"Through the empty branches the sky remains. It is what you have." —Rilke, Book of Hours
It is late November in America. Cold winds blow across the autumn sky mixed with tears and fears and whispers of darkness to come. And yet, the season of thanksgiving beckons us to find a shelter of gratitude where we can offer up some imperfect gesture.
Underneath a giant Cottonwood tree—a tiny yellow dot under the crisp, cloudless New Mexico sky— I stand, just a little awed. Around me, the autumn light filters through crackling leaves into pools of warm gold.
In the trauma of our time, I take refuge in this safe place, under a great canopy of warm color, even while knowing that next month will be leafless and colorless. Then, there will be no golden light, no pausing to stand in the bitter cold.
But for now, this arboreal refuge of change and beauty, rootedness and stillness, spreads over me like a golden fleece.
Winter is coming. The world seems to be entering a season of darkness where goodness hibernates in caves high up in the mountains.
But “the sky remains. It is what you have.”
What will we do with the sky in the absence of color and life and shimmering leaves? The sky belongs to everyone, does it not? The sky is universal and knowing. The sky embraces all and weeps with all.
The sky is what we have.
The proud Cottonwood bows in quiet respect to the season, but resists letting go of its honeyed leaves— unlike the maple and the Russian olive trees, which shed their clothes at the first strong wind. But the Cottonwood is stubborn. The Cottonwood simply loves being yellow and shimmering in the sun. It finds happiness in its own beauty, in its ability to shed pools of amber light on anxious beings below its branches. The Cottonwood has made a pact with the sky: to speak to the world below in elegant strands of flaxen light and quiet remembering. These two schemers—the Cottonwood and the sky—remember for us seasons of darkness and anxiety, and how they are eventually overcome with spring.
They remember the poet Rilke, too, and how his resplendent words remain, and how his beauty survived the darkest century. And how, through all the bare branches of loss and waste, the sky remains.
The sky remains, and reminds, and wraps itself around us—all of us under heaven. We have only to reach up through the branches and take fistfuls of fresh imaginings and place them on our hearts like a pledge, our own pact with that spacious Heart of divine suffering and tenderness:
We will be that stubborn golden light in the darkness. We will be that canopy of safety when the cold winds threaten. Until our eyes catch the first tiny green buds of spring, we will be a filter of golden warmth around the anxious, the vulnerable, the traumatized. And maybe even love our enemies, who share the same sky. It is what we have.