Updated: Nov 14, 2021
Every year around this time, a classic meme pops up: a nature pic with superimposed quote (by “Unknown”), “The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let the dead things go.”
It sounds wise, and meaningful (if you live somewhere near, or are familiar with, deciduous trees). To me, a thousand other things also show us that loveliness, throughout a given season or year. People show us that, too. Like my friend and former boss, Jim, who died 6 years ago in the fall, after deciding to let go. No more machines and tubes and beeps and veins. All that was not living, for him. He understood he himself was already a ‘dead thing,’ and ready to let go. Respect. Props. Eternal love. Think of you and thank you pretty much every day, Jasper.
In the mid-‘90s, toward the end of my 9 years of working for Jim, we had a Northeast Regional Conference of our not-for-profit association, in Lake Placid. After a wild puddle-jumper flight into Saranac Lake airport, I met some colleagues arriving from NYC and Rochester. We all piled into a taxi-cab toward Lake Placid.
“Here for the leaves?” our taxi-driver asked. A sign above her chauffer's license said something about grandmothers spoiling their grandkids as a kind of revenge on their grown children. I couldn’t imagine my own mother even feeling that way, much less posting a sign that way.
Anyway what was that? About leaves? We colleagues exchanged glances.
Shirley asked, “Sorry?”
Our driver pointed to the Adirondack mountains, patched quilts of vibrant reds, golds, rusts, purples. This was late-September. Right.
Most people probably answered, “You betcha!” for the leaves.
“Oh.” Shirley said. “No, work conference. But maybe you can tell me.” She poked the driver once on her shoulder. “No one can tell me! Why don’t they call it Placid Lake, instead of Lake Placid?” She waited a few seconds. No one spoke. “They say Oneida Lake, Seneca Lake, Canandaigua Lake, but they say Lake Placid? Why not Placid Lake?”
I was the youngest one there, and often felt young and mute.
So I didn’t say out loud, “Because we suck at naming things, Shirley. Or we’re great at that. We’re a giant, unreasonable nation, with French-named lakes, Scottish-, Iroquois-, who-knows-what-all-named. Just say Placid Lake, if you like it better. Bet we’ll know what you mean. I still think of Cape Cod as ‘the Cod’ instead of ‘the Cape’ because when I was there as a 6-year-old about to start school in Cambridge, Mass., I thought you could just pick one of the words and put a ‘the’ in front of it. And I just liked the sound of ‘the Cod.’”
All that flew through my brain, unspoken. My true attention focused on the colors of the leaves. I wished we’d answered, “You betcha!” We would be meeting indoors, almost all of the time.
In college, my dear friend Scott from Massachusetts would say, “This time of year I really miss New England. For all the colors.” We’d be sitting at lunch amid the rolling hills of central Virginia, with plenty of deciduous trees on old mountains. I would point to the red, gold, rust leaves and say, “What’s all this, chopped liver?”
Scott would shrug a shoulder and say, “It’s just different.”
And one day in a cab heading toward Lake Placid, I finally understood what he meant. The saturation, the intensity, the hue values. This was different; these leaves I would miss, too, even among Blue-Ridge-beauties. I tried to memorize them onto my retinas. The colors would, soon enough, drop onto the ground. When bare branches could reveal their essential forms against a sky in lower angles of earthly light. Just as lovely, the leafless branches of the near future. And inside those branches! New, spring-green leaves would already have started dreaming.
My boss and mentor Jim would ask me, now and then, “Did I ever tell you what my birth certificate says?”
I would nod (of course he had) but I’d wait for him to say it again.
“Grave-digger.” He’d wait a beat for me to absorb that, one more time. Eyes locked, wide and amazed, every time.
“Father’s occupation,” I would then add.
Cradle to grave, a universal truth handwritten right onto his proof-of-life. Jim’s parents had been born in the Dingle peninsula, in western Eire. They emigrated to Chicago, and his dad found whatever work he could, as their family grew. Grave-digger, for one, on the South Side. I met his parents, and I still make his mother Nellie’s Irish Soda Bread (with dried cherries, if you want to be extra-mid-Western) every year when the light gets taller.
We both loved that cradle-to-grave fact and its truth of truths. (Jim and I discussed how we suspected that might be our Irish, to love those truths. We liked imagining the Irish of anything we shared, I think.)
And we looked forward to remembering that “have I ever told you?” again, whenever Jim could ‘forget’ he’d already told me, knowing well I would not forget that.
It’s natural to forget, though, yum? From our very first moments of cellular life, ontologically, we are already letting go of the dead things! Letting deeper processes change us, dying all the while we do grow.
We don’t remember, as mere zygotes of unified egg-and-seed, how suddenly – so very suddenly – we start to split and multiply madly (what just happened to our simply unified state?)
