Fir Tree

Fir Trees

During the autumn and winter of 2006, I found and kindled an intense interest in shamanism. I was seventeen, in the first semester of my grade 12 year. I was depressed, confused about what to do after graduating, and craving something deeper.

Shamanism contained a visceral nature magic that I instinctively connected with. Raised in an alternative school on a little island off the coast of western Canada, my down-to-earth mother was the only thing preventing me from becoming the kind of hippie that conservatives have nightmares about.

My mother also happened to possess a copy of Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman on her voluminous bookshelf. This is what got me started. For my 17-year old brain, it was convoluted and hard to read, yet exhilarating. I remember introductory chapters discussing the author’s experience in South America, drinking tea made from steeped ayauhusca vines and bearing witness to secret metaphysical visions reserved for the dead and the dying. This was around the same time I was reading Manly P. Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages and Barbara Marciniak’s Bringers Of The Dawn, among others. I was, and remain, enthralled by arcana, by esoterica.

But this is a story about shamanism. Even more than shamanism, it is about a tree. Barely a tree, in fact. It was a fir sapling, and it changed my life.

On December 21st, 2006, I was asked by my mother to take a small hatchet and go into the forest behind our house to find a Christmas tree.

Soon after my departure through the cedar gate, I observed a beautiful fir sapling standing small and strong adjacent to the trail carved into existence by a veteran neighbour.

In terms of size and proportion, it was perfect. However, I needed to find the top of an older tree, or a tree that had fallen down in the recent windstorm. I did not care to arrest a young life of nature for mere cultural rite.

I moved on. During the next several hours, I would search an area of three square kilometres for a tree resembling the accidental archetype discovered at the outset. I had no such luck, and the sky was beginning to darken. My frustrations grew, realizing in disappointment that the discovery of so beautiful a tree could not be replicated.

In that moment of sudden doubt, I turned back and headed towards the house. I remember the excuses filling my head: “there are so many trees in this forest, it’s just a tree, it might grow back, your family will be happy,” et cetera. I didn’t feel good about it, but the increasing darkness of mind and sky were very persuasive arguments.

I arrived alongside the sapling and pulled out my hatchet. A sensuous moment occurred during which I appreciated the exuberance of the creatured life before me: eyes tracing its lines, fingers caressing, palms environing its simple circumference.

Realizing I had just slammed my axe into the side of the tree, I woke up schizophrenic: half contented, half in shock, body numbly persisting in its violence. I had discovered the perfect Christmas tree; I had ended a life. Disgusted by my complacency, subsumed by apathy, I was — without warning — a paradox that couldn’t resolve itself. Something had to give.

When the axe reached the tree’s centre, something gave: I broke into tears and slumped against my life, body a tingling mess, confronted by the loneliness it had felt all year. Having gestated in the scholarship of shamanism, my yearning for deep connection arrived in a shock of presence. I could barely breathe. All I could do was cry, and question.

What the fuck? Why the hell was this happening? Was I going crazy? Was I just a wimp? Why did I feel so alone? Why was I depressed? What did I really want? A thousand more questions… perhaps the most simple, in the words of Shakespeare, “Who’s there”?

I found I could not answer such selfish questions in the presence of a committed friend. Somehow, the sapling had asked these questions—not me. Knees weak, eyes dewed, and silent, I remained seated.

And inevitably, I rose. Taking a deep breath, I very slowly took my hatchet, retraced the v-shaped lines of my incision, and renewed the act of violence.

Except this time, I was not alone. It was not an act of violence. Impossibly, profoundly, simply, the fir sapling had revealed itself as compassion. “It” had become “Thou”. With a grok and a laugh, craziness and pain, something told me that my tears were neither for myself nor for the tree, but somehow for each of us. Unconscious ere now, cleaving myself with every stroke. The tree? Just as lonely as I was.

Everything felt different. Within the encroaching darkness, I hoisted the severed life over my left shoulder. In the throes of paralyzing regret, a more courageous part of me was starting to realize that a sacrifice had taken place. A threshold, traversed.

During that winter, there was deep magic coursing through the world. For the first time since I was a child, I found I could listen to it. My encounter with the sapling left me with an inability to commit pretense.

In the spring of 2007, my final semester at high school, I decided to become a peer tutor. I started writing poetry that exhumed vehemence. Infused with a kind of courage which could only ever be borrowed, I gave away who I was. And for the first time in many years, there was no need to be anyone but myself.

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The Heart Aches

When I was around seven or eight years of age, I accidentally established the habit of waking up each morning about two hours before anyone else.

I was reading books. An old and very grey recliner sat rather invitingly in the southeastern corner of the living room, invariably draped with my grandmother’s hand-knit woollen blanket, within which I would wrap myself to ward off the chill of dawn.

Though I didn’t know anything about yoga then, I would assume a very decent horizontal mountain pose in order to push the chair into its reclined position, in preparation for the morning read.

Settling back into the depths of my comfy fortress, some guilt would occasionally set in as I attempted to ignore the crinkled yellow Quality Street toffee wrappers stuffed down the sides of the recliner—fond companions from previous reading sessions.

My name is Alex, and I am incredibly slow at doing anything remarkable.

I’ve had many excuses for this in the past, but these excuses weren’t friends of mine, even though they seemed to stick up for me when I needed them.

They, like myself, didn’t believe my slowness was a good thing, or could be a good thing.

But when I woke up early to read, I never did so as a method of feeling more “effective” in myself, although this may have been a side-effect from time to time.

I woke up early to read because I loved reading. I didn’t have to worry about doing anything remarkable. I simply opened my small bundles of cellulose and ink, closed and reopened a different set of eyes, and fell in love for the first and thousandth time.

I incept this humble blog as a love letter to everything I have forgotten about my eyes. To everyone I have forgotten to see. To pain, beauty, and love, and to the sharing of these — with you.

From the little I know of love, it is subtle. It lives in details, and a committment to each moment as it comes. The way someone holds their spoon during a silent breakfast, the way they adjust their reading glasses when they are anxious, the way they break open when you lightly, lovingly challenge them to speak their truth.

One of my heroes, the Zen master and poet Peter Levitt, once asked his friend Allen Ginsberg as to the cause of suffering in this world.

“Lack of candor,” howled the reply. Koev halev.