Mike McQuillan

The Traits of Leaves Can Teach Us

The impressionist lens of a nearsighted naked eye leaves nature’s beauty pure. Rain pearls pause on branches to cleanse leaves’ vacant spaces. Autumn’s yellow brown patina surrounds my sloshing boots. I walk slowly, perceiving dying leaves in detail. They crisscross on concrete, wind-strewn. Hardened edges curl, protective gestures as leaves pass elder days.

My sister and I when young gathered leaf forts, leaping out at fancied foes to call ourselves heroic. Vic Morrow as Sergeant Saunders fought Nazi evil Tuesday nights on television but Dr. King and the Catholic Worker’s Dorothy Day inspire this adult.

Runners peek at Prospect Park’s pastels along Prospect Park’s Parade Ground as Sharon shares our Sunday sojourn. Tourist dollars greet the Berkshires’ forest glory. City branches shake in sorrow as we miss what nature offers in our clatter past to subway, bus or car toward workplace, school or store. There we check off task lists that exclude what lends life meaning, including nature’s grace.

Compassion, service, loving touch, mean more than the largest or the most of anything, yet we contest rising costs and planned obsolescence for fleeting  material convenience, status, satisfaction. Status quo corporate politics induces Pavlovian sneers at socialism, cloaking capitalist despair. We move too fast to stop on treadmills. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, a 1539 Irish proverb warned.

Retirement contrasts how I was with how I can be. Outward drives for family and career turn inward. Writing sculpts insights from thoughts and feelings on good days. Fluid motions as I walk at length connect heart with mind in depth, a divine hand’s work, not mine.

Content, I pace through leaves that melt city brick and concrete harshness. Leaves absorb light energy, trade carbon dioxide for oxygen for the photosynthesis of plants. Kneeling, I praise their role in parting. The building superintendent’s potent blower will tornado them into streets where spinning tires prey.

The imminent deaths of leaves remind that I spend finite days. I greet each tree along our rescue dog’s perimeter to bless the breath of life as we carouse outside in morning. “Thanks for another good day,” I tell them, noting patterns in the bark I lightly touch at sunset. The temporal rest of sidewalk leaves shows their work is done. Mine endures as thumb taps cellphone keyboard. After nineteen years of teaching, this screen’s my classroom now.

A Peace Corps year in South Korea training special education teachers taught the value of others’ perspectives, the virtue in humility, the efficacy of nonviolence. “How we are, more than what we do, touches others,” a Korean soldier turned student told me. His surprising soft affect swayed me to join NYPIRG’s Citizens Alliance as a community organizer to have a “soft footprint, big impact” at home.

“We’ll walk down Northern Boulevard, you’re cool once brothers see us talking,” a friend said the day after five men grabbed and searched me as I came off the elevated subway in Queens. A confetti stream of flyers from my shoulder bag saved me, proving I was canvassing for a summer jobs campaign, not drug dealing, buying or informing. It incensed me that society’s tolerance for poverty and its crime correlation made such events inevitable.

A smile or sunbeam, touch or toy, delight infant eyes that greet the world in wonder. It excites a child to start school, find friends, explore words’ and numbers’ revelations. Later grade-strivings to pass, excel or earn prizes breed more angst than pride – will I make the good middle school, high school or college? Can I get a good job title, corner office, more money, nice things? Is that all there is?

Competition, said to bring out our best, places false “winner” and “loser” labels. It makes compassion seem weakness. It breeds isolation.

Leaves share color and shade, persevere through seasons, fall in due time.

“Everything exists according to its own nature,” a Zen tenet says. “Our individual perceptions of worth, correctness, beauty, size and value exist inside our heads, not outside them.”

Leaves are peaceful and content while among us greed and deprivation, denial and fear make violence normal.

Our thirst for placebos and presumed happy endings made cliché of Anne Frank’s claim “that people are good at heart.” Her attic journal’s full statement adds context: “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too.”

Materialism, militarism, economic oppression, police brutality and the apathy of ignorance abound. Add moderate officials’ pandemic inaction, a de facto violence form with Congress on recess as people suffer. Liberalism dissolved on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with the Hotel Lucerne a haven for homeless New Yorkers from rampant virus spreads in shelters. Funds that could have rendered aid went instead to retain an attorney who sued the city to expel the homeless guests as the  gentry barked “not here!”

“Be the change you want to see in the world,” the Mahatma, Gandhi, said. We Idealize others like him – Mother Teresa, Congress Member John Lewis, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez as well as Dr. King and Day – as if divinities, not humans who like us had innate potentials that we could like them achieve.

Fewer people hold greater wealth. A shrinking middle class fears becoming unseen poor. One week jobless claims reached 778,000 the Wall Street Journal said. The pandemic may add 15 million to the 35 million who last year struggled with hunger, the US Department of Agriculture warns.

Bill Gates, though, lives in a $123 million mansion, owns luxury horse ranches and, Worth $80.1 billion, is the world’s richest person according to Business Insider. I salute his philanthropy but question its limit.

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist,” Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camera memorably said in the Sixties.

Guests called me “a free person,” “close to God” when I served at Brooklyn’s CHIPS Soup Kitchen before the pandemic though I was just there on Wednesdays. I cry at how grateful they were for what little we gave. It seems like a drop in the bucket.

May we all make it rain?

Mike McQuillan, former US Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer, taught history, coordinated the Crown Heights Coalition and chaired the NYPD Training Advisory Council’s Race Subcommittee. He writes for Harlem World, History News Network, The Write Launch, and Mike McQuillan Unity Forum.