Lake freighter watching is one of my all-time favorite things to do. It started with my mother who would stand mesmerized whenever a “freighter boat” (as she would call them) would pass by as she stood on the shore of a Great Lakes River. And now I do the same. These ships are huge and move, seemingly, slow yet steady onward. If you are from the Great Lakes area, then you are undoubtedly familiar with at least one legend of a ship on the lakes and it invariably involves a storm.
The thing about watching freighters is that, from a distance, they appear to be barely moving. You see it on the horizon and it seems to just stay out there – on the horizon. But then, in an instant, it is close. And it is there, right across from you. And then, amazingly, it powers pass you and now I’m looking at the stern of the ship as it sails away from me. The moment never lasts long enough.
The effect is even greater when a freighter passes you when on a river. Because, when it is directly in front of you, the true size of the ship is awe inspiring. But what is truly amazing to watch is just how quickly the ship really is moving. In the distance, it appears to be crawling along. But right in front of me, I see the power and speed of the ship as it plows thru the water. And if you are fortunate enough to be present for a Captain’s Salute on the ships horn, well, you feel that down in your bones for many, many minutes after it ends.
Often times, I can compare my impatience for events in my life to unfold, with freighter watching. Whether it is waiting to hear if I got the new job, to get a complaint resolved, to get the diagnosis, to hear from a friend, or a child or a sibling, the waiting is always so very long. And stressful. And worrisome.
And then, all of a sudden, the event is upon me. It is there right in front of me as big as a lake freighter on the river. Sometimes (not always) it will even sound a loud horn to let me know the event is here and passing, so as not to miss it. And, just as suddenly, I am looking at the event in the past. It has sailed right past me. And I realize that all that worry and stress and anxiety was all for naught.
What do you see when you look at me? Yes, it’s a tree; Perhaps you even said branches and leaves. But, you see, I am so much more than I seem when you first look at me. I suppose that’s the problem with trees. There are so many that, after a while, we just sorta look past the tree and miss all that it provides and means.
I am a home for birds and insects. If there were no trees, the birds of the sky would have nowhere to rest, nowhere to build their nest. New hatchlings grow and are fed in the safety of the nest, built snugly on the branches of trees. The fledglings cautiously peer over the edge of the nest and swoop out for their first flight, only to rush back to the security of the canopy of leaves the tree provides. A tree is safety.
The leaves of a tree provide air for all the creatures of the world. The green of the leaves tells everyone that oxygen is being added to the air to breathe. The green of the leaves tells everyone that carbon dioxide is being cleansed from the air to make it easier to breathe. Without trees, and their leaves, we could not live. A tree is life.
A tree is much more that it appears. There is nearly as much below the ground as there is above the ground. The root ball is huge. It anchors me securely to the ground. I have withstood storms and winds and rains. And through all of it, I merely bend and wave, and maybe creak a little. When the storm passes, as all storms eventually do, I stand firm in my place. A tree is strong.
Trees have texture. Did you know you can identify a tree just by its bark? But it’s easier if you touch it as well as look at it. So why are you looking at me from behind a window? Come on out and feel the roughness of the bark. Feel the smooth leaves. Smell the fragrance of the flowers. Enjoy the coolness of the shade. If you want, you can lie down next to me and rest. Or read a book. Or gaze into the eyes of one you love. It’s a good thing and I enjoy it. A tree is respite.
You see, I am so much more than I seem when you first look at me. So, let’s slow down a little and really look closely. Look past my flaws and rough edges. See the light streaming through my branches and the reflection of the leaves. Look past the broken branches and stubs where I have been pruned. That’s how you’ll know I am real. I have lived a life that is hard, but rewarding.
What do you see when you look at me? A tree is a gift from God.
I suspect that when most people look at a flower in bloom, they see pretty colors and not much else. And there is nothing wrong with that. Flowers are beautiful to look at, it’s true. That is why we plant them. And that is why we look at them. And that is why we feel a little empty when the flower fades. But there is so much more to a simple flower.
Now, you might be expecting me to launch into a discussion of the value of pollinators and the process of bees using the pollen in our environment. And yes, I could do all of that. But not right now.
Flowers can lead me into deep reflection on many levels. I have always been one to focus on what a landscape looks like from a distance. My tendency is to ask, ‘how does it look from the deck?’ I like to see the bigger picture and to see how the colors and textures interact with each other. I like to blend flowers that bloom throughout the season into the same bed so that there is a continual flow of change from spring until fall. Because my life is a continual flow of change from season to season of life.
And, my fear is that, if I look too closely at any one plant, I will invariably see flaws. That’s because it is nearly impossible to have a “perfect” plant. They don’t exist. However minute, if one examines any plant, an imperfection can and will be found. So, please don’t look too closely at me. My flaws are far too obvious.
But then I am reminded of a verse in the Gospel of Luke. "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you?” Lk 12:27-28
Well then... Maybe all my imperfections aren’t so bad after all. So, you know what? Go ahead – get up close and look carefully. I’m good.
It’s not that I am afraid of heights, really. It’s that I am terrified of falling from heights. I love to fly in airplanes and look down at the ground so far below. But ask me to get up on a ladder and you will see terror in my eyes. Once, when my children were much younger, they happened to come into a room where I was installing a ceiling fan. One of them asked my wife, “Why is the ladder shaking so much, mommy?” “It’s just Daddy on the ladder, honey”, she said.
And yet, throughout my life I have found myself out on a ledge many, many times. Oh, trust me, never literally! But figuratively speaking, it seems that I am drawn to situations whereby I find myself trembling at the thought of falling off of where I find myself. And so I have to fight through the fear and anxiety that I feel in my gut to find a solution to the problem. And often it was not simply a momentary situation. It was more often than not, a long term situation I found myself in. Whether it was a job, a volunteer role, a home improvement project or whatever, I had to come to grips with the reality that, yes, I am on a ledge here. And if I fall, it’s going to cause real damage to me (or someone else). So, that simply cannot happen.
I think those kind of situations helped me to learn how to really focus and to compartmentalize my thoughts and fears. The task had to be completed. And there simply could not be any casualties, least of all to me! And so I gritted my teeth, put my head down and persevered to the end. I learned not to look down. I learned that if I focus on achieving the outcome and not focus (too much) on the perils, I could be successful.
I will be honest with you – I still do all I can to avoid ladders and ledges. After all these years, the churning of my stomach has not abated. But if the climb is unavoidable, I do not shrink from it. And once the task is through, I might even look out to the horizon and enjoy the view.