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The Epistle Trees

by Alexa Jose

Palm Tree (Arecaceae)

My father was raised Catholic by a man who’d fallen in (and then out of) love with a Japanese Buddhist, a man lost somewhere now beneath the California palm trees, a man who loved the smooth roll of jazz music and coconut oil smiles more than coconut skinned children with bright brown eyes and small, grasping hands. Despite the estranged tension my father had with my grandfather, his past and family, he sought Catholic Mass every Easter, regularly surrendered sweets for Lent, came home with grey ash smudged against his tan forehead. Finally bursting from the burden of sun-burned roots, my father blazed towards the gleam of shields and sabers. He demanded respect through honor and effort, “Army Strong,” and he meant it. Westpoint enforced the wrought iron schedules and strict adherence to faith deemed necessary for spiritual restoration and daily grace beneath the eaves of barracks bowed to mimic cathedrals. When he deployed to his first station, his eyes still skimmed the Bible on his bookshelf, he still blessed his rice, and maybe thought of heaven before bed. I think God saved my father from war, kept him calling home in the years he spent among corpses, soulsick eyes, and enemy fire instead of the girls he left gripping the bars of cribs and staircase spires. Religion through my father was an occasional burst of something he didn’t understand but thought necessary, something he most often avoided but craved, sometimes with desperation. But that was as far as his religiosity extended. Following the footsteps of his parents, my father—always the one to preach openness when it came to spirituality—let his eternal soul settle down with a heathen.

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)

My mother doesn’t share the subtle faith of her husband. Raised in a non-denominational family in Spokane, she was expected at a young age to adhere to the family standards and be happily active within the church community: volunteering her services to any parishioner in need of babysitting, baking, yard work, weeding, potluck preparation, or any other number of “good, selfless deeds.” She, however, had no use for religion. A “problem-child,” according to the pastors, youth-leaders, and parents from whom she begged answers, she shied away from blind biblical acceptance, scribbled poetry on pamphlets, shook hands with the same palm, fingers, wrist that twirled to pinch her sister beneath the pew and dash back beneath hand-stitched skirts darkened by grass-stains and pitch. Vexed by verses she squinted, screwed up her face, and fixated on the subtle unease growing beneath her skin.

My mother overcame her fear of being heard a little after the fourth grade, and by the time college rolled around, her voice was more than prepared to challenge the “self-assured bigots” of the religion courses required by the small, Presbyterian church she attended tuition-free due to her professor parentage. The paper she wrote in Creative Nonfiction on the life of Buddha was accused of plagiarism, full of quiet reflection and the soft sacrilege of secularism. Five years later, in Korea where she met my father, my mother walked down tattered streets and listened to the remedies of old women muttered amongst vendors and evangelists and learned the names of children raised on half-rotting meat and hopeful prayers. Years after the somewhat traumatizing experiences of her church-going childhood, she taught her own three wide-eyed little girls never to be ashamed of curiosity. Thus, presented with the masterful stories of my mother, tempered by the tolerant teachings of my father, I ended up metaphysically muddled.

Southern Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)

In Alabama I tried to find God, or some feeling of connection to something spiritual in the hallways of Pinedale Elementary School. My mother cried when she heard where the family was being stationed next. Heavily-pregnant and determined to make the best of a “god-awful” situation, she sent my little sister and I off to Preschool and 1st Grade with bright green and gold Schultüte, encouraging lunchbox notes, and a request: “Be nice, remember you have to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and don’t worry about fitting in; you’re wonderful kids! The best! They’ll love you!” The south itself was a culture shock for a little girl with only green memories of Germany, cranes, and old forests, but despite my mother’s all-encompassing promise of acceptance, I needed to fit in. The girls with the prettiest dresses, with bright eyes and wide smiles, they were the ones I wanted to know. They held the keys to kingdoms both human and divine.

The almost fearful respect for authority that my father had instilled within me from an early age, met by the strange promises of paradise or eternal punishment, sealed my six-year old fate. For about a month, I became fully devoted to the idea of a higher power—especially at the encouragement of my pretty Baptist playground companions. I found myself standing awkwardly before the colorful art splayed across the walls, praying desperately with the coopted phrases and fervent colloquialisms of my new friends. Fidgeting in the little desk emblazoned with my name, small fingers wreaking havoc on erasers and construction paper, I prayed for good lunch, for the feral cats we were determined to tame, for my family, but more often than not, I found myself praying to simply believe. When I got a yellow card for chattering too much in the back of the class during reading time, I quietly excused myself to the bathroom and cried while apologizing profusely to Jesus between sniffles. There was no relief or feeling of forgiveness, only cold linoleum tiles and the dull drone of air-conditioning.

That same week, one of the feral cats living under our porch brought us a decapitated baby rattlesnake. After my mother’s initial panic (“Girls! Get away from that! It could still be alive! I mean it! Now!”), we watched as the corpse wriggled and writhed for nearly half an hour on the baking cement of our sidewalk before the tiny diamond spine stopped its throes. When I asked the question, Mom looked at me with her glimmering light eyes, and told me the truth: “I don’t know. If heaven exists, I think all the animals go there, even snakes. But, honey, maybe they become stars.” We buried the hatchling beneath the sycamore outside. We didn’t pray. I sang “Silent Night” (a tradition established after the passing of my goldfish, Mr. Flashlight, in Germany, suitable for any and all creature funerals); I thought it was beautiful.

