Jack Pine Story #1: Wild jack pines begin life in the aftermath of a devastating fire. That’s not a coincidence; it’s a strategy. It begins with the seeds, many of which are sealed inside the cones with resin, which protects them from drying out.
My wife’s 96-year-old mother (we all know her as Mrs. T) has dementia, and she’s been in her own home now for forty-seven years—cared for during the past five years by live-in aides. We knew that if she lived long enough, the impressive amount of money that she and her husband had saved during their lifetime would eventually run out. But we thought it would be end of summer or sometime later this year.
After a meeting in January 2022 with our accountant, we realized…it’s now. It’s, like, right now. She needs to be moved in by February 1, and the house has to be listed by March 1.
We hung up the phone and sat there, gaping at each other. Our minds and hearts galloping to catch up, then screeching to a halt, then galloping again, we couldn’t even find words. We went to bed, each of us awake, our seeds of growth and resilience safe inside the resin of our willingness to step up. And both of us, terrified.
Jack Pine Story #2: In the heat of a wildfire, the jack pine’s resin melts and the seeds are released. Although the fire may kill the parent trees, the seeds survive and grow quickly, more quickly than most other trees in the forest.
At around 3:30 a.m. this morning, Mrs. T’s aide, Lorraine, called us and said Mrs. T wasn’t responding and to come right away. We flew into our clothes and arrived to witness my mother-in-law’s face, a kind of death mask, unmoving, mouth open and only occasionally making a haunting sound with her vocal cords.
We called the priest for last rites. We called her other children and her grandchildren. Everyone said their goodbyes. We said the Lord’s Prayer. We said the rosary. The priest arrived, forgave all her sins, and anointed her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.
I went home, Elena stayed with her mom. This time of resin-melting extremity released the seeds of sacred intimacy, of healing, of profound connection between them. In the morning, Mrs. T reached for her daughter, stroking her hair, smiling. Her eyes came back to life. And after a while, she actually said, “What are we doing today?”
Jack Pine Story #3: In the heat of the wildfire, the seeds are released, they survive, and they grow quickly.
So we’re back at the “February move in, March house listing” part. Everything about our way of life—the daily rhythms we’ve developed over the last twenty years, the quiet mornings, Elena’s crossword puzzle, my blog, the daily walk and home-cooked meal with Mrs. T, combined with the blessed sanctuary of our ability to withdraw ourselves from her dementia’s unending noise, repetition, and demands—all of that expires in February.
And if we think we’ve got troubles, it will be exponentially harder for Mrs. T. At least Elena and I are still in our own home. Of course, we will keep all her familiar furniture and photos around her, but I don’t think that’s going to mean much. During her last hospital visit due to a broken hip, she kept the entire wing awake yelling for home, furious that no one would take her there. My heart breaks for how this desperate search never ends for her.
Heat and destruction are crucial to the seeds popping out and creating new life.
Our existing days—all the patterns and peace that we’ve taken for granted—will go up in smoke. I’m 67, and terrified of losing my privacy. I’m scared to death we’ll buckle under the pressure, or that I’ll become someone I can’t stand, someone I’m ashamed of. That’s the fire.
The melting resin, the seeds exploding, inseminating the ground around me—that’s this whole opportunity. This doctoral program in Buddhism. This chance to actually put my feet on the way of the bodhisattva.
I’ve studied and practiced and grown in Buddhism for twenty-three years now. And with this next step, it’s like after sending out applications and checking the mail every day, the envelope finally arrived. The fat one. My acceptance letter from the school I was most hoping to get into.
Now I have to find my dorm room, show up for class, and do the work.
Parting Thoughts: The jack pine doesn’t usually grow very tall because it often lives in nutrient-poor, sandy or rocky soil.
The nature of our existence is to be dissatisfied in some way with our own unique-to-us, nutrient-poor, sandy or rocky soil. We’re all too familiar with this equation: If I only had “X,” then I’d be happy. Dissatisfaction is just part of our human habitat.
It’s what we do with it that counts. We can scurry down the dark alleys of our fear. We can run to the comforts of distraction, drugs, dissociation.
Or we can call on the power of the seeds we carry. We can invite the flames of irritation, rage, boredom, and frustration into our experience. We can let the fire burn off our resistance to What Is. And we can let the heat melt our protective resin until we explode with new beginnings, new wisdom, new joy.
When you reach the limits of your maturity, turn to this part of you—borrowed from the real world of trees—to remind you that the unquenchable fires in your life are the parents of every new forest in you waiting to be born.
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