the rose of sharon, i believe, laid down its life for our tepee. since the day we moved here it was a ragtag of a bush, a wanna-be tree. mostly it was naked branches, with a few crepe-papery pink-to-rosy-pink blooms that emerged but two weeks a year. call me heartless, i called it a space holder.
my mother, chief gardener around here, kept calling it dead. i was not so quick to give up on it. despite the lack of evidence to the contrary. despite the fact that i didn’t even like it.
not so many mornings ago, wielding a saw that could take your leg off with one quick flick of the wrist, she all but signed the death certificate. she marched right toward it with that zig-zagged blade. and we, no fools, stood back.
george washington, masquerading as my mother, took it down. in six swift flicks, with maybe a little tugging and pulling besides.
bingo. a light went on. synapse met with synapse, Idea was born. what with six long, clean branches lying there on the ground, a heap headed only for the curb, someone’s well exercised recycling gene kicked in: “make a tepee,” that someone shouted.
and so, my mama did. she taught the little one how the native americans did it.
while they were gathering the goods, i pointed them to the most sacred spot around, a clearing under the great blue spruce, on the eastern edge of our backyard, where the slant of firstlight comes early, comes poking through the cracks in the next-door neighbor’s cedar fence. it’s a place i call “the magic place.”
i always say, it’s the reason we bought this house. or at least my reason. my heart belonged to that place before a single paper was signed.
if you believe, like i do, that every child deserves a thinking place, a cove under the pines, where you can look up and barely see the sky through all the boughs and all the needles that make the light play peek-a-boo. if you believe that God made rocks as perches for endless contemplation, then you too would understand why i saw the space and heard my name being whispered.
you too would understand why i cared nothing about bedrooms or bathrooms, and certainly not about water heaters or air conditioning, because this was a house with a magic place, and i knew, as my mother and my little one carried their pile of sacrificial branches, that this would be the magic place for our little tepee.
my mother, hardwired with engineering skills that wholly escaped me, had it up in no time. tapped the builders on the shoulder, asked if they minded donating an old blanket to the cause. it was a blanket that was keeping my couch from getting splattered but we–the couch, the builders and me–offered it up for the high purpose of a tepee.
if we’d had a little deerskin, like the woodland natives, we’d have wrapped the sticks in that. but we are short on deerskins this season.
in theory, this was a tepee for the little guy. and just the other day, he humored me and spent some time in there.
but, fact is, it’s mine. i’m the one who can’t seem to stay out of there. i’m the one with my too-long legs all hunched up under me, trying to fit inside without knocking down the tepee poles. i’m the one who cannot keep my eyes off the undersides of all the pine boughs. i’m the one enchanted by all the chirping that surrounds me.
among the long list of secrets of parenting, there is this: the little person, often, is a front, an excuse, a bold-faced oh-no-it’s-not-for-me-it’s-a-tepee-for-my-little-woodland-warrior sort of fabrication. yup, that’s the truth, now, isn’t it?
so the little tepee that was intended to give my little person unbroken hours of imagination and forest-floor picnics and a cool place to curl up and turn the pages of a picture book, well, it’s giving me a place to pray.
it is impossible not to pray when you are curled up on the bed of soft pine needles there against the hard, cool earth. and all around you shafts of light are beaming in. the light, the way it’s filtered, is filled with floating bits; it is almost as if each particle is drifting down, as if a molecule of light was yours to reach, to grab, to close inside your fist, as if a firefly.
and then there are the wrens. just beyond the clearing, just beyond the pines, i have an old white bird house standing on a six-foot perch. it does have a short, squat cupola on the peak of its rusty coppery roof, and i always thought it was a schoolhouse. my little one corrected me, “it’s a church.”
and it seems a whole brood of baby wrens were hatched inside that church, and you can hear them chirping. especially when their mama or their papa comes to the little gothic window on the side, offers them a seed or spider.
“they are praying,” my little one whispered to me just yesterday, when he was in there with me–in the tepee, that is, not the bird church.
“what are they praying?” i whispered back.
“don’t let us get killed by the cat. don’t let us get killed by the cat,” he again whispered, this time with the fervency of baby birds who might have eyed the gray-striped jungle cat who makes his home outdoors in summer, and licks his lips a lot.
an apt prayer in the land of the ever-prowling cat.
my prayers there are not so explicit. my prayers are more hushed and awed. i feel my soul filling as i sit there, take in the light, the sound, the softness all around me.
emily dickinson, in a poem i know nearly by heart because i heard my mama reciting it so often, writes: “some keep the sabbath going to church; i keep it staying at home, with a bobolink for a chorister, and an orchard for a dome.”
i second the motion, madame poetess, sitting there in my prayerful tepee under the pines.
only my chorister is a house wren. and the choir is all the chirping babies. a mottled rock is my kneeler. the scent of pine, my incense. my holy altar is the wren’s chapel and birthing room. a sacred chamber, all around.
“God preaches–a noted clergyman, and the sermon is never long,” emily writes.
“so instead of going to heaven at last, i’m going all along.”
amen, sister. amen.
my holy tepee, the place i pray these days, is taking me to heaven, all right. its strong straight branches wrap me all around, its tippy-top points me toward the the puffy clouds where little children sometimes think to look for God, sitting on a shiny throne.
my little tepee under the pines is indeed a rocketship for prayer, and i’m strapped in for the holy blessed ride.
blessed holy chair friends, do you have a prayerful place, a sacred clearing where you can’t help but fill your soul? did you have a place when you were little that filled you with wonder, and thus with the Divine? i am sitting back, holding my breath, waiting for the beauty of your stories…