the age of undoing

July 9th, 2013


In the end, what ties everything together is how predictably it falls apart.

Like everyone, I must have seen heaps of leaves all my life, but I never really noticed the part where they fall to the earth.  When you watch a tree drop its leaves, it will change you. It will alter your ambition and interrupt your agenda. There’s nothing like the sight of falling leaves to give you a glimpse of reality, especially if it’s in your own backyard.

It was my forty-first birthday. I was looking out the garden window in our guest room, also called our office, but which would be lost to either use when a baby took up residence a year later. I was alone, in the middle of the day, amid September’s melancholy stillness, with nothing to do except give undue consideration to the sad landscape of my recent loss. Three months earlier I’d left my job, planted my savings into this decrepit house, sacrificed my slim claim to fame and greatness and brought myself down to earth. And for what? I was no clearer on the why. Then it began to rain, more like the suggestion of rain, a translucent veil that fell like lace from the crown of the sky. Did this even qualify as rain? I had to wonder, being a transplant from the land of whipcracking cloudbursts and tornado warnings with sudden raging floods that crested two feet higher than your front door. That was rain.

I remember this event not because of the birthday, one of many that would come after the year I stopped counting, but because of the delicate mists that carried the first leaves down from the sycamores, leaves still partly green and as wide across as my two hands. What a show—the water, the light, and the leaves gliding into a soft landing of letting go.

I was forty-one years old before I ever saw a tree lose its leaves. After that, everything I saw was a falling leaf. Everything came down.

This is partly because of the sycamores that tower over the western edge of the garden. There are three of them. There used to be more. The earliest photos of this place depict a shady glade dotted with young sycamores. At some point, a more moderate sense of proportion prevailed, and all but the three survivors were removed.

Sycamores shed everything. A hundred feet tall with a seventy-foot spread, our sycamores drop leaves all through fall and early winter and again in spring—the result of a non-lethal fungus that afflicts the first leaves of the year. They drop seed pods and bark. None of these losses limit the trees’ terrific growth or lifespan. Sycamores generate perpetual work and worry for the groundskeepers beneath, and so I’m afraid they are not much loved. Ours are disfigured by disdain. Halfway up their height, the trunks take a ninety-degree turn and extend ten feet horizontally before resuming their upward thrust. A tree-trimmer told me this misshape was the result of topping-off. Fifty years ago, someone got fed up and lopped off the leafy heads of these old girls. Wouldn’t this have killed them? The tree guy laughed. Apparently it’s impossible to kill a California sycamore no matter how hard you try. Eventually you let go and just live with them. What a useful thing to do: let go.

I came to the garden just in time to enter the age of undoing. Surprisingly, it’s the age where the most amazing transformations take place. Every single leaf drops every single year from a sycamore, and it is the end of nothing. I came to the garden and found the shortest course to strength and freedom. I learned that all my faith lies in the path of least resistance—in the humble power and aching grace of letting go.

Excerpted from the upcoming book Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.



  1. It is winter in South Africa, but we still have leaves on some of the trees. I am off now, to see one fall, into this beautiful golden day. I have seen it before, but I haven’t witnessed it yet. So, thank you. Again.

    Comment by santie — July 10, 2013 @ 1:29 am

  2. You always remind me to come back to earth (of course, the leaves need no reminding.) I often tell others that since my girls are grown, I have decided that if I die today, I can change nothing for them. Then I promptly continue to worry about them and their lives. How foolish of me. They must do as they see fit, I must learn to let go. When will I ever understand that this is part of the path, of my practice?
    Thank you

    Comment by Jude Smith — July 10, 2013 @ 3:50 am

  3. Aching grace. I feel those words so deeply. And yesterday morning, I sat in a rain like the one you describe here. I didn’t have a word for it then, but now I know it was lace falling from the crown of the sky.

    Comment by Jena — July 10, 2013 @ 5:31 am

  4. So unbelievably peaceful and true

    Comment by Jen Heimert — July 10, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  5. It seems, I am a sycamore.

    Comment by mj — July 10, 2013 @ 10:24 am

  6. Beautifully written.

    Comment by marilee pittman — July 10, 2013 @ 11:14 am

  7. somehow our truth is out there in nature–we “think” we are separate yet so often when you look at old Chinese drawings of monks sitting outdoors they are on a mountain ledge looking into the vast or on the edge of a river–looking for the truth
    we need this to awaken the deepest heart of life we all live together

    Comment by daniel — July 10, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

  8. And in it’s infinite wisdom, these leaves fall one by one, not all at once.Isn’t that a great lesson?A patient teacher pointed this out to me once when I was in the process of forgiving old hurts……

    Comment by Daisy Marshall — July 10, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

  9. beautiful. thank you.

    Comment by Kate Inglis — July 11, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

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