The Trouble Tree

I found an old journal entry from several decades back. At that time I was exploring the language of the natural world while wrestling with love problems, work challenges, self-doubt, and general heaviness in my life.

The setting is the Southwest, among sandstone boulders and cavorting ravens and a canyon head and high desert vegetation. I had visited this particular place many times seeking comfort, and always left feeling full.

…I went in search of a tree to see if I could communicate. I walked to the pour off and found a small bonsai pinyon clinging to the wall of the pour off.

“Is that it?” I questioned. I had in mind a large juniper, all gnarled with age. But this tree had long and hard experience, so why could I not learn from it just as well. I sat next to it and ate my apple. I hesitated a bit, because I really didn’t quite know how to approach it.

First, I walked all around it, and admired its beauty. It was small but vigorous. Its short trunk twisted into a barely perceptible crack in the rock. Several handfuls of brown needles below its branches had collected along with a scattering of windblown sand. Spots of dark moss took advantage of the nourishment there. Its body, all bent and contorted from years of battles with the wind, stood sturdily and proudly gracing that rock slope. The branches spread to meet all available sunlight. Rosettes of green needles glistened. Pure drops of pine resin dripped from its branches; they were its life force and jewelry.

Kristie's pinon
Photos by Kristie Arrington

This tree seemed to have grown in a very inhospitable place, but it expanded joyfully into the world, fully and lovingly. I admired its strength and courage. Even though it seemed handicapped, it nonetheless gave itself to me. I found it hard to concentrate on entering it, but I did reach its spirit in a way. I pressed my forehead to its prickly needles and breathed love on it. I cradled its layered bark and imagined its root traveling for a short way into that rock, dissolving its hardness as it went. This tree was a little old lady, but it was happy to be where it was. It was determined to live its life fully.

Thoughts of my upcoming visit with (a person) invaded my talk. So instead of ignoring them, I told the tree my problems. It listened without judgement.

I called it my trouble tree. Before I left, I felt it would be right to take some of its resin to remember it. Before I put the resin on some paper, I impulsively rubbed a dab on my forehead. I thanked it for its kindness and left…


After reviewing that entry, I thought, I’m that little old lady now. I hope I am as gracious to the young people who seek my ear as that bonsai pinyon was to me.


My Journey of Lost Memories

I stood hanging on to my shopping cart, mind blank. A fog had descended. I stared at the guy in front of me, picking through vegetables. I remember him, because on the back of his navy blue shirt were the letters, “EMS.” I would meet him a little later.
“Can I help you find something?” A store employee looked at me. I wanted to answer, I really did, but my mouth moved and I made no sense. She took my arm and guided me to an enclosed room and made me sit. I grabbed my purse from the cart. I’m pretty sure there was some produce in the cart—things I had no recollection of putting there.
I knew something was not right.
So started my most intriguing journey of lost memories.
Just before I had dashed into the store, I exercised for a couple hours across the street. I was pooped. The last thing I did in my workout were five one-minute planks, with one minute rest periods in-between. I was proud of how strong I felt at 63 years. I was making great progress. Once a week I did strength training under the guidance of a trainer, and four or five days a week I rode my bicycle for 50 minutes on the dirt roads near my house.
But now I was sitting in this darkened room. The woman and someone else were asking me questions. I was underwater—the air felt thick, sounds were muted. She looked at me, her mouth moved, I tried to answer. A water bottle appeared in the chair next to me. How did it get there?
Then I met the EMS guy. He asked me questions: when did you eat breakfast? What did you have? What is your name? I didn’t remember breakfast, but I knew my name. And I was told later that I kept correcting him. “It’s Terry, with a “T.” I don’t remember doing that, but I often make sure people hear my name correctly.
He told me to repeat a phrase, something about the sky. And I remember thinking, I can say that, and I did, I thought, and I enunciated clearly. But he kept asking me questions. He was right next to me, and he said something like, “I want to take you in.” And I said something like, “yes, this isn’t right.”
It was the heaviness, the pea soup, drifting around me. Ordered thoughts were just out of reach. They were there, lurking about, all the information I needed was there, but I could not snag the right thoughts and spit them out.
Physically I felt alright, just tired from my workout. No weakness, no tingling, no paralysis. When Lorenzo the paramedic took me to the ambulance conveniently parked outside the store, he firmly gripped my arm. I wondered why he was clutching me so tightly. He asked where my car was located. “Over there,” I said. Somewhere.
In the ambulance I asked him how long he’d been a paramedic, and said I had been an EMT. His report that I saw later stated that I was repetitive. Really? I was just being chatty and pleasant. But the dense air filled the ambulance, splitting my thoughts, which swirled around with no particular order. A blood pressure cuff went on, and an IV went in. I learned later that placing a second IV is standard procedure for certain patients—stroke patients—just in case they had to use the clot busting drug.
He asked my birthdate. That was easy, but I could see each word streaming from my mouth, as though my mouth were typing the words. He asked my age. I couldn’t remember if I was 61 or 63. Very disturbing. He pulled out his calculator and figured it out.
His demeanor was casual, but he was moving rapidly. I felt no alarm, really. Instead, I felt rather removed from the situation, and gazed out the back window. Then the sirens raged. What fun. For some reason we needed rapid transit.
I looked at Lorenzo, and said, “This is a stroke, isn’t it?” I wasn’t scared. Lorenzo didn’t say anything.
After an ambulance ride that took at least thirty minutes but seemed like no more than ten, they rolled me into the ER. Six people looked at me. Someone commanded me to do all kinds of things, but I’m not sure what. I remember getting a Cat Scan.
I was there for about five hours. I still wasn’t scared, didn’t feel ill, and was mostly curious about the whole thing, thinking something’s amiss, but what was it? All my tests came back clear—no blockage in my head arteries, nothing seemed wrong. I was still having trouble retrieving information about myself, but things were getting better. Except I had to listen to the patient who was loudly cursing hospital staff and apparently spitting blood on a doctor outside my room.
The ER doctor released me with a diagnosis of a TIA—transient ischemic attack—a mini-stroke. There was a blockage that resolved itself, apparently. But when I saw the neurologist a few days later, she was certain I had experienced TGA—transient global amnesia. This is a relatively uncommon condition marked by a sudden inability to make current memories. Sometimes it is triggered by physical exercise, but what causes it is not clear. It is not likely to happen again and it appears that it does not cause lasting problems, although I felt a bit scattered for the next few days.
The event evoked a range of emotions. A TIA—that’s a warning for a deadly stroke. I’ll be on drugs forever, I thought. This isn’t fair—I exercise, my blood pressure is low, I don’t eat meat, I’m not overweight, what else am I supposed to do? And I could have died in a flash. I wrote my son and mentioned updating my will. Bad move. He called immediately, voice shaking. I hugged my other son, and told him I was proud of him and loved him. Death seemed imminent.

