Talking Through the Trees

This is a moving essay from Sharon Safer, the director of 12 South Dharma Center. She wrote this essay as her dear friend Cynthia Schell was dying of cancer in 2006. Cyhthia’s trust provided significant seed money that allowed us to establish the 12 South Dharma Center as a dedicated Buddhist meditation space in Nashville.

Talking Through the Trees

“Are we talking through the crepe myrtles right now?” she asks.

“Yes, sweetheart, we’re talking through the trees,” I reply.

My friend is dying, and she is teaching me about talking through trees, and rainbow exercises for saying goodbye.

Lately, in every conversation, she asks, “What is in your soul today?  How is your heart?”

I tell her about my son’s seventeenth birthday; about arguments with my husband; about the Sears repairman’s fourth visit.  Of course I know that these are not answers to her questions.  It’s just that sometimes it’s really, really hard to cut to the chase and know where my soul is, or if my heart is open or closed.  So, I use the events of my daily life as the path inward.   Sometimes the path is pretty straight and short, sometimes it winds around and around, and sometimes I take a wrong turn and can’t quite get inside.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the feelings that arise from the events of my life can be a shortcut into my heart.  How do I FEEL about my son’s latest birthday?  “Oh, that’s the way inward.”  So many feelings:  pride, joy, regret, curiosity, fear.  How do I FEEL about those arguments with my husband?  “Oh, there’s another path inward: grief, fear, curiosity, anger,” or, “I don’t feel anything right now because my heart is so protected.”

But now, my friend is dying, and every day she wants to know what’s up with my heart and soul.  She won’t be around much longer.  She hasn’t the luxury of time, and I don’t want to keep her waiting.  So, I’ve returned to practices that will help clear out some of the mental debris.  I meditate daily, and write, write, write.  I want to be free from the drama of life so like my friend, I can cut to the chase and know in every moment where my heart and soul are.

There’s nothing like a dying friend who speaks through trees and about soul and heart and rainbows to bring focus to what’s truly important.  She no longer has the need to protect her heart and soul, and from this peaceful place, she speaks directly of her desire to move on; of her love for her beloveds; of the beauty of her petunias and gentle breezes.  Next summer, when she’s gone and the crepe myrtles are in full bloom, I will listen closely for her voice on the breeze, “What is in your soul today?  How is your heart?”

Sharon Safer is founder and director of 12South Dharma Center.  She has a Masters in Social Work and trained with Sanchi Reta Lawler in end-of-life contemplative practices.  For the past few years she has served the dying and gravely ill as a hospice and an oncology social worker.  In service to opening the conversation about end-of-life issues, she serves as an Advisor to The Gift Initiative (