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Lessons From Trees

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

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Late last June a tree fell on our car. It was a freak wind gust during a brief thunderstorm, so brief in fact that the sun never stopped shining through the rain. The southern half of the lovely branching sugar maple sheared off halfway up the trunk and nestled into the body of the car almost tenderly, like a bird in a nest of crushed metal and glass. Viewed artistically, it was quite beautiful. A friend suggested that my son Peter, a sculptor, sign his name to it and sell it to a NY gallery.

Viewed practically, the car was completely totaled. It took months to untangle the morass of issues that ensued: insurance company appraisers, tow trucks, tree removal estimates, claims adjusters, car rental bills, title documents, records of car payments, odometer readings.

Viewed emotionally, it was a family tragedy. Throughout the ensuing months we discussed the freak accident, mourning the loss of the vehicle that had been our family car through ten years of soccer games, cross country meets, vacations, college visits, and, most recently, moving my two older sons, post-college, into their own apartments.

Viewed theologically, it seemed God was trying to tell us something. But what? We reflected repeatedly on the larger meaning of this dramatic event: the loss of the family car as we entered a new stage of life; the violence of its demise; the remarkable health of the remaining half of the maple tree; and, especially, the seeming miracle that the crushing occurred just minutes after I myself had been sitting in the car. What is the message from God?

Today, the end of October, four months to the day since that summer storm with its subsequent loss, still waiting on the insurance settlement, I take an early morning walk outside with my dog Pepper. I admire the rich orange -gold of the light as it streams through the autumn leaves of the remaining half of the maple tree. Then I turn, and I can’t believe my eyes: A large branch has fallen from the oak tree onto Doug’s car. The windshield has shattered into a lovely design of swirling cracks that reflect the bright orange of the maple tree with kaleidoscopic beauty.

I take a moment, first, to admire the design in the broken glass. Its intricacy and beauty remind me of one of Peter’s elaborately carved woodblock prints. I pause then to grieve: this was my father’s car before it was ours. The shattered window with its shreds of political stickers reminds me that my dad, always larger than life, is now six years gone.

Inside the house, I begin the practical steps that must be taken to repair the car and give my own car over to Doug’s use for a few days. It’s a beautiful late October day, a fine day to walk to work and to the grocery. While I’m walking, I’ll be reflecting on the meaning of it all. What is God trying to say? That I should count my blessings: A life rich with love and family and fulfilling work; a world shot full of beauty and art. And perhaps, one more divine message beneath all my theologizing: When will you get those trees trimmed?