Then I was happy. Elated, in fact. I was walking and talking. And I could pet my cat. And the sun was warm. And the mourning dove had such a lovely coo. But then the daily regimen of aspirin and statins made me sick, anxious. Dark thoughts emerged. Not fair. I had so much left to do in my life.
Thankfully I saw the neurologist who corrected the diagnosis. Now it’s a good story I can tell. With a happy ending. How lucky I was to be shopping for vegetables at the same time as Lorenzo the paramedic. He told me he never got to buy his vegetables. If I ever see him again, I’ll buy him vegetables, whatever he wants.
Life is so darn short. So short. Every moment, every moment is a precious now. I want them all. I want every single now. I want them to keep going. And I want happiness around me. And love. A blanket of love.



I don’t know why I pulled away. I had tried to get the old woman’s photo the day before, and the day before that. Right then was the perfect opportunity. She was practically inviting me to snap her portrait. “Vanga!” creaked her voice.

But I acted as though I didn’t understand her welcome. Everyone watching knew I understood. With the bowl of hot pongal in my hand, I just smiled at her and walked away, and people at the small Kali temple in the Madurai neighborhood kept looking at me. They all knew. They all knew I understood the old woman, and yet I walked away.

 She was curled up on top of her cart. Unlike the previous day, when I saw her sprawled on the doorsteps asleep, she was awake and vibrant, noticing everything around her. Including me. Her lips were drawn around her toothless gums, and her wrinkled arms waved in the air.

 One of her neighbors had told me all she did was eat and sleep, eat and sleep. That meant that her neighbors fed her, noticed her, looked after her. The old woman.

 “How old is she?” I asked at least three people. The first flashed all her fingers many times, open closed, open closed. I couldn’t count.


“Hundred,” she said.

 I asked another woman, who had just stepped around the sleeping old woman. “Is she your grandmother?”

“Yes,” she said. Then I realized that a street-dwelling woman that old was everyone’s grandmother.

“How old is she?”

“Hundred,” she said.

 Obviously, no one really knew how old the woman was, therefore she was a hundred. Maybe she really was a hundred years. A century. P1010632

I wanted her photograph, but I thought it would be rude to take it while she was awake. Somehow, it seemed as if I would be taking something from her without her consent, because she probably would not understand what I wanted. It was also rude to take it while she was asleep, but I tried to get the shot anyway, the day before as she was draped on the doorsteps. I just had to make sure no one was watching me; that would somehow make it okay. But everyone noticed me. People emerged from their houses and greeted me. So I slipped my camera back in my bag, and didn’t get the photograph. I instead ended up in her neighbor’s home after being invited for tea.

I could have visited with the old woman that morning as she called her greeting. I could have sat on her cart with her, and held her hand, and listened to her talk to me. She was deaf, someone had said, so I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with her. Maybe that’s what sent me away. Or maybe her age frightened me. I would feel uncomfortable, sitting next to this weathered woman tucked in a worn sari, who had survived all kinds of struggles: having enough to eat, raising children, an absent husband, and life on the streets. 

I could have met her for a little while, and exchanged good feelings with her. But instead, I walked away, feeling a pang inside of me.

Would she be alive tomorrow? Would I see her again, all bright and aware, sitting scrunched up in her cart, watching the world, and calling vanga to passersby? 

As I walked away, I hoped she would be there the next day, awake and alert. I would sit with her awhile, and pass the morning with her, and hold her hand, and smile.

I would