by Ralph Lelii, English department
When I purchased my home back in 1999, my wife was pleased to discover that there was a mature pear tree on the grounds which we had overlooked in the inspection. As we moved in during late August, the tree virtually groaned with ripe pears. They were plump and unblemished, but when we picked one to taste, we were disappointed in its bitterness; it seemed as if the flesh was bereft of sugar. All of them were like this.
Puzzled, we consulted an arborist who informed us that the tree had to be pruned in order to bear the kind of fruit we wanted. Skeptical, but obedient to his expertise, we did as we were told, and miraculously, after cutting away about a third of the tree, next year’s crop was flush with sweet, ripe pears. The idea of cutting away healthy, thick plant tissue to produce healthier tissue was a strange concept for me, but after fifteen years on the property, pruning has become a fall and spring ritual for all of our plants, empirical evidence that less is indeed often more.
As children, we produce more connections-synapses- between brain cells than we need. During puberty, the body carries out a kind of neural topiary, cutting away synapses and allowing others to strengthen. As many as half of these brain junctures are cut away by our bodies, resulting in more efficient, sophisticated and richer cognitive activity. It was once believed that this pruning stopped in our late teens, but it is now accepted that this neural pruning continues into our late twenties and beyond. Quantity is sacrificed for quality, even in the physiological vineyard of the very cells that constitute human consciousness.
I thought of this sitting in MFW yesterday as I was looking at some of the senior members in my monthly meeting. One couple in particular are in their late eigthies, hale and hearty and cogent as tax attornies. They once owned a huge house, raised a family, but in their own words, consciously pruned back their lives as they reached seventy, selling off what seemed unecessary, perhaps even counterproductive, and moving into a small apartment. Both husband and wife say that the last twenty years of their lives have been the richest they can recall, the spiritual fruit of their lives laced far more heavily with the sweet and subtle scent of self-awareness and connection.
It is hard in our culture to talk about death. Often it is seen as morbid or negative and depressing, and I suspect that this social quieting makes the underlying prospect seem even more terrible and isolating. As I sit in silence and look at the beauty of the elders in my meeting, and then glance at the inchoate longings of the children and younger members, I think perhaps that even rich souls must be pruned away to make way for new ideas, new directions, new possibilities. It is the way of things, nothing more. Viewed in this context, death does not perhaps lose its sting entirely, but it certainly gives us a possible way of understanding it that connects us more deeply to the miraculous nature of creation, death and rebirth, its myriad cycles and processes. Death isn’t personal; it’s just the business of life.