I spent the weekend clearning. Yes. You read that right. Clearning. Clearing and cleaning. I emptied out my garden shed. Going from corner to corner, I pulled out everything and cleared the rubble. Tossed dry-rotted hoses that were left behind (note, they weren’t dry rotted when we inherited them). My bent hoe. The grass clipping tool that I never figured out how to use but have held on to for so long that the wooden handle is fraying and splintering.

I am good at shedding the detritus of my life. I shiver a little and the debris falls away. Until it doesn’t. And then I sit in my darkened corner and stare at the memorabilia and hover and wait and debate with the silence.

In my mind, I am now referring to Mondays as “Mary Oliver Mondays,” a thematic way to get me writing and to move beyond the cluttered up images and words stuck in my head. Just exercise the fingers and the brain cells and the synapses and get to writing once more.

Today, I am inspired by Mary Oliver’s “Black Walnut Tree” (link in the title). Throughout the poem, Oliver (or the speaker but I will refer to both as merely “Oliver”) and her mother debate on the merits of saving an encroaching, ever growing black walnut tree. The old tree’s monetary value would cover the cost of the women’s mortgage, but the tree is rooted in their history. From the lands of Bohemia to the fields of Ohio, the tree is a reminder of Oliver’s ancestors and how they lived with and in and on the land. How their lives are inextricably intertwined.

The tree encroaches on the women’s lives, its “Roots in the cellar drains” and ever more difficult to gather fruits. Oliver’s mother complains that “the leaves are getting heavier” and both agree that they are merely a storm away from the tree crashing into their home, negating both the mortgage and the tree that could save them from their mortgages.

Oliver’s clipped, unembellished images are striking. I can see the roots siphoning into old, antique pipes, the way they cluster around the sweating pipes, webbing around to absorb the water. To let the tree grow more. From the microcosm of the underground world, in filaments and hair-fine fibers, the tree gathers its strength, bursting from the earth and sending forth its branches toward the sun.

I feel the heaviness of the tree. The weight of the thick, heavy, water-soaked leaves (sorry, on a water kick here) that even in fall have not been fully shriven of their water. I know those leaves, the ones that clog and muck up the tines of my feeble metal rake that combs through grass and wisps up the dried leaves on the surface but gnarls up with the decaying, composting last year leaves that I left behind.

I am the tree. I am the heavy, fruit laden black walnut tree with thick fruits that stain. I am the women in the house, perched at the kitchen table, jerking each time a walnut bangs onto the roof’s shingles and clangs in the gutters. I can see them clustered over the mortgage papers, evaluating the cost of letting go of the tree so that they can live without the daily toil, the grind.

I am the grind. The merciless reminder that outside of my dreams and my hopes that the real world waits, the monthly “whip-
crack of the mortgage.” I hate migrating amongst my students with a red or purple or blue pen–whatever came to my hand the quickest–and slashing through their well-thought out phrases that don’t quite encapsulate a claim or counter claim, or how I will tell them to “explain more” when they think they have already done so. Twice.

At times, my mother has offered to sell her Wedgewood China set to finance my children’s education.

White plates with delft blue flowers cascading around the gilt-trimmed edges. Those were the Sunday afternoon dinners, the roast beef and mashed potatoes or baked potatoes and brown gravy dinners. Those were Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. The ones when Mom stood at the counter in her beautiful professional clothing and brined the turkey or peeled potatoes or apples or started the side-dishes before she had a chance to eat a meal or a snack.

I went into my eldest child’s room the other day. I have a single clear storage tote in the room’s corner. Within are the curtains my mom made for the Youngest. The Eldest’s baby blanket is within, still a light green with embroidered terriers. I have their “coming home” outfits, clothing they will never wear again. And will likely never grace a baby’s body again.

I hold on to these moments, because they define me. Much like I have the birthday cards from my parents from the last couple of years. Much like I have voice messages from my brother, my children, my parents, my in-laws. Because this is what I have to remind myself of who I am. I have poetry notebooks filled with angsty teenage poetry because this is me. I am the net worth of of my words, of my dreams, of my hopes and prayers. And to completely cut them out of my life becomes a weight I can not and will not manage.

As my husband and I age, we recognize that we have carried with us the memories of our lives and are becoming the stewards of the memories of our loved ones. We recognize, as well, that we can not hold on to each atomic reminder of our lives or our families. At some point, we must release. Let the walnuts and leaves and branches fall away.

Because we still have the tree. We are still the tree. We carry the history of ourselves and our families and our loved ones and our families and we bear them forwards. Into the next moments. Into the annals of time and our own personal libraries.

I will never be fully happy with the choices I make. Whether or not I need to keep this item or this token, this love rock a child pressed into my hand as they whispered to me “I love you.” I will sometimes have to choose the mortgage and not the tree. But, more often than not, the tree stands. The shade spreads across the lawn and I meander in its cool, telling stories to the next generation. Reminding them of who we are. Letting them know who they are. And pressing walnuts into their palms to plant on their next adventure.

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