them briefly. Staring at my feet as I staggered across the hillside, I found that grasses, indeed, were beginning to sprout, despite the drought. Skidding onto my derriere—it always happens off-roading on these hills—I was able to observe the first blush of blooming redbud tree, closely guarded by the great daggered yucca beside it. And then, as the wind picked up again, the rich thick smell of honey clogged the air. The source? Tiny yellow blossoms nestled under agarita spines—tiny and extravagantly generous and impossible to pick without getting pricked. The wind blew my hat off, and, setting off multiple rockslides, I chased it gracelessly down the hill.

Limits: from dust you were made and to dust you shall return. Bafflement: unexpected forms arising, unforeseen paths opening. Submission: throwing the deadwood of the ego into the flames of the Unnamable One. That’s a lot to wrestle with for the mere forty days of Lent.

What we’re reading
Adam Gopnick, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
Martin: Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them

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One Response to Lenten reflections: dead trees, bafflement, and submission

  1. Tommy Mason says:

    Your post is a true gift — for Lent, or any other season. Thank you.

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