by Michael LoStracco, religion department and international student sponsor
When I was 19, I was given the gift of an image, a memory I return to again and again in meditations on the testimony of Simplicity, a quality of unadorned, unencumbered grace.
At the time I was working for a tree service company in between semesters at college. It was good, hard work. We began early, 7:00 a.m., and I would walk to work each morning, half-asleep with a brown paper lunch sack crumpled in hand. Quit-time was whenever the job was done, and it seemed the job was never done. I worked with that company for all fours years of college, and it wasn’t until I approached the completion of my B.A. that my boss even let me near the proper chainsaws. My main responsibilities were to clear fallen debris from the ground beneath whatever tree we were working on, and to not get hurt. Simple, yes, but I can’t say I was always completely successful at either. I still remember our number one rule: when you hear the chainsaws running, don’t go under that tree.
It was during my second year working on that crew that I was given the gift. At that point I had earned my boss’ trust enough, and had proven my ability to not injure myself too severely, that I was allowed to operate a pole saw, a small gasoline-powered chainsaw fixed to the end of a telescopic pole that extends in such a way as to reach the lower branches of a tree. Such a tool is essential for pruning, thinning, or “lifting” a small tree.
The day I was empowered to operate this impressive and, admittedly, intimidating tool, my crewmate Don was assigned the task of teaching me how to do so properly. Don was a retired trash collector who couldn’t shake the habit of collecting discarded appliances and furniture in the bed of his rusting ’81 Chevy Silverado. Don was old-school, of the generation that still said “ma’am” and tipped its hat to women of a certain age. In fact, he may have been the lone practitioner of such antiquated customs, an old-school unto himself. In his late 60s, he had earned the right of calling anyone close to my age “Kid”, which he called me, despite my protestations and delusions of maturity. I was, after all, studying literature and reading Shakespeare and Shelley on my lunch breaks.
Don took it upon himself to not only teach me how to operate a pole saw, but also how to prune and lift a tree properly, in this case, a small maple tree. After fumbling with the deceptively heavy instrument for a few minutes, Don took the pole saw from me and demonstrated how to effectively get it going, and then how to approach each branch, sprig, and offshoot intentionally, teaching me what kind of cut to make and from what side. Once he felt like had adequately pruned a portion of the small tree, he killed the engine and placed down the pole saw. He stood back, looking up with one hand on his hip and the other gesturing broadly. “See, Kid,” he said, slightly out of breath, pointing, “that’s how you trim a tree.” He was pointing to where two small brown birds were hopping and fluttering from branch to branch. “You do it in such a way that a bird can fly branch to branch without hitting its wings.” I looked up and followed his finger, and the image was instantly captured deep in the gray folds of my memory: the angular spaces between clusters of clean branches filled with clouds, sky and sunlight, two brown birds twittering and hopping from branch to branch.
Since that day, that image has come to represent the value of Simplicity for me, not just in aesthetics but in spiritual practice and, by extension, how I live my life. When I’m feeling encumbered by distracting and stressful thoughts, by the general busy-ness of the school day, or by the jumble and clutter of stuff on my desk or in my home, I think of Don’s lesson on how to trim a tree. How can I make this aspect of my life simpler? What distractions can I trim, what encumbrances can I prune away? When, in meeting for worship, thoughts and emotions arise that are troublesome or produce anxious and aversive responses, I revisit that image of the two brown birds fluttering from branch to branch, totally and simply themselves. Free. In fact, I reach back for that memory often, tucked away in the back pocket of my mind, whenever I feel the need to center and ground myself.
Don didn’t know at the time that he wasn’t just teaching me how to trim a tree; he was giving me a powerful spiritual symbol, a visual mantra of sorts. Neither of us knew what was being exchanged in that small moment, but I took it as a gift, and like all great gifts, it was given and received freely, unexpectedly, and gratefully.