Archive for May, 2013


The edge of the front meadow here at Heart’s Rest is a broken row of transplanted wild roses, a transition zone from wild to cultivated.  When we plotted out the rest of the gardens, George and I wanted to complement these native bushes with some sturdy domestic roses.  But the deer around here treat roses like I treat the refrigerator (snacking at will on whatever is tasty, tender and available).  With that in mind, we planted old-fashioned Rugosas.  Wicked thorny, they are the only kind of rose that doesn’t get gnawed to a nub.  Chewing on a Rugosa feels about as good as chomping a thistle or sucking a burdock burr.


This prickliness makes Rugosas deer proof, but it also means that pruning can be a painful task.  While they generally don’t require a lot of care, they are inclined to grow big and wide and take over space from other plants.  So sometimes you just have to suck it up and get out the clippers.


A few weeks ago, in a short-lived blaze of sunshine and warm weather, I found myself poking around inside a Rugosa.  It was a particularly thick bush, six or seven feet wide and equally tall.  There were dead canes to be taken out, weak shoots to be thinned, errant growth to be lopped off.  In preparation for this task, I donned two pair of gloves, a hat and a thick jacket.  I regret to report it didn’t really help.  I still felt every thorn.


In an attempt to lessen my misery, I began paying attention to what I was feeling.  Those long minutes thrashing inside the bush taught me that all thorns are not created equal.  New growth thorns, supple and flexible, produced a pain clean and sharp.  The holes in my hands bled but were not irritated, and they healed quickly.  But old growth thorns—yikes.  When the spikes on those stiff canes pierced my clothes, they left tiny hooks embedded in my skin.  The affected fingers ached, sore and inflamed, for days.


I guess it must be pretty obvious why thorns on dead wood are so much more painful than new growth thorns.  When there’s no water in the system—when the cane dies—cells get rigid.  Those thorns don’t just feel harder and sharper than their living fellows, they actually are.  There’s none of that natural yielding that living thing does for other living thing.


I’ve been thinking about dead wood ever since that day in the roses.  I guess it’s because I’m back at work on the book about contemplative practice and contemporary neuroscience, and I’m getting ready to write the chapter on forgiveness.


Fred Luskin, the researcher at Stanford who did groundbreaking scientific work on forgiveness, once said that if you tell yourself the same story more than seven times, you’re in trouble.  When we rehearse our ills over and over, the narrative burns into our neurons and takes on a life of its own.  It becomes easier to access, intrudes into other situations, and shapes our understanding of the world around us.  When I have a “defining story” about something that someone did to me, then that’s exactly what the story does: it defines me.  It becomes my dead wood.


I had a defining story when I was in my 20’s that sexism had caused me to lose opportunities.  It wasn’t a lie, by any stretch of the imagination; it simply wasn’t the whole truth.  Then one day I made a casual remark to a friend, a guy who had a job I coveted.  I said to him that I didn’t have a position like his because I was a woman.  He looked at me and asked if I had any idea how hard he had worked to earn that post.  I was embarrassed, and stunned: I realized that I’d done nothing, nothing at all, to ever get such a job.  I’d never trained for it, never applied for it, never even worked in that field.  I had simply complained that I’d been done wrong.  My defining story had become shaped and hardened—just like those dead canes—but had nothing to do with the real world.   


Like dead wood in the roses, dead wood in my belief system is difficult to remove.  When I’m pruning, it pokes me; when I’m dragging out the canes, it gets entangled.  It rips at my hands and scratches my face.  There’s always a risk that I’ll end up bleeding when I clear out dead wood, and removing it leaves an unsightly hole that must be filled by new growth.



This morning—three weeks later—I got the urge to get rid the lower bench of thistle and burdock.  If you are acquainted with these plants, you will rightfully observe that I’m a bit late; it would have been much more effective to take them out last summer before they made those nasty, thorny balls that hook onto everything.  But as George observed, one can only deal with dead wood and burdock plants—be they metaphorical or literal—as one has time and energy.  We all have way more than we can handle.


So now I am sitting by the fire-pit, watching the last remnants of thistle thorns and burdock burrs smolder to an end.  That’s what I could do today.  I didn’t take out the biggish pine with pine beetle disease, although that dead wood needs to come down soon or it will infect the other pines.  I simply did what I could manage today.


With regards to that internal deadwood, we all make choices.  Some of us hack away at the big stuff first.  Some of us remove the smaller canes so we won’t be torn to bits when we go for the main stalk.  No one’s choices are the same, nor should they be.  The important thing, at least for me, is learning to recognize those internal stories that I prefer to reality; then I can start clipping them back.  Like trimming the Rugosas, the long-term effect of judicious and regular spiritual pruning is liveliness: more flowers, more supple branches, thicker leaves, greater overall health, more joy for the bystander.  And like not trimming those sick pines and burdock, dead wood left too long will surely impact the health and beauty of everything and everyone around.


As I get older, I find I’m becoming more anxious to clear out my internal dead wood.  At 59, I am well over halfway to glory, as one old monk of my acquaintance used to say.  I do not want to go to my grave feeling like my stories defined and limited me.  I’d like to think that what really defined me was a kind of incandescence, a visible, luminous spark of life pulsing in my everydayness. I’d like to bloom, and bloom, and bloom, even as my root grows old and gnarled, until I am fully spent and a new rose comes to take my place.


Copyright May 2013                        Reproduce with permission, please.