Her name was Mrs. Orange Berry. She lived just to the left of the front steps of our house when I was very young. She was a lovely old, plump, slightly prickly bush. And she bore compelling orange berries that were terribly poisonous to humans. I can still see my tiny baby fingers as I would pick the round berries and stir them with water in a toy tin pot with a small tin spoon making “stew.” Fortunately, I was never tempted to actually eat the stew; after all, I had been told the berries were poison and I was a mindful child. But Mrs. Orange Berry and I would chat together about important things and cook our stew in my little tin pot on a rather regular basis.
In the yard behind that same house, all along the side of the small garage and fence, grew the most glorious hollyhocks. Each bloom became a graciously gowned lady who could dance the night away when plucked and turned upside down (they also drank tea and played cards and shared confidences). And there were trees in the front with fat lumpy roots for balancing teacups and propping up dolls, and they made thick shade for reading out loud to dogs, and offered sturdy trunks to lean against while covering our eyes for hide-and-seek or having a good cry.
Looking back, it seems fat-berried bushes, fancy-dress flowers, all manner of trees and ramshackle dogs were my very first and dearest friends who held great comforts and insights.
Now – seven decades later – I suspect they still are.
On one corner down the street from my current home, there lives a wondrous old man of a tree. He willingly shares his gifts of natural beauty and shade with all sides of the street in every direction. But what I notice and appreciate most about him are all his lumps and scars – his ragged imperfections, his griefs and joys and triumphs and trials – the story of his life witnessed there in plain view.
He carries patches of barky skin where insects once burrowed – and he fed them and protected them and made peace with them. And he has a few lost limbs, ripped away when lightning struck another nearby tree not long ago and he caught at it as if to slow its falling. By his shape and swirls I know he lived through droughts and survived sickness and withstood weather and watched men build all around him. And through it all, because of it all, he became roughened and rugged – which serves quite well the creatures who need to rest on him or make safe places for themselves. And, always, in every season, in every hour, he sighs his life-giving breath out into the world without a thought or motive.
He reminds me of some people I’ve known who have worn their histories and life purposes in similar physical ways: a doctor, stooped-shouldered from hours over sickbeds and surgery tables; a tiny nun, bent close to the ground, tending to those who have fallen; a musician, with caloused numb fingers, bringing lovliness to life.
I believe there is the presence of God in all living things. But I suspect that, too often, we believe it must be found only in the abundant beauty of the earth and each other – the perfect sunsets and butterflies and new babies. Perhaps we are meant to also find it in the misshapen vulnerability of the world – like old trees and worn down souls – finding grace in unspoken courage and griefs, survival and scars, struggles and imperfections, raw compassion and tired strength.
The best dogs I have ever known, the ones who loved the hardest, were the ones with missing teeth and mysterious scars. The cats with one ear trusted the most.
I also suspect that it may simply be because my own scars and uneven places are becoming more and more evident and relevant – revealing more and more of where I’ve been, and who I’ve been, and what I’ve done and survived and loved. Perhaps it’s why I seem to be growing in appreciation for old trees and other living, vulnerable beings.
Or perhaps the appreciation never left. Perhaps I learned it a very long time ago chatting and making stew with a prickly, poisonous bush by the name of Mrs. Orange Berry.