“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree… a tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray.” The opening lines of the poem,“Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer. Indigenous peoples through the ages have talked of tree spirits and trees as wise ones. Trees are striking as they permanently lift their arms to the Heavens in seeming prayer, day and night in communication with the Creator, their outstretched arms reaching for the stars.
Reaching for the stars. The image calls to mind a dance of the Kalahari Bushmen who were featured in the movie “The Gods They Must be Crazy.” The Kalahari, the last men born of the Stone Age culture according to Laurens Van Der Post, have no sense of individuality and so share all they have. They have a dance of gratitude which Van Der Post describes in his book entitled “A Mantis Carol”: “I never see their dancing without feeling deeply moved and utterly irreverent and blasphemous because of our own incapacity for acknowledging what life will give if only we will let it in.” And then there is their dance of the “great hunger,” a dance that says we do not live by bread alone, a dance at life’s end fraught with longing, with arms outstretched taughtly towards the Heavens as they reach for the stars.
My grandfather reached for the stars. He came here, a 16-year-old peasant stonecutter from the mountains of Sicily, knowing no English. He wound up carving the Lincoln Gettysburg address at the Lincoln Memorial in DC. While working on the Gettysburg Address he studied English at night school. I remember him telling me how he was the laughing stock of his fellow stone cutters because, inspired by Lincoln’s words, he carved his initials at the top of the monument, “A.L.” for Anthony LaManna (and, of course, for Abraham Lincoln), followed by: “Attorney at Law.” Working his way through school, he actually did eventually become a VA lawyer. He reached for the stars and touched them without ever forgetting where he came from. And he was childlike as he took care of me, as we danced to records on the victrola or as he played the mandolin and sang to me. I always think of him with a tinge of sadness, for more than anyone, he taught me to reach for the stars.
Reach for the creator– that is what the trees say. At this time of year I yearn for the days of childhood in which God seemed close. This yearning fully ripens each year at Thanksgiving/Christmas/Hanukkah when the people brighten their houses with festive lights. It is a time of year in which we light up our hearts and look to the heavens and sing songs of love to a babe born not so very long ago, or in which we give thanks for the oil to light the lights of the temple for eight days. We are all really seeking the love that motivated the Kalahari Bushmen to do their dance. We are seeking a savior, and yearning for the Light in this overlit, commercialized, complicated world in which the inspiring simplicity of the Bushmen, the peasant, is rapidly disappearing. And the trees touch my heart in their upward reach for the Heavens. For at this time so many millions of them are sacrificed as they become our Christmas trees and Hanukkah bushes, to be discarded after the holidays are over.
May we enter this holy season with a simpler yearning, not for presents and parties and hoopla, but with our hearts full of gratitude, taking lessons from the trees, from the Kalahari Bushmen, from our ancestors, and seek Love, in whatever form it takes in our souls.