We Spread Like the Roots of a Pando Tree
Submitted by Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindfulness-Meditation Practitioner
Listening to the soundscape around me I am reminded of my grandfather, sitting on the back porch with him and his enormous smile that spread a certain light all around him. He had an amazing way of communicating to the birds. He would listen closely and imitate their calls. He seemed magical to me in that light. I really believed he had imbued himself into the orchestra of their musical environment, so much so, that they heard him as one of their own. He was without the sense of sight and it seemed to have allowed him to tune in deeply to the world around him with great intention and presence. I sat with the memory of my grandfather in meditation recently, sitting in the sunlight, becoming one with the sound of crickets abounding my feet and bird calls filling the sky, cars whooshing by on the street and I became his smile for a moment and to myself said: let me move in his example of gentleness, let my breath be only one part of this symphony.
My grandfather lived for an entire century, a first generation German-American who endured the Great Depression, the death of his father at a young age, dropping out of school to resume his father’s income as a baker to support a family of eleven. He had a deep yearning to go to seminary school and as a result of his intoxicating good nature a man from the neighborhood paid for my grandfather to resume his primary education and eventually attend seminary school. I have always been struck by the incredible act of kindness the man from his neighborhood exhibited, which not only lifted my grandfather out of desperate circumstances but also changed the path for all of us who followed. My grandfather went on to be a minister whose Alma mater would eventually bestow on him an honorary doctorate for the work he did in uplifting an immigrant community. He was such a special human, his light emanating towards everyone who came into contact with him. While I didn’t share his religious beliefs, I certainly respected them. I loved this man fervently. His spirit was so strong, even at the passing age of ninety-nine. My thoughts have drifted to him a lot over these past eight months, wondering how he would have responded to all of this. What light could he possibly shed on me now?
Although I miss having contact with many of my loved ones, this newfound quiet is something I’ve welcomed with much gratitude. But as every parent knows, it’s your child’s pain that will get you in the gut every time. I have had the luxury of giving my children everything I’ve wanted for them prior to 2020. Now there is so much I can’t offer and when I stop to think about their loses, that grief is very painful, and there is anger there as well. I want to lash out with that anger. I did too. Recently I wrote a very different kind of article. It was well written, insightful, and full of impassioned energy. It was a, “let me tell you how it is,” kind of article and it had poured out so quickly. I’m good with words and when I attach them to my professional credentials, I can emphasize a held sense of superiority but this is a form of aggression. Despite my words coming from a place of care and concern, there is still aggression when I am not careful; there is aggression in all of us. What I know about my process though, of getting deep down into the gnarly roots of strong emotion is that it takes time to get there. It is a process of patience where in which I allow my emotions to unfold and transform little by little, day after day. These feelings and companioned thoughts need time to breathe. Had I shared that article it would have incited anger in others, it would have been based in judgment. I struggle with the pain I’ve mentioned here and I seek to find ways to hold it safely without alienating myself from others. I have to allow myself time and a lot of space to have these emotions without thrusting them outward. I go for walks every day, this is easier for me, than sitting in meditation. I need to give movement to these feelings so they don’t stay stuck inside of me. And then I sit with them to watch how they settle. I am able to let go a little then. There is nothing wrong with this anger I feel, to not have anger for these circumstances would mean numbness has found its way in and I certainly do not want to be numb to this life. But as humans, we have choice in how we exercise anger. I know the time to offer my words is when the feelings have softened inside of me. That means I have held on to them long enough for them to be wholly digested and only then am I ready to move outward with a more generous spirit. In the other article I wrote, I was moving from a place of conviction; from a hardened and conflicted state within myself.
My family’s great American story began in Philadelphia. It’s ironic that of all the cities in this country to malign during the election it was the city of Philadelphia- our democracy’s birth place. Coincidental, yes maybe, but there is a poetic significance here- let us not overlook. This is where our American story began. This is our heritage, it is our city- full of glory, full of ingenuity, full of hope and full of pain and mistakes that were made right from the start. Rather than vilifying this great city and separating ourselves from her limbs might we instead wrap our arms around her- this place of our collective birth, celebrating our democracy while diving into the center of it to explore the depths of our pain. I feel injured by this president, I feel that our country has been misled during a pandemic and divisiveness was intentionally used to pull us apart. We may differ here on these points but I will continue to work with my anger and my hurt so that I approach you from a place of compassion and not from a place of contempt. I will make space for my rage, I will own it, and when I misstep, which I will, as I become aware of it, I will back up and start again. Because, like it or not, what this virus has truly revealed, is our greater interdependence. How one person’s actions have enormous consequences that branch out like the underground roots of a Pando tree. Pando, mind you, is Latin for “I spread”. The Pando forest in Utah (which is several thousand years old) has an underground root system that is genetically considered to be one organism, making it the largest living organism (by weight) on our planet. Amazing, right! It is also known as the “trembling giant” and sadly is at risk of dying off because it is unable to successfully sprout new stems to replace the older ones. I don’t think I have to spell out the irony in this allegory.
I held my grandfather’s hand as he was dying, while he would fade in and out of presence, which I knew solely through his strength in the squeeze of my hand (for remember, he was blind). His grip would fade out gradually and then suddenly he’d tighten again with such vigor. I have always hoped that in those final bursts of connection he was passing something on to me that I could carry forward in this life. Could I somehow carry his spirit within me so I could spread it outward and his light would not leave us? One of the ways we develop compassion is by sitting with the presence of those whose love has impacted us most. Feeling their love spreading all throughout our being and then sending it outwards to the world. For this type of love should not be squandered, nor held on to just for you. So, who is this person for you? What love are you harboring inside that you can bring forth? One act of kindness, one act of negligence goes so far into depths we may not always recognize immediately. May we all be touched by generosity and may we find our place within the collective human race and the world that inhabits us.
I wrote this in April 2020 but held back from sharing for fear that it’s message would be clouded in the unfolding pandemic. Now feels like a good time to share. Here’s to seeing something new emerge from the fog of all this uncertainty.
The Mindful Walk
When will confinement end?
We are all naturally confined in some way.
I breath and step,
slow my pace down
Listen to the shudder of old leaves still
clinging to their branches,
tickling the wind in a sort of playful way
beckoning it to try again.
It’s tried for so many months already
but still these dead dry leaves hang on
and chant in a playful taunt:
“Come out wind, try once more,
we are all still clinging here
until Spring blossoms finish us off”