Monday, May 11, 2009

In Solitary

As a metaphor for life, this piece of foliage isn't bad ...

My mind is engraved with an image from one of the low points in my life, one I will never forget. It comes from the midst of the kind of troubled adolescence that often breeds writers, and which we tend to write about with such gusto it almost seems like bragging.

My parents were divorced (a common situation now, less common back then) and I spent each Saturday with my father. Saturdays were like little vacations from the tedium and daily horror of life at home with my mother and sister. I won't go into why it was like that; perhaps another time. To get some idea, read The Glass Menagerie, or maybe The Sound and the Fury.

Suffice to say that the end of Saturday was always a time of emotional crash. I felt like a prisoner being returned to his cell after being allowed a day outdoors, back from the sunshine into solitary confinement. On one particular evening, sunk deep into this mood, I sat in the car during the homeward bound drive, my head leaning on the glass beside me, watching the empty fields and pine woods pass as the sun set behind them. It was that time of day when the afterglow is fading and the sky is deep purple flecked with only the brightest stars.

My gaze happened to fix on a single small tree as it drifted past, silhouetted against that cosmic backdrop. In an instant the tree and I bonded, becoming representations of one another -- the tree saddened to be heading back home, and me standing forlornly on my own at the foot of a vast and uncaring universe.

This image struck me so powerfully that I later made a painting of the tree (I thought of myself as a painter back then) to commemorate the moment, working only from memory and trying to capture the frail shape set against the color of that precise moment in the history of the sky. I know I succeeded to a degree, because everyone who ever saw the painting thought it "sad" or somehow more vaguely disturbing, though I now see it as almost comically maudlin.

So, time passed. I grew up and got a life. My father died. I bought a house and planted trees in the yard. I started a business and got married. My mother died. I sold the business, got divorced, got married again. Over the years many people came into my life, hundreds of friends and strangers, girlfriends, coworkers, clients, vendors, fellow travelers of all sorts, and now an extended family including even grandchildren.

I've raised a few cats, too, and each morning and evening I sit outside with them watching them eat as the sun rises, then sets, and the seasons change. This activity is called by the Japanese, "watching the bamboo grow."

One evening I looked up and was startled to see that one of the trees I planted almost 30 years ago, a Jamaican dogwood, has reared itself up against the evening sky in a shape that bears a remarkable resemblance to the one in my painting, the same one still emblazoned on my brain after all these years. But there is one difference. The tree is now part of my own home. And it is surrounded by others -- friends, if you will -- that keep it company and jostle with it for the attentions of the sun.

There is a "ponytail" cycad, the same one that used to live in a small pot when I had an apartment, and which I planted in the yard when I bought the house, and which now towers twelve feet in the air. There is a huge royal poinciana that I planted after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and which has already spread its canopy over most of the back yard. And there are all the other shrubs and palms I have tended, or that simply planted themselves, or were planted by the birds and squirrels that frequent the place.

My cats are not alone here. The place teems with life. Besides the squirrels there have been visits by possums and raccoons, giant toads, garden snakes, and swarms of small geckos and lizards. The common blue jays, cardinals, and mourning doves are joined by daily overflights of wild parrots, a large hawk, and others. Once a peacock even wandered in through the gate, temporarily lost from its home some blocks away.

In similar fashion my life has been peopled by all its friends and strangers, and has grown lush in habitat for thoughts and feelings, efforts and accomplishments, successes and failures. Like the tree, I now stand rooted in the garden of my own devising. I have born fruit, and when the time comes will wither and pass on. But one thing I am not, and will never be, is alone.

Just a comforting thought to send back in time to that distant teen I used to be.

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