Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lessons From Trees

      I have always felt safe and at home among trees, our wise green elders. They know how to naturally bend and sway when there’s trouble in the air. They have seen it all and even so, they endure, they persevere. They teach me to do the same.

     One week ago, trees in the northwest suburbs of Chicago were put to the test when a huge storm swept through just before 8:00 A.M. I was on my way to Camp Courage, to be a first-time counselor at this five-day camp for grieving kids, offered by Hospice and Palliative Care of Northeastern Illinois.  Within one mile of the camp, the sky darkened and I watched trees dancing an unhappy hula against the black sky. The rain began stinging my windshield as I entered the long road in.

     Advised to park down by the lake, I heading in that direction and on arrival,  realized there were no other cars or people present. The rain pounded the windshield and I felt like I was slowly moving through Earth’s giant carwash. Struggling to see through thick, wet glass, I parked next to a small shed and turned off the ignition.  For ten minutes, I sat in my car as the storm raged relentlessly, until a voice behind me shouted, “Come with us, we’ll drive you up!” Grabbing my backpack, cell phone, keys and emergency rain poncho, I threw myself in a small car with four other people I didn’t know, relieved to have company.

     Driving up the hill to the cabin, we passed the road I’d entered only minutes before, now an impasse. A huge tree had fallen, snapped at its base and blocking the road, a giant barricade. How would the others get in? What if I had arrived ten minutes later? In fact there were additional entry points, but the drama of this was an unnerving sight (photo taken the next day):

     As I entered the cabin where staff was to meet, two counselors were covering tables with paper and setting up art supplies in the dark. Power was gone. Outside, within fifty feet of the cabin on either side, two additional trees had snapped, and the counselors had seen them fall. 

     All over Camp Courage, trees were down and power was out. But one by one, the counselors appeared, as did almost 40 kids between the ages of 6-14. Shyly but bravely they arrived for this journey to explore their feelings of loss. 

     Grouped in small teams according to age, they rotated among art making activities, talking and sharing, team-building exercises in the woods, on water, and on land. They climbed a rock wall to build self-esteem, and told stories about loved ones lost: sisters, brothers, parents, grandparents.

     Interspersed with grief work were more traditional camp activities like singing, flag-raising, and lunch on the grass, often followed by a spontaneous game of kickball or tag. For five days campers played, had fun, were safely guided to share memories and feelings, and in so doing, bonded with others like themselves. Healing was in the air.       

     Meanwhile back at home, ours was one of over 800,000 households without power. A 15 minute storm had taken down so many trees and power lines that help was being called in from other states. I couldn’t complain. I was grateful to have a home, a loving husband, and two adoring pets.

     We dragged out coolers and filled them with as much food as would fit, packing them in ice, throwing away what would spoil. The next morning, my husband and I made coffee in the fireplace, grateful for what we had, not thinking about what we’d lost.    
     The storm lasted 15 minutes, but our electrical powerlessness lasted six days. Each day I’d awake, look at my bedside clock hoping to see green digital numbers signaling power restored, but no luck. We made our daily ice runs and gave our daily thanks, wanting to keep things in perspective. One night, we made a stir-fry for dinner in the fireplace, using food we had rather than being wasteful. We read with camping lights attached to our heads.

      Losing electricity is inconvenient, but temporary.

      Other losses are permanent. In About Grief, Marasco and Shuff eloquently describe grief as “the weight of never.” Facing the loss of loved ones requires immense courage. All things are fragile, people and tall trees. One minute they’re towering above us, strong; the next minute, they’re lying prone at our feet. A storm comes from nowhere, knocking them down, knocking out pathways and power, leaving everything broken in the aftermath.

      Why did this storm happen at this time, at this place, where we’d gathered for this reason? There are no accidents. Our lessons are everywhere, if we are attentive.

      Trees. Courage. Loss. Power. What’s important is to endure and persevere. 


  1. Your message is very powerful, Arlene. I know that grief, "the weight of never" hugging her again... and then some. All I can do is keep going forward, remembering the love that was my sweet daughter and being grateful that she was part of my life.

    You are in the right place.


  2. Thank you, dear sweet Helen. Hugs back to you.

  3. When I attended The Evergreen State College I did some research on the ways that people use trees in poetry. I found that we humans identify with many contrasting experiences in our arboreal counterparts, like the strength and fragility you describe here.

    Thank you for sharing Arlene. For me, your story is timely and relevant. It's important to remember to practice gratitude.

    From the PNW old growth,


  4. Hello Arlene!
    I love how you told this story in both your blog and in the workshop with Orly last weekend. I'm glad I found your blog so I can stay in touch as you continue your studies that my mother and I were fascinated by...

    I love your statement that "all things are fragile, people and tall trees", as well as your statement "our lessons are everywhere if we are attentive". You are amazing Arlene =-)

    Many huggs,

  5. Yayy to fragility as it makes us sway and learn...beautiful images, you are a master photographer, I know that also from other magnificent photos you took of more trees in different states. Moving story Arlene. It took me a looooooooong time to finally get here and I am so glad I did as it reminded me of your beauty, fragility and strength...much love soul sister...XOXOrly

  6. I have just stumbled across your blog so this is the first thing I have read. What a beautiful post. So gently written but with such a powerful message. Well done! I too love trees:) Kelli