As a child, one of my favorite activities was stealing out to the dogwood trees in my backyard. I spent hours there sweeping the dirt floors of my imaginary “house” and straightening my various “possessions:” rocks, twigs, feathers, etc. The trees flowered above my head in the spring; they quietly dropped their leaves in the fall, and in the icy winters, the trees gracefully bent over a crusty surface upon which to slide and slip. The best time of all was summer, when both mornings and afternoons seemed endless and the trees provided a cool, shady hideout, blue jays cawing and swooping across the blue sky above.
Why do I think of those trees now? In the world we are in, I sometimes feel that I need a place to hide. In fact, just today I looked outside and noticed how much one tree (in my current backyard) had grown, with a perfect space underneath for creating a pine-tent. Now, at my seasoned age it might be weird to take up residence under a tree, sweeping away the pinecones, spending hours absent from my laptop, iPhone, books, and Smart TV. And yet, it looks so enticing. The idea of living under a tree, pretending its boughs are my roof and walls, seems like an excellent concept. Never mind that I’m a bit too tall now for this sort of space, and that I have an aversion to mosquitoes (which didn’t seem to bother me much when I was a kid—back then spiders, ants, beetles and other such creatures, with the exception perhaps of wasps, were endlessly fascinating).
But if I did take up residence under that tree, and started sweeping the dirt floor for hours, my neighbors would no doubt call the police, and my husband might become rather worried (especially since I don’t sweep much in my own kitchen). No doubt they would think there was something “wrong” with me, and wouldn’t immediately “get” that I was under the tree not because I had lost my sanity, but because I had found it.
I’m aware that there are more socially acceptable ways to escape from reality (and from the world’s cruelties). One can drink alcohol, smoke weed, do yoga, ski, dance, chant, read Middlemarch again, go to a movie, hike, embroider, or call a friend, for instance. Some of these, in fact, I have tried with some success (no, I won’t tell you which ones!). But when I think back on my life, the dogwood trees always come to mind. Under their branches I lost all track of time, I lost all worries, all fears, all thoughts of the future. I felt protected, secure, and happy. I felt nothing could, or would, ever, ever go wrong.
There are very few places anymore, in these times, where we can recreate the carefree security of the past, or even the illusion of it. Today, our children can’t even feel safe at school. We aren’t safe in our churches, mosques, gurdwaras, or synagogues, in a mall, at an airport, in a movie theatre, in a grocery store, at a concert, in our offices, or anywhere, really. We aren’t safe if we are gay, if we are black, if we are a politician, if we are a news reporter, if we are Jewish, Muslim, too poor, too rich, too old, or too young. We aren’t safe in our cars (especially if they are fancy), or in our strollers. We are not safe in numbers, and we are certainly not safe if we are female and alone. We might think we’re safe if we own a gun, but we can’t shoot away cancer, a tsunami, or the stench of hate.
And…I’m probably not safe if I sit for hours under that pine tree, either. But it’s a place where I can pretend that I am. And so, I am going to grab my broom and head out there. Yes, it might seem odd. But—unless there’s a lightning storm—under a tree seems as good a place as any to imagine that the world is the peaceful, loving, compassionate, safe place that I deeply want it to be. Under that tree I can think back to a time when—even in a city-- we rarely locked our doors. Just imagine. It was possible once. Why can’t it be now?