There are fewer and fewer leaves on the sycamore tree each day. More and more sky showing through the satin-smooth branches. Its neighbors in the backyard, two sawtooth oaks, are disrobing at a slightly slower rate, but they, too, are approaching nakedness. When the wind picks up, the trees sway and rattle, wiggle and rustle, like a little girl in a crinoline. An irritated liveliness. A frustrated animation.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see the shed, inside of which is an artificial Christmas tree which I intend, at some point, to drag into the house, stand in the corner, and decorate with baubles collected over the last 40 years. Some of them are beginning to fade and fold. Some of them have a provenance I can no longer remember. Some of them I have kept only because they are big enough to fill the gaping holes in the plastic branches that, despite the manufacturer’s assurances, are not the least bit life-like.
I am struck suddenly by the incongruity. At just the time of year when trees, real trees, shed their leaves and step forth naked, we take pretend trees inside our homes, our stores, our churches and we dress them. At just the moment when the sycamores and oaks and maples unconsciously demonstrate the loveliness of simplicity, we frantically rush to display ornamentation.
I look back at the tree, its remaining leaves waving frantically to get my attention. Forget what you think you know, it seems to be telling me. Forget the legend that says evergreen boughs on the hearth are reminders of the spring to come. Ask yourself why you attempt to contradict nature. Do you think that because your lamps repel the darkness and your thermostat rebuffs the cold that you are no longer at her mercy? Do you think you know so much that you can laugh at the cycle that demands a season of quiet, of dormancy, of death?
I do not like this line of questioning. I especially do not like the idea that a sycamore tree is the questioner, though I must admit that I am amused by the idea that it was, apparently, from his perch within such a tree that Zaccheus was able to see what he could not have seen otherwise. Could it be the same with me?
It is Sunday. I have gotten up earlier than usual to get to church earlier than usual. Along with the young daughter of the associate pastor, I will perform the liturgy for the lighting of the Advent candle. This week it is the candle of peace. The unresolved conflict between naked trees and dressed trees has left me less than peaceful.
Now it is Monday and I pause before leaving for work to make an assessment of the sycamore’s progress toward total defoliation. The empty branches are extended like scaffolding against the silver-gray sky, stretching like long arthritic fingers toward something I cannot see. There is a beauty in such bareness, a severe dignity in the act of uncovering the armature of a tree. Or a person.
And, suddenly, with that thought, I am Zaccheus – seeing what I would have missed without the sycamore tree, understanding why we wrestle with the tree stand and tussle with the strings of tangled lights, knowing exactly where all the questions were meant to lead me, which is to the realization that it’s not about the tree.
It’s about us. We are the ones who are naked and we can no longer deny it. We are the ones who have lost our innocence. We are the ones who have been given the knowledge of good and evil and misused that knowledge to the detriment of our planet, ourselves, and our dreams.
We are naked and we are anything but unashamed. So we hide, not behind the animal skins of Adam and Eve, but behind strings of twinkling lights and Christopher Radko ornaments, collectible nutcrackers and construction paper chains, sad representations of real stars and real angels. We fill the holes, gaping and otherwise, with shiny balls that are hollow and easily broken. We turn our bald spots to the wall and anchor ourselves with fishing line. And then we stand back and sigh unconvincingly, “So beautiful!”
Staring at my sycamore tree I realize I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to mask my empty places or prop myself up so that I look steadier than I am. I don’t want to divert attention from my odd angles with spot lighting. I want to let go of the dead leaves so that, in the spring, there is room for new buds. I want to be a tree that lives in season, whatever the season may be.