At my Zen center on Monday night Zen student and physicist Chris Gaffney said that some things seem “impossible,” but they happen anyway. Like the way that time slows down when a body is in motion, or when it flows more closely to the earth.
There is a small clearing with an old tree on our land that nobody told me about, though when I happened upon it it was obvious that others have long known. I could tell by the trail through the grass that is slightly broader than a deer path, and the slight spreading of the hanging tan oak branches, and the soft worn-down seat among the tree’s roots.
At first I was disappointed, and amazed, that I could have lived and walked here for so many years without someone divulging this secret. But after a while the indignation wore off, and I awoke to the freshness of the surprise. If I had been directed there, or led there, I would not have felt the gasp of loveliness inside my chest when I crossed the shadowy fir bracken and emerged into the open space. The release of tension in my shoulders would have been different. The rippling feeling in my mind.
Two days later I led my children, almost four and almost seven, to the clearing. I just couldn’t wait for them to grow old enough to be able to find it on their own. We are raising them here in this eccentric (amazing) community on the mountain; they deserve to know its treasures as they grow. To reach the clearing requires a steep walk up a fire road and a short traipse to the east before veering off across a sloping meadow in the shade. They complained a little, huffed a little, but with the promise of snacks and a special place they persevered.
We crossed the meadow, stopping only once to climb a fallen tree (Is it a boat? A dragon? A plane?), and trudged through the crackling fir duff. Halfway across, they both seemed to look up at once. Suddenly they were calling raucously, “It’s green! It’s greenland! It’s fairyland! It’s green!” They plunged headlong towards the clearing, oblivious to the poking branches and needles catching at their bare legs.
We are in the middle of a drought in California. It is January, when the world is supposed to be sparkling wet and vivid green, in compensation for a hot, dry summer, and my children are not supposed to have bare legs. But the sun is like fire, the mosses are parched, the winter streambeds are dry, the farmers are losing money, the state fire department is hiring back summer fighters, and the deer seem to be moving from our highlands down into the canyons, where there is some damp and some nutrition remaining. The mountain lions are drawing near.
So my children’s joy as they rushed headlong towards the tan oak clearing was primal, the rush towards water of ten thousand sentient beings. It was something pure. And also something playful.
“There’s a room!” called Milo, pointing towards two crossed fallen logs brushed by frothy branches.
“There’s an island!” called Vinca, pointing towards a slanting, lichen-covered rock.
And then, “There’s the tree! Can we go in?”
“Of course we can. Let’s find the best way to enter,” I said, and we circled the tan oak, leaning down. “And there’s a bench inside, too.”
“There’s no bench,” said my incredulous Vinca, at almost seven always wanting to be right. But her posture faded as she drew farther into the shade, until she was motionless, then turning slowly, the stillness of amazement deep inside her, and she quietly breathed out these words, that I hope I never forget:
“It’s magical! It’s real!”
Some things can be impossible, but happen anyway. Some things in the world really are both magical and real. No alchemy required.