The Demanding Tree (A Re-Telling of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”)

“The Demanding Tree” by the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, revised Earth Day 2016

Once there was a tree.  And she loved a little boy.

And every day the boy would come, and he would gather her leaves

and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.

And the tree loved the little boy, but the tree was a bit irritated.  ”King of the forest, my trunk,” she thought. “Wherever did those human beings get such an attitude problem?”

Time went by, and the boy grew older, and the tree was often alone, which was nice and quiet, but she missed the boy.

Then one day the boy came to the tree and the tree called out to him, “Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat my apples and play in my shade and be happy.”

“I am too big to climb and play,” said the boy.  I want to buy things and have fun.  I want some money.  Can you give me some money?”

 ”No chance,” said the tree.  “I have only leaves and apples.  Why don’t you go get a job if money’s so important to you? I hear that the Nature Conservancy is looking for clerical staff.  Why don’t you apply?”

And so the boy applied for the job and sent many e-mails and processed many donations to the Nature Conservancy, and the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away for a long time, and the tree was sad.

And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy and she said, “What took you so long? You don’t call, you don’t write, how’s the job? And tell me, who do you think would really be better for the environment, Bernie or Jill?”

“I am too busy to talk politics with you, Tree” said the boy.  “I want a house to keep me warm. I want a wife and I want children, so I need a house.  Can you give me a house?”

“Of course I can’t give you a house,” replied the tree.  “The forest is my house.  But you’re certainly welcome to pitch a tent on the ground here, and we’ll have a great time.”

“Thanks but no thanks, Tree,” said the boy.  “Maybe I’ll start an intentional community with some of my friends.”

“That’s the ticket,” cheered the tree.  “You Americans already have far too many houses. Why build another?”

So the boy went off to start a co-op with a group of spiritually -centered progressive vegans who embraced voluntary simplicity.

And the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away a very long time, and when he came back the tree was so happy she waved her branches excitedly.  “Well would you look what the cat dragged in!! Look at you, Boy! Good Lord, you look awful.  You humans just don’t age as well as we trees do, do you, Boy?”

“You’ve got that right, dear Tree,” replied the boy.  “I wish I could stay and shoot the breeze with you, but I am too old and sad.  I want a boat that will take me far away from here.  Can you give me a boat?”

“Whoa,” said the tree. “I don’t like the way you’re looking at my trunk there, pal.  You want to get far away from here? You’ve got legs.  Walk.   And on the way, why don’t you take some of these seeds and plant some more trees? Make like Johnny Appleseed.  It’ll do us all good.”

So the boy embraced the tree, took the seeds and started on his journey.

And the tree was happy.  Really.

After a long, long time, the boy came back again.

“I’m sorry, Boy,” said the tree.  ”You have no more teeth to sink into my apples.

You’re too fragile to swing in my branches.

Your friends and your intentional community are long gone,

and your old legs can’t take you around as they used to.

We both know that you are at the end of your story, and that I will long outlast you.

I just wish that I could give you something to comfort you. . . .”

“I don’t need very much,” said the boy.  “Just a quiet place to swing and rest.”

“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could. “Well, this old tree is good for swinging and resting!Come, Boy, tie your hammock on this branch over here …and on this branch way over here.  Come, Boy, swing from my arms, and rest.”

And the boy did.

And the tree was very happy.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Greatest Hits, Mind of the Minister, Worship and Liturgy | Comments Off

Teacher

One of my very favorite ministerial tasks is to teach. I wish I had time to do more of it. Last night, I started a three-session course called “Encountering Jesus” and we began with Jesus As Healer and the healing miracles. I happened to look up just as a participant got an “ah ha” light in her eyes — that “I just learned something really cool” expression, and I felt an actual thrill go through my body.

I did get a call to ministry, but the first and really supernatural call I got was to be a teacher.

When I was in college, I dropped out of the music major my second week of school. I knew it was wrong for me. I ran from the School of Music to the English Department and nicely and desperately demanded that they enroll me late in a Freshman Seminar. My only requirement was that it be meeting that day, that hour. The administrator was aghast. “There are waiting lists for all the seminars,” she said. I stood there and pointed at the enrollment list. “Just add me to that one,” I said. “That one looks good. Yes, that’ll do. That looks like the perfect seminar to add me to right now” until she relented and gave me the pass slip to class. (I actually couldn’t even see the title of the seminar — I just knew I needed to get into one).  I arrived late, sat next to a guy who would wind up becoming one of my best friends and who would introduce me the boy who would be my boyfriend for the next seven years, and switched majors.

I never doubted my impulsive decision. Not only was it the prompting of my own soul, I decided that my dad had come through from the spirit world to give his support and approval.  I felt it was a sign that, as I was crossing campus to bolt for the English Department, I heard someone playing “Clair de Lune” on a dorm piano in one of the quads. That was the last song played at my father’s funeral two years prior.

