A Star for Christmas

Lessons Learned from James Dean

The Story of the Dandelion

  
The Lemon Tree was not something I climbed for the sheer delight of climbing, though.  I climbed that tree for the smell and for the hidey place that Mother had not figured out yet.  The tree did not fork for about four feet so at that point in my life getting up to a branch was a little tricky.  This involved either a running start or jumping.  After getting a firm grip on the lower branch I would haul myself up and into the cocoon of leaves that made a small cave.  I had discovered that I could not be seen when I was there; if I was was quiet and remained still.  I had pointed out this advantage to Jimmy.  He had nodded.  Hiding places were things he had enjoyed, too.  But living on a farm, he had many more than were available to me in a house in the suburbs. 
           
After I was in the little cocoon I would curl my feet into the crook between the branches and put my face against the bark.  That was where the smell was strongest, but I knew that when I climbed down I would carry the smell around with me for the rest of the day, taking it to bed with me. 
           
I could see out when the wind moved the leaves.  While I was laying there soaking up the scent of lemon, Jimmy came out and looked around.  I did not move.  Then he laid down on the grass just where the Avocado Tree cast its shade onto the lawn.  It was very green then and the longest it was allowed to get because the next day was the day Father would cut it.  The dandelions had been busy and several golden little crowns of flower were nodding right there in the grass.  Jimmy put his arms behind his head and sighed a big sigh.  His eyes closed.  I kept watching him, not speaking.  He made snoring sounds, but I knew he was not really asleep.  He liked to pretend. 
           
Then he sat up.  He looked right at me in The Lemon Tree though I was sure he couldn't really see me.  Then he said, “Trees breathe.”  He said it long, dragging out the sounds of the words and making them kind of scary.  I looked around me.  The tree had not changed.  I could not hear anything that sounded like breathing.  He said it again.  “Trees breathe.”  This time he made little gasping and choking noises like he was dying, and collapsed back down onto his back. 
           
That was too much.  I jumped down and walked over to him.  He sat up as soon as I dropped out of the tree.  I put my fists on my hips and said, “Trees do not breathe.  I have never heard any tree breathe.”  I was annoyed.  Jimmy was saying things that were not true, I thought. 
           
Jimmy said if for the third time but this time he said it differently, smoothly with no scary in it at all.  “Trees breathe; they breath in light,” he glanced up, not looking at me but past me to the sky and the sun, “and breathe out life.”   With that he looked back at me, and gently blew right into my face. 
           
I sat down and looked at him, waiting for him to say more.  I knew he would.  Jimmy did not  just say something, and expect me to accept it without explanation.
           
Jimmy went on to explain to me that trees use the energy of the sun to make oxygen, which we breathe in to our lungs to keep us alive.  Oxygen, he said, is like the sun flowing through us and since it comes from trees and other green, growing things, it unites us with the lovely green world of grass and trees and all of the growing things on Earth. 
           
“That includes dandelions,” he said.  He plucked one right then and handed it to me.  I looked at it.  It had so many slender little petals reaching out from the middle like tiny arms.  I touched the center with my finger and then with my nose.  The center was soft like a piece of velvet I kept in the bottom of a little box in my bedroom for storing precious things.   
           
Dandelions are nearly the same color as lemons, I thought.  I smelled it.  It did not smell like lemon, but I liked it.  I sniffed again, smelling for the life it had breathed in along with the sunlight. 
           
It was an amazing insight.  All of a sudden, I could see the world made up of things connecting.  The Tortoise had been eaten by the ants, who carried the little parts of him into their anthill to feed the little tiny ants.  They had died in their turn, and perhaps the tree had drawn the abandoned parts of the Tortoise up into its leaves, who had then turned the light from the sun into the air that filled my lungs. 
           
Later I would find that there is a word to describe moments like that.  It is an epiphany.  I liked the sound of the word when I learned it.