Ten years ago, as newly-weds my husband and I moved into a little outbuilding on a strip of farmland in far-flung rural Kwazulu-Natal. Our new home was a little rectangle of bag-washed blocks and a tin roof. We had electricity but no kitchen, bathroom, or water. The farm manager and his wife and two kids lived nearby. Civilization, in the form of cellphone reception and shops, were an hour’s drive away. A river encircled us, and a mountain stood at our backs, so in summer’s flood, we were often corralled onto our bit of land for days at a time. We were blissfully happy. Through our little aluminum windows, we looked on a village of mud huts on the other side of the river, thorn trees scattered across the horizon. Framing this bucolic view were the boughs of a scraggly bark-bare orange tree, just outside our little home.
‘It’s dead,’ said the farm manager’s wife. ‘It’s diseased, see? It’ll never put out any fruit.’
Across the river lived a man who had known the tree for far longer than she had. ‘Water it,’ he told us. ‘Give it a little something to eat. Why would it make any fruit while it stands there dry and unloved? Give it a chance.’
My husband found a discarded sink in the weeds behind our building. He knocked up a stand for it out of old fence posts, and set it up outside our front door. We dragged over a hose from the main house and stuck a bucket underneath to catch the water. After washing our dishes, we began emptying the collected water on the orange tree. We visited the village, and gathered up cow pats from the scrawny cattle that meandered between the houses. We broke it up with our fingers and sprinkled it on the invisible roots of our single-tree orchard. The months unwound. We built a garden and painted our house. We watched kids play in the river and women bring down their zinc tubs of laundry. We slowly used up the savings from our expat teaching days, and carefully mounded fresh soil over the tender roots of our marriage and young adulthood. The land turned from green to brown to green again. As the flush of life crept across our view, that frame of dead branches put out pale green buds. The tree was alive.
A decade later, that tree is still with me. I remember how patiently it waited until its cup was full before revealing its true nature. I remember the intoxicating fragrance of its blossoms as it drifted in my open window. Its beauty, and later its fruit, wasn’t given to me because I was deserving. It infused my world with scent and color and taste and fullness because it was in its nature to do so. Once it had received due care, once the conditions were right, it flourished. The oranges that it gave freely to passersby renewed its life force. To give was not a cost or a diminishment, but an enactment of its nature. Which was oranges. No matter how we cared for the soil, no matter how much water we poured onto its roots, the tree would never, in anyone’s lifetime, put out apples, or bananas. There were no mangoes, or grapes, or granadillas to be had from this tree. But there was life.
That tree sits in my heart now. I have always believed I had to earn my place in this world. Now, I am realizing that I am meant only to live out my true nature, and that my only purpose is to be deeply, wholly myself. It is not a small task. It is one that requires amenable conditions, and consistent care. I spent my twenties enamored with what my twenties were, an extended gap between childhood and adulthood, carefree and untethered. Then the turn of my third decade threw me off-balance. It was time to ‘give back,’ or so I thought. Then, I danced beneath a shadowed blood moon, and watched my years clock into a magical thirty-three. Suddenly, I find myself stronger, softer, more beautiful, more here than I have ever been. These traits well up like a faith deep inside. Strength, softness, beauty, and presence are not what I thought them to be. I am learning more and more of them as I learn of my self.
This befriending of self has been like watching the slow unfolding of a flower. As the moments blossom, I learn more about what the right conditions are for my own growth. Last night my baby boy was sniffly and teething. He woke every half hour, writhing in discomfort. I brought him downstairs, trying not to wake my husband and daughter. We walked around the room; I held him as we huddled beneath a sleeping bag on the couch. I told myself I was grateful to be there to comfort him. It was a kind of Jedi mind trick I had learnt from experience, more a recitation than a feeling. But once stated, even only in my mind, a sense of gratitude started to grow. I noticed the curl of his tiny hand, like the whorl of a seashell. I felt the thickness of the cover on my skin, and thought how warm our house was as I listened to the wind. Really, I was grateful, and very very lucky. As my baby cried, I held him against my soft body, in my strong arms, and was glad to be there, in that moment, with him. Overjoyed in fact. And as the tension released from my muscles, he slowly stilled, and his breath evened out. I stretched my legs out over the armrest, and closed my eyes in bliss. This way of thinking, this way of viewing my own life and the world, is a way of caring for myself. It magicks up the right conditions. The love I gave the small human wrapped around my heart was an enactment of my true nature. I was made to care for him. I was made to live and love, to know joy and pain. I was made for this world.
Contact Colleen on 084 603 0604.