Leaves don’t so much change color in the fall as they become what they’ve always been. The chlorophyll that gives all deciduous trees their summer uniform of green begins to break down in the cooling days of autumn. The carotenoids in the leaves remain, lending trees their brilliant yellows and oranges. Those colors have always been there, they are just revealed in the retreat of the chlorophyll.
I believe I have experienced a little of the wisdom of trees in my own leave, which comes to an end with October’s arrival. Over this time, I have allowed the identity of my role as a clergy person to draw back and underneath I discovered colors I hadn’t seen in a long time. Of course, that clergy role is not like a coat that is shed. In fact, it’s more like a brand burned in by an iron. But it’s not all that I am.
Who I discovered on this journey is a little of the boy who used to follow his instincts with a nagging sense that they made him somewhat strange and unfit for normal society. Lo, these many years since, I found that boy charming and needlessly burdened. He was on to something that I still need.
So, on this renewal leave, I wrote like that boy, who would come home each day and tap fantastical stories at his father’s Selectric typewriter. I wandered the small town of Archer City, Texas like that boy wandered his own home town, fascinated by the people whom he met and wanting to get the mystery and wonder of the place somehow into words.
I sang along to Tennessee Ernie Ford gospel songs with a 70-something cowgirl late into the night in her West Texas garden festooned with strings of light and a bright pink rifle. I ate dinners with friends who, amazingly, are still good friends years after leaving Dallas. I took a road trip with Suzanne back through the heart of the country staying ahead of a hurricane. I explored the desert and the prairie. I stayed with a cousin who told me family history I had never heard. I heard more from my father as we shared a few nights in his hospital room. I worshipped in a Latino church, a cowboy church, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I talked with shop owners in East Jerusalem, walked miles through Bethlehem, and floated in the Dead Sea.
The boy loved such adventures and moments as these.
But about that wisdom of trees…
Once I had a revelation under a tree. I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I had just attended a session with the great poet and memoirist Mary Karr. She told about a spiritual director who got her out of a stuck place by asking the question, “What would you write about if you weren’t afraid?”
I left the session and went out to sit under a spruce in the April sun. I opened my journal and asked the same question. As clearly as I have ever heard God speak in my life I heard three things: “Be free. Tell the truth. Don’t do it alone.”
I strive for these things, but I tasted them more fully in the leave. I glimpsed the colors that had been muted by the drive to produce and the wholly worthy work of turning energy into sustenance, which is the work of chlorophyll.
In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr talks about the journey into the second half of life as a kind of search for authenticity. He sees our stumbling forward to understand life as “a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves,’ for something more, or what I will call ‘homesickness.’” I understand that desire and it is a kind of rediscovery with acceptance—a knowing that the people we have been in the past are the people God has made us to be, but we have never fully received that gift. I trust, as I return, that the colors will remain and that the boy will flourish yet.