Walking up our driveway in my mask, back from an urban hike, I see Aziza sitting in the tree in her neighboring garden and she’s reading. I feel an instant recognition of my own time in trees, from being caught in a particular one while avoiding piano lessons (and finally being reported by the piano teacher who could see me from her window), to the haphazard tree house I built in our backyard. It was never as grand as the ones in Swiss Family Robinson, where they actually hoisted up a piano to play, but in my mind, mine was every bit as perfect: safe from all dangers and disturbances of the world. And where one could read in peace.
Aziza is 8 and through these months of the pandemic has been at home with her older brother, Roshan, her younger sister, Layla, and her parents Lina and Ali. They are a wonderful family and have been trying to keep up with school, exercise and have fun including making music as a family in their backyard. Lina tells me that Aziza has recently needed a little more private space and time and has chosen the tree as her sanctuary. She is also hoping to curtain her bunk bed into a private tent. Aziza has so many talents: she is a passionate painter, singer and her curiosity and engagement with the world is charming.
I have been thinking of tree chambers myself a lot lately. Jon’s mother, Oriel, was a brilliant philosopher and kind and generous person, and often spoke to me of her own childhood hideaway in the trees. It was a large ancient tree in Andover whose branches bent to the ground and made several alcoves protected by leaves. She told me there was an entry space, a sitting room, and at least three more chambers for other aspects of home. It was her favorite place and, especially in those final years, one of her fondest memories. She lived to the age of 91, but in her last two years she lost her sight, and then her ability to eat. She still managed to find a quality in life deeply lived. She loved to visit with her family and friends, enjoyed books read aloud, and, with help, she still dressed well to face each day. I have been looking again at Oriel’s copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, one of the most challenging works of philosophy. In it she taped onion-thin paper in order to make extensive notes for those that did not fit in the margins. She wrote in tiny pencil script, questions and insights on all that she read. Her thoughts fill many pages.
I came to realize her mind was like the chambers of her beloved tree sanctuary. It was where she stored ideas she could still think about, images and insights and memories. She could retreat into thoughts. It is the greatest lesson one can take now where we are all experiencing some sort of limitation on our former full embrace of the world. It reminds me of Wallace Steven’s great poem: the Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour which ends:
Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one. . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
Postscript: My friend David Rothenberg was so taken with the pages in Oriel’s Tractatus that he included several images in his recent book on Wittgenstein, The Possibility of Reddish Green. And with thanks to Amy Mikelson whose photograph above has enchanted me since I first saw it and embodies my idea of a scruffy sanctuary in nature.