White Oak (Quercus alba)

While I was young, for a while, we were required to join the family for Easter service or Christmas Eve service and North Spokane Holy Family; donning pretty velveteen dresses, our mother’s seed pearl necklaces, and lacy little cardigans; sometimes, we even had fancy shoes with buckles or flower decorations. My mother’s “old family church” was located in the V of a suburban intersection six minutes from her childhood home, and directly across the street from the “old family dentist.” The beige halls bore the perpetual scent of stale dust and oak pew wood coated in stain, resin, and perfume, but on those rare occasions when my sisters and I found quiet times outside the sermon, we’d toe off our shoes and run breathless until those halls smelled like nothing but wind. On each occasion we visited, we were introduced (and sometimes reintroduced) to about a dozen of Grammi’s powdery, aging friends; that was always my least favorite part; touching their cool, orchid petal hands. In the pews, I’d rise up, do my part, and follow along with the hymns, my reedy little voice occasionally catching with giggles at certain key praise phrases. Once seated, I’d doodle in the pamphlets with pens from Mom’s purse, watch the rapt faces of the congregation, or try (and fail) to peer past the stained glass windows to the little white oak outside.

When Grampi died, that’s where Mom, the uncles and aunt stood talking for a long, long, time after the service. I wanted to leave; the embroidered flowers in the tulle of my dress were scratchy and my sisters had fallen asleep on the far back pews after a hearty meal of cold cuts, cookies, and cheeses. My youngest sister drooled in my lap, her sweaty-sweet, nap-haired head heavy on my leg. I wanted to go outside too. Dad told me no. At the service, they spoke of Grampi’s faith, how devoted he was to science, The Lord, and doing the Good Work. I just wanted to go home to Grammi and Grampi’s house (“Just Grammi’s now,” my mother reminded me before turning her face towards the small, cloud-strewn window on the flight home). Ten years later, when my mother and I were on the campus tour of the same university he’d devoted so much of his life to, she showed me the young tree outside of the science building with a small brass plaque bearing his name. When I put my hand to the trunk, the bark was smooth, cool, strong as bone.

Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)

The trees on my grandmother’s property became my playmates; I’ve known them for years, much longer than most of my human relationships. After services, we children often slipped out of our parents’ sight, still bedecked in our finery, to play hide-and-go-seek outside. I’d clamber into the deciduous cover, peering through the screens of leaves to the foliage-feathered ground below. Numerous tights, jeans, and fine fabrics met their fate in the grasp of bark snags, jagged twigs, and bush snarls wreathed around the ankles of the trees. We laughed breathless, hid paintballs, feathers, marbles in the gnarls of the more accessible trees, gathered bouquets of the prettiest leaves, ran our palms down paper birches and saplings and pretended that their cracked, uneven skin pressed back. If, by chance, we happened to hide a particularly delectable, particularly “perishable” (as my mother was wont to remind), morsel amongst the leaf litter within the hollows, we could be certain to find phalanxes of ants marching on the prize within the hour. Carrying it away. Bit. By bit. By bit. Migratory as ever, for years, my family returned for the summer and winter seasons, and we learned the bones, as well as the breadth, of Eden. The shadows grew long and languid. Bells and long strings of fairy lights, carefully laid by my uncles replaced the riot of floral blooms and bees tumbling around the property. The trees grew in smooth stacks, fingers latticed, and when the snow fell soft as ash on bronchial branches, we took notice of the color of life. Winter seasons were spent pulling snow from low-bowing heads of the trees who found the snow much too heavy. Beneath the frigid dust, we spun elaborate tales of ice creatures, faerie folk, and the ilk. On some rare occasions, one of the adults would join us outside to coax with rougher hands the mantle of cold from the trembling birches. Year by year those proud spines bent lower, and we thought it wonderful; even the trees wanted to listen to our small secrets and songs.

River Birch (Betula nigra)

Later, in Kansas, lying in the bed of my best friend, fan on, windows open, wind rustling through, I almost didn’t hear her ask the question I’d been lucky enough to avoid for so long: “What do you think happens to us when we die? What if heaven doesn’t exist?” I, the twelve-year old atheist, didn’t believe in heaven. I told her as much, turning my face towards the bright moon, watching the river birch shake their shadows across the bed. She let me be, and if she noticed that I was shaking, she didn’t mention it. Together, we talked instead about all of the possible afters and eternities, spirits and the paranormal, animals and other entities, mythology, and the impossibility of space and utter perfection of nature. I shook terribly, teeth chattering whenever I couldn’t contain the trembling to my limbs and core. I’ve never since been able to talk about the existential without chills sparkling through my hairline, down over my arms, until I end up shaking out my cold, cold hands. I didn’t call the feeling God because it wasn’t, not to me; it felt more like moonlight slips of reality, just wisps of something divine; spider-silk tangled in the fuzzy undersides of the birch outside her window that night.