Or how we start to differentiate into specific systems (whaaaat? Is happening now?) of cells.
Soon enough, to start to perceive through differentiated organ systems. The presence of sounds, or vibrations - what? The many paces and moods of a day, from the ocean of our mothers’ hormones. The sounds of her moods, and vice-versa.
Her very heartbeat, within our sloshing, circumscribed world. Her heartbeat’s waves crashing in rhythm.
Vibrations from a conversation of tone and pitch from a dinner table, or a nap-wakening moment of laughter at a grocery-store counter. We have already forgotten the fetal dream we woke from.
We suck our thumbs. Kick and flail by reflex or intention. (My mother tells me, ‘we thought you were going to be a boy, since you were so active’ in the womb. Never quite sure what to make of that. Thrilled, for all my nieces’ sakes, there’s now such a thing as STEM, or better, STEAM, education for females. But I possibly digress.)
We start to smell and taste, too, through our cramped and wet world. Chacun à son gout as we swallow some of our fluid world every day. Strong spices, garlic, even carrot juice, I once read. A newborn can recognize, welcome, reject these, from experience. In the womb, we’re already developing an aesthetic. (I am already anticipating how much I have never explicitly thanked my mother for, as she turns 85 and deals with everything that means for an otherwise remarkably young 85. I must find a way to be Here for the leaves, and to thank her for loving trees.)
We perceive our only known world inside a sac inside another person, but darn-it-all, all we know is that world as the whole world. And just as we’re getting to know our amazing and watery Everything?
Yep – the world ends.
Out of our liquid only-known, we land in some alien, gaseous place, with the brightest fkn lights you never imagined!
(After it rained yesterday morning and the sun broke through, the trees in my neighborhood exhaled steam. The trees had had plenty to drink, and gave their leftovers back to the source. All that happens without trees having to think about it. Like our first sensing sound or smell or taste, or our kicking a tiny foot through fluid, because now we can – and will.)
Of course we don’t remember that very first death of our amniotic world.
Yet – and oddly enough! The world we’re then delivered into? Actually sounds familiar. We haven’t forgotten – dare we say ‘let go of’ our now-dead world, or what we learned inside that now-dead sphere, without our even realizing.
Our cascade of small deaths has only begun, at birth. Scabs will drop off our skin. Baby-teeth will wiggle right out of our mouths, like falling leaves, to make room for new ones, in due course.
We don’t remember speaking our first words, either. We have to be told, or hope to be told, by those whose memories are still embodied, to tell us. We don’t remember our first wonderings about names of all the animals or lakes or good-tasting things. We point, hopeful. We hear, “flower,” or “horse,” or “banana” ...
We don’t remember taking our first steps, if all goes well enough, arms out like Franken-baby, one foot, then another, while we breathe this world called air.
Cells are trying to die fast enough for us to stretch into another day. (I know this sounds improbable, friends! But I’ve checked many, many times and the answer is still: Each one of us sheds an average of 200,000,000 dead skin cells every hour. So, oof, don’t sweat the dust bunnies inside the amniotic sac of your home, if you need to look at trees from inside the woods, a way-larger sac? Is my thinking.)
Oh, and at some point, our quiet, childhood underarms and groins will sprout hairs and sweat. (You may remember the trauma, the letting-go-of-dead-things-puberty-wise.) Gone are these known, smooth lives and worldviews, and more. Just in time for other, critical experiences and adventures, inside a body. Ready or not.
At some point, our bones reach their growth point. Our immune systems take exotic adventures. Our blood stays ever-sensitive to the ebbs and flows of chemistry in food, drink, calm, disease, medicine, grief, love. If we’re lucky.
And at some point, if we’re lucky, our spines start to collapse, our heart-valves tire. Our structures and senses lose clarity. The grave, dug for us, is right there on the official form.
I wonder about something, conceptually, as I wander the woods on any given day and angle of light.
I like to imagine that, whenever we die (not just certain cells but all the cells and systems), could the end of the known world for us simply squeeze us into another, unfamiliar atmosphere that still, somehow, carries familiar sounds?
The way a newborn recognizes a mother’s voice, even the first time that sound moves through a new medium called air?
Sound and voice might not be the right words for my wondering. Vibration might be more how I imagine this something-familiar, post-partum. That our first big-deal parting (into Labor & Delivery, or a taxi-cab, or) might already hold echoes of our future big-deal parting (from flesh and the senses altogether). We might, without realizing, retain key saturations of experience -- the hue-values of having once lived in a human/Earthly body?
I’m none-the-wiser, and I’m no longer young (nor quite as mute) (and I will take that deal).
Right now I have to rake. My yard. My known world, for the moment.
You betcha! and by golly wow, I’m here for the leaves.
Love and leaves and all the living and dead things, and their names, for all the wonders of us, however we find ourselves in community, and with deep gratitude,