Apple Trees, Bonsai and Puzzle Pieces: Learning How To Bless And Be Blessed
By Janis Gingermountain
Twenty-five years ago, working on a Master of Arts in Liturgical Arts degree, I had a teacher, Dulcie, in a class called “Spirituality 101.” One of the things she had us do was go outdoors and hug a tree, blessing it silently as we hugged. As I embraced a small apple tree in the meadow, it brushed me with its shiny leaves and touched me gently with fragrant blossoms. “Touch is reciprocal,” says the essayist D.J. Waldie. “We touch something and it touches us back.” Indeed, we bless a tree and it blesses us back.
Blessing a tree, a toad, or a spider web may seem a strange thing to do. Many of us know that blessing something or someone in a religious sense is to pronounce it holy. To Dulcie, all of creation was holy. Blessing is a way of remembering. Something or someone you have blessed will stay in your mind and heart forever. Blessing is also a way of adopting something or someone as a continuing source of inspiration for your life. And certainly blessing is a way of befriending creation, seeing the luminous beauty and holiness of each creature or thing in nature.
We have the power, or maybe we should say the permission to bless anyone or anything and in turn to be blessed by any thing or anyone. Blessing is power, but a different kind of power, an affirming, loving power. We have simply to pause, look deeply at a flower or a deer, and silently breathe a blessing.
Hurtling through the rapids of the wild Urubamba River in a rubber raft, amazed and speechless, I blessed the water with my paddle and was, in turn, blessed by the exuberant spray.
“Blessing involves relationship,” says Matthew Fox, who wrote Original Blessing and ought to know. “One does not bless without investing something of oneself into the receiver of one’s blessing, and one does not receive blessing oblivious of its gracious giver.”
Hospitality is a way of being in relationship and blessing one’s guests. Serving a hot curried carrot soup lovingly made from the garden, with fresh-baked pesto bread, can be accompanied by wishing good health and contentment for those invited to the table. And those who break bread, spoon the soup, and beam with pleasure at such gifts, are bestowing their own blessings on the household. Everything is given freely, and freely received.
A most amazing kind of blessing happens when one is caught unaware in a magical place, and blessed. For my 75th birthday I decided to go on a vision quest. Pam, my guide, suggested I start out on a maze of trails that led me into a dull, depressing woods. My housemate, checking on me a couple of hours later, took pity on me and dropped me off at an amazing bonsai garden. I sank onto a bench, completely caught up in the moment, each little tree an “eternal now” experience. Instantly I knew I would write poems about them, and would go to Japan to visit Kyoto, take part in a tea ceremony, arrange flowers, make sushi rolls, and learn about bonsai. I drifted from tree to tree, blessing each one and being blessed beyond measure.
A few weeks ago as I wandered through somebody’s backyard tables of stuff, on what was billed as “U.S. 30, The World’s Longest Yard Sale,” my eyes rested on a colorful cardboard box, a jigsaw puzzle of the Middle East. I touched it, toyed with its corners, and peeked in at its 550 pieces waiting to be assembled. I crossed the street to my car, ready to move on, but my thoughts kept returning to the puzzle map. I went back, paid my dollar, and walked away with the large box under my arm. I had never done a jigsaw puzzle in my life, nor had I ever had any desire to, but somehow I knew I’d made the right decision. That puzzle was to take me on a journey of blessing and being blessed.
I started putting Turkey together, remembering with thankfulness my friend Adnan, the amazing rock tufas of Cappadocia, an overnight stay with a teacher and his family way out in the country, and strolling through the ruins of Ephesus at dawn. As I pressed each yellow puzzle piece into place, I blessed Turkey, and remembered how Turkey had blessed me.
Egypt came next, light brown pieces with a thin strip of blue, the Nile River. I remembered hot and crowded Cairo, the mighty Aswan dam, the little mud house in Upper Egypt where we’d been welcomed for tea by a Nubian family. I remembered sailing in a felucca across the Nile for a sunrise breakfast, the crew chanting rhythmically as we went. I blessed Egypt and remembered her blessings to me.
Sudan, in green, was right below Egypt, only 120 kilometers south of the Aswan Dam. When the dam was built all the crocodiles in the Nile were pushed south into Sudan. I thought of the origins of civilization still lying hidden because there is not enough money for anthropologists to do their work. I thought of the cruel genocide of non-Muslim people in the Darfur area. I marveled at South Sudan, the hopeful new country, and blessed those green puzzle pieces.
Pakistan’s pieces were pink. I ran my fingers over them as the familiar city names appeared: Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Islamabad, places that had always held interest for me because my dear friend Evelyn was a missionary there in the 1950s. I remembered Benazir Bhutto, the brave woman president, murdered in the early years of her presidency. I blessed Pakistan.
Right next to Pakistan I started to put together the purple pieces of Afghanistan, the mountainous area around the Khyber Pass, where Greg Mortenson built so many schools for girls, where my friend Diane had bravely led a medical expedition, and where the Taliban had wreaked their havoc. I thought of Khaled Hosseini and his wonderful novels about life in Afghanistan. Afghanistan needed so many blessings, yet I felt blessed by the books I had read and all I had learned.
Iran was in faded red. As I put its pieces into place I thought of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the other books she has written about her life growing up in Iran. I thought about the Iranian people, who love the people of the USA, and about Hassan Rouhani, the new president, who seems to want dialogue with President Obama. How much we all need blessing, not belligerence!
It felt as if tears should be shed on the light green puzzle pieces of Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has unleashed unspeakable atrocities on his own people while the world wrings its hands, not knowing what to do. Blessing those puzzle pieces seemed so little, so hopeless, so sad.
And so it went: much to learn, much to bless, many ways to be blessed. I put the last piece of the puzzle in place, realizing that there were several pieces missing. So many missing pieces to the puzzle of world peace: Would they ever be found? My blessing of the puzzle pieces was such a tiny act, but one I would never forget.
I will never forget the little apple tree, the bonsai, the rushing Urubamba, the carrot soup and pesto bread. And tomorrow, who knows? I may go out and bless a cabbage, a Star of Bethlehem, a dragonfly. And they will bless me back.