People ask how God works in people’s lives who believe in God. To me, God works as a felt presence, intuitions and uncomfortable and often disturbing inbreaking of inconvenient truths. When I try to detour around the promptings of the Holy, I inevitably get busted. And I mean truly, deeply busted in real time, and sometimes for a long time.

God is an energy with which I try to sync myself; a wave I try to ride without flailing against it. I love the last line of our church affirmation, “to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine.”  I am always trying to be obedient and grow into harmony with God. It doesn’t make me sweet, it doesn’t make me nice, it doesn’t make me not irritated or angry, it doesn’t necessarily make me more likeable to others. I used to think it would.  What it does make me is peaceful and very happy. All is well with my soul. The peace that passeth understanding, and still no time for foolishness.

I understand now that God blesses and graces — God doesn’t grant personality transplants.

You may wonder what caused me to bolt out of Concert Choir that fateful morning in September of 1988 in Evanston, Illinois at around 10:00 AM, rush to the registrar’s office to find out what I would have to do to quit the School of Music and be admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences and make a break for the English Department in time for a noon seminar.

Here’s what happened. I had started classes a couple of weeks prior, and had felt a sense of real grief and dismay when I looked at my course line-up of all music studies, all semester. Voice lessons, Italian lessons, keyboard, music theory, concert choir. No literature, no history, no humanities? My advisor assured me that I’d have some electives in junior year and could diversify at that point. My heart sank, but I wasn’t old enough yet to respect that sensation and get the heck out then and there.

Holding onto that unexpressed dismay and sense of loss of broader academic study somewhere in my heart and soul, I stood that morning to sing with a large ensemble of other first year music students. We were singing “Carmina Burana.” The sound was extraordinary. The young singers were serious and amazingly talented, happy to be there, excited to devote their lives to music, and all skilled at sight-reading. I knew I was out of my league and more than that, that I was not willing to do the work required to become as good as any of them. I had neither the discipline nor the desire. I felt like laughing out loud. “Oh my GOD, I am SO not qualified to be here!”

I have always had the happy ability to recognize talent and appreciate it, and not to feel threatened by other people’s talent. I felt great admiration for my peers and in no way diminished by their excellence. I simply knew that I couldn’t rate and that was okay.  I had such clarity.

The funniest part of this story is who God/Fate/Trickster put me between that morning. On one side of me was Sarah Pfisterer. On the other side of me was Mary Dunleavy. Both of these lovely, now highly-acclaimed sopranos lived in my dorm and hung out with me after I quit the voice major, telling me that I had a great voice and shouldn’t be discouraged. I said to both of them, “No, you guys — YOU have great voices. You have great voices, you stand a chance at really making it, I’m fine but I’m not anywhere near your calibre.”

(I see that Mary just played Musetta in “La Boheme” at the Met in January, which I actually saw on the 13th for my birthday!!– I’m sorry I didn’t see it one of the nights she was singing! I was happy to be able to see Sarah play Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and as Magnolia in the national touring company of “Showboat”).

The next year, after the dust had settled on my dramatic transition from voice to English major, I was required to choose a major within the English major. The choices were English Literature, The Teaching Of English and something else I have forgotten — maybe writing? Or poetry? Anyway, I do remember sitting with my course catalogue in my lap wondering which one I should choose. I idly flipped through the pages, assuming that I’d choose the literature track but glancing at some of the other track’s requirements. I had no desire to take the boring education courses, and I wasn’t a writer, so…

And then I heard a voice, as loud as if the person had been standing right next to the bed where I was sitting. It said, “You are going to be a teacher.”

Here’s how I reacted. I said to myself, “Hmm. Okay, I guess I’ll go for The Teaching Of English concentration, then.”

No fanfare, no questioning, no wondering, no second-guessing. A mystical experience that set the course for my life and I was completely matter of fact about responding. I still marvel at that.

I was to hear that same voice speak one other time the next year, but that’s another story.

I heard a voice say, “You’re going to be a teacher,” so I obeyed.

And that obedience has given me a life of joy and fulfillment, although the forms of my teaching have changed over the decades.

Last night, the thrill of that original calling returned to me full force. It may not be a big thing, but because it has been exactly the right thing, I shall not want.

Posted in memories, Mind of the Minister, Theological Reflection | Comments Off

How A Dog Says “I’m Sorry”

Everyone says, “You have to be the Alpha.” But I have a beagle, and beagles don’t respond to Alpha training, no matter what Cesar Whats-His-Name teaches. Cesar Milan is not the boss of me. I don’t like him. I think he’s savage. I don’t believe half of what these dog gurus teach. You can scare almost any animal into obeying you if you abuse it at the same time that you’re feeding and taking care of it. Millions of people were raised that way by their parents but it doesn’t make it right.

“But they’re canines! They’re pack animals! There has to be an Alpha!” Yea, and you’re not a canine, I notice. You have opposable thumbs and leashes and restraints that alpha dogs in the wild don’t have. At any rate, I won’t treat my beagle hound that way and never have. I never crated him past a couple of weeks of trying, either. Some dogs think their crates are their safe caves, yes, but mine never did. He thought it was a penitentiary and he hadn’t committed any crime. So he just howled and howled at his adoptive humans and tore up everything we put in there with him to comfort him, and smacked the water bottle around and peed and pooped on himself until we repented and unlocked the crate. He never went near it again. He got gated into the kitchen for a week and the baby gate never stopped offending him, so he finally got free reign of the house.

In eight years he has never chewed one thing, destroyed one thing, peed on anything, pooped anywhere, or made one bit of mischief.

He gets a lot of attention, a night of sleep on a warm bed, and snacks and love galore.  He gets along with most other dogs and he loves children. He is a pretty decent houseguest, too.

And he’ll give me the food right out of his mouth. If you know hound dogs and their food, you’ll realize how big an act of generosity and trust this is. Beagles are notoriously obsessed with food.

A couple of weeks ago I gave my beagle a really fancy bone: way too fancy and rich to chew for too long. After an hour, I went to get it from him, and he growled at me. HEY, I said. HEY. GIVE ME THE BONE.

He growled and snapped at me.

I said, OH, FINE. YOU KNOW WHAT? IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT AND I HAVE  A SERMON TO EDIT SO YOU JUST MAKE YOURSELF SICK WITH THAT DAMNED BONE, AND THE DEVIL TAKE YOU.

Saturday nights bring out the Rooster Cogburn in me.

Well, my darling beagle did make himself sick with the bone. Very sick. It took him a full week to pass it and meantime I felt guilty as sin. I should have asserted my Alpha status with him that night. I should have thrown a towel over my dog and his bone and snatched that thing from him with no further ado.

A couple of weeks have passed since the crisis, so today I gave my sweet beagle a Himalayan chew, which is an entirely different and far more digestible kind of treat. But I still wanted to limit his time with it, so I went to repossess it from him this afternoon. He’s not nearly as crazy about his Himalayan chews as he is about the big pork bone, so I figured he would handily surrender it.

But he growled at me.

HEY, I said again. WE ARE NOT HAVING THIS AT ALL! THIS IS NOT THE KIND OF NEW TRICK YOU’RE GOING TO BE LEARNING, OLD DOG.

I put my hand on the bone and he growled and snarled. I raised my voice another decibel or two. Or five. MAXFIELD! GIVE. ME. THIS. BONE. RIGHT. NOW.

I put one hand on his snout and held it there, and put my other hand under his chin in a confident way to show him I wasn’t buying his theatrics. It was a risk but I feel that we have a lot of trust between us after eight good years together, so I took that risk.

I AM TAKING THIS BONE RIGHT NOW AND I DO NOT LIKE YOUR TONE. He growled and snarled but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it, and I just slid the bone out of his mouth. I did have to give it one yank, but he didn’t make a move to snap at me.

Then I stood over him and delivered a bit of an Alpha performance saying things like THIS IS MY BONE AND ALL YOUR BONES ARE MY BONES, DOG. I AM THE GIVER OF BONES AND I AM THE TAKER-AWAY OF THE BONES.

Then we had a nap.

I got up a little later to do some work in the study and left the dog to his bone, which he said he wanted. After about half an hour, I heard him start to cry a funny cry, halfway between his “I have to go out” whine and his “I love you and am so happy to see you” whimper. I thought he might be playing with the cat, as they have their own little language and he doesn’t use that vocalization with me. I didn’t recognize it.

I kept working.

Every few minutes, he would make that funny cry again, up and down the scale with a few woops at the end. Beagles are exceptionally musical.

“What is it, Maxfield?” I got up to see.

As I approached him in the hallway, he approached me on his belly, practically, wagging his tail and dropping his bone for me.

“Oh, is that for me?”

He scooted forward and threw the bone in the air. Thump, it fell on the carpet. He picked it up and tossed it in the air again.

“You want to play?”

I bent down to get the bone off the floor and he nuzzled my hand with his snout.

“What, honey?”

I finally figured out that he was showing me that he wanted me to have his bone in my hand while he chewed it. So we did that for awhile. I sat down on the floor with my hand open and the bone in it, and Max settled himself on his belly with one paw on my wrist, one paw on the floor and worked on his bone for awhile. When his chewing knocked the bone out of my hand, he grabbed it with his teeth and put it right back into my palm.

What a hound.

I felt like that scene in “The Miracle Worker” except I was Helen Keller and he was Annie Sullivan.

I said, “Listen, I knew you weren’t going to bite me. I knew it. But you can’t even pretend. That’s not okay.” And he said, “Bones love food warm lady snacks bone feelings warm lady smells love happiness snacks safety.” His tail went thump thump thump.

Then we went outside and played catch, and he caught the squeaky ball and ran and ran and ran wild circles of ecstasy around the muddy yard.

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