It hasn’t been a particularly harsh winter here in New Jersey. I suppose it never is when you grow up in Wisconsin.
I hadn’t been out to one of my sacred spaces—the Delaware Raritan Canal path—much since Hurricane Sandy passed through these parts in October. When my husband and I walked the canal path on New Year’s Day, I kept thinking of a friend of ours who took a walk with his toddler through the streets the morning after the storm. When his son asked what had happened to the trees and if someone was going to fix them, he didn’t have the heart to tell him that the uprooted trees, the cracked bows, and the bare stumps were now a permanent part of the scenery, and that trees are breakable, fragile, and mortal, just like you and me.
As I run on these slightly colder days down the path and my eye takes in these changes to the scenery, I think of how hard it is for we as humans to accept such destruction, and what kind of fear it drives into our hearts. Suddenly as we look at the world around us, we feel everything’s brittle, nothing is for certain. The bare insides of great trees are marked by great scars, and some of the loftiest, burliest ones plummeted in the storm.
If we can hardly trust that the same tree bows that framed these lovely paths won’t crumble above us, in what can we trust? Is there no permanence on this earth?
My generation’s experience of such vulnerability is marked not only by storms (we’ve seen some of the greatest destruction done by tsunamis and earthquakes in our time), but also a terrorist attack on our own soil. Shortly after 9/11, I read an essay by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in which he preached the scary truth that what the attacks taught is that not even the steel towers we stretch to the sky can protect us from destruction, heartache, and pain.
Waskow reminds us,
There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: it is a statement of truth like the law of gravity. However much and in whatever way I love my neighbor, that will turn out to be the way I love myself. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me.
When my husband and I walked that path on the first day of a new year, I grimaced at the branches laid bare and broken around us. He remarked that animals and insects had found new homes in their fallen limbs and crevices. Yesterday when I ran along the canal waters, the geese jubilantly honked at me and took to flight, their bulbous, awkward bodies somehow capable of both buoyancy and soaring into the skies. Later a bluebird fluttered alongside me and took shelter in one of the tattered trees.
Life buzzes amidst the changed landscape with an audacious, oblivious vigor. Where we see scars and imperfections, animals and insects make their homes. Death will eventually give birth to new life, and yet, how we remove ourselves from this interdependence! How we seek to believe that if we just build bigger, better towers, stronger, sleeker fortresses, we can insulate ourselves from the pain, the destruction–the humanity of it all!
When we let fear drive how we live, we seal ourselves off from one another, from the fragility, yet also the incredible resilience of interconnectedness. We forget that the lessons from nature, the way she rebuilds with the scarred timber, the tattered landscape something even more beautiful, are demonstrative of the fact that we need one another more than we know.
What if we accepted the fact that we can’t do anything to protect ourselves from storms and began to worship vulnerability rather than permanence? What if we found salvation in the new life springing from brokenness and accepted brokenness as our common bond? What if we found our strength in a God who offers us not permanence or immortality or insulation, but deep vulnerability, interconnection, and communion?