When she was married this summer, on a ranch in Eastern Texas, I stood beside her, bowed my head in grace, and prayed for the couple’s health and happiness right alongside her family and friends; I just didn’t say, Amen. I lost track of the number of times they referred to her as the “Bride of Christ,” rather than the “Bride of Phil”; although, I suppose it does perhaps sound less impressive, majestic, and awe-inspiring. She had prefaced her request for my holy ceremonial attendance with “I know you’re still a little heathen but…” before crackling into laughter and easy reassurance. She let me be. I made sure to touch every tree within reach, thanking them softly for the protection from the rain, for helping make the occasion everything she deserved, and for being particularly excellent bearers of light strings. By the end of the week, I had collected a nasty number of chigger bites, but I refused to dispose of any of the leaves or the grey-green Tillandsia that festooned so many of the Lone Star State foliage.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

I began to develop strange habits of religion in my transitional years (the ones bursting with sudden self-awareness and flourishes of acne). It started during an annual family camping trip in the Bitterroots. I wandered the river rocks that littered the small river beside our camp. Between the exploration, examination, and collection of the river and its great many artifacts, I found myself engaged in tranquil wandering. Every day, I’d weave small patterns—barefoot—from each smooth rock to the next, singing soft nonsense to the water, eyes open for signs of life: minnows, caddisfly larvae in their river-rock finery, water striders, chipmunks bustling through slate-shard hillsides, a snake slipping with eerie grace towards the shore, sandpipers and pipits darting to-and-fro. It was freedom: peace at last from the anxious murmurings in my mind. I didn’t have to beg their forgiveness for any misstep or off-key note. I didn’t have to explain myself to the trees.

 

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

In my spirituality, I sought the patterns of a more universal presence: sacred geometry shaping gardens, shells, and the honeycombs our beekeeper pulled from the small white boxes by Grammi’s chicken coop. Trees breathed, bloomed, and exhaled with the passing seasons, so reminiscent of bronchi my breath caught. I took to praying to the moon for safe-keeping, lying prone in the grass for hours, pressing my palms—and sometimes my forehead—to cool bark for serenity. I liked to imagine that there was a sort of divinity between the leaf veins, a covenant of water bound in my own blood. Reality was run-through with trees; saplings in my soul; branches bursting from cavities; roots reaching fearless into the deep, rich earth. I didn’t take this for religion, but some wayward delusion. Or just me being weird. It wasn’t until near the end of high school that I began to recognize my own spirituality for what it was. I kept getting lost in nostalgia for a childhood not yet passed and distress about inevitability and the unknown. “Nothing lasts forever” had been my mantra since the conception of loss had first triggered tears; it was a “universal” truth, as Mom liked to say. I found myself straying to touch plants and just breathe by my mother’s redbud tree, little fruit saplings, and ornamental maples. There was grace beneath the boughs, soul-rest among the branches. Years later, wearier, slightly more weathered, and with a couple more “life understandings” tucked away beneath my frequently twig-tangled mane, I found myself content to divine the mechanisms of metaphysics through the observation of wisterias, beeches, and the proud stand of aspen shaking near the river.

 

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

When they found cancer blooms inside Grammi, I didn’t want to sit in prayer circles beneath fluorescent lights. I didn’t want to talk about heaven with my little cousins. I didn’t want to do much of anything except buy a flower to grow in her dim, stagnant room and wander once more amongst her familiar trees; I have never made my peace with fading things. In winter, when the loss of her leeched a slow-sickness into my spirit, I watched snow pool on the Douglas fir and little silverlocke and felt the presence of something both powerful and sad. Ruffled in the lilting breezes and soft sighs of spring, the long days passed, the light grew stronger, flowers breached the thin crust of our cosmic cathedral, and I was struck silent again and again by the sunset through the screen of her willow; tears in my eyes, a catch in my throat at the sight of her silver-barked birch grove and sprawling hackberry. At her funeral, I mutely endured the long lulls punctuated by the drone of a ecclesial character who never knew her. He spoke of quiet devotion to Christ, a reservation in the Heavenly Host, a hushed heaven. I hoped not. She loved the hum of life. Bees. Chickens. Children. She wasn’t a “sweet lady”; she was creative and temperate and desperately optimistic. She deserved an eternity of life, and I prayed the trees would reclaim her soul. We left her in a green birdhouse beneath the shaggy Ponderosas laden with violas, tulips, roses, golden khata, small laughs, and bits of beauty. The sun was bright. We did not leave her long in silence, or with strangers who forgot to bring her flowers. The dogwoods and magnolias were the last trees to blossom, and I thanked them for sending my grandmother off with something beautiful.

 

Alexa Jose graduated Whitworth University in 2016 behind the “pinecone curtain” of Spokane, Washington, with a B.A. in Psychology. She is currently working on attaining a Masters degree in Elementary Education. She spends her time amongst cats, flowers, and high desert skies. This will be her first creative nonfiction publication, a fact which is both wonderful and wild.