Can You Imagine?

There is an eternal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. -Josephine Hart

I spent part of this weekend with a group of colleagues that I grew to know and deeply respect from “Courage to Teach.”  This series of retreats is a partnership between Hamline University in St. Paul, MN and The Center for Courage and Renewal. After the series ended many of us meet on our own a couple of times a year. The Courage to Teach purpose is to emphasize the connection between identity and integrity, and the alignment of soul and role. There are always opportunities for writing, reflection, small-group interaction, and inclusion of poetry and stories from various wisdom traditions. We consider how these practices may be integrated to enrich our lives and our vitality.

The language of the soul is metaphor, symbol and intuition. In our group we use “third things” – poetry, stories, music and art – that hinge on the beauty of metaphor and serve the soul’s search for meaning. The metaphors from geography and nature offer images and archetypes which speak deeply of the inner life.

We had a number of “third things” at the meeting this week-end that had to do with the metaphors from the forest community. We read Can you Imagine?  by Mary Oliver:

For example, what the trees do

not only in lightning storms

or the watery dark of summer’s night

or under the white nets of winter

 but now, and now, and now-whenever

we’re not looking. Surely you can’t imagine

they don’t dance, from the root up, wishing

to travel a little, not cramped so much as wanting

a better view, or more sun, or just as avidly

more shade-surely you can’t imagine they just

stand there loving every

minute of it, the birds or the emptiness, the dark rings

of the year’s slowly and without a sound

thickening, and nothing different unless the wind,

and then only in its own mood, comes

to visit, surely you can’t imagine

patience, and happiness, like that.

The day brought me back to the trees painted by Cezanne, Van Gogh, O’Keeffe and others. I found myself looking again at images of chestnut trees, olive trees, maples and majestic oaks created by the Hudson River painters. I wondered about the intent and metaphor these artists were painting. Their visual poetry spoke to me like Mary Oliver’s text in her poem. What was the artist’s emotional connection to these trees? And what is mine? I wondered about the tree they painted, its location and relationship to the artist. It left me thinking , “Can I imagine what kind of tree is a metaphor for representing my life and how might that image might be painted?” How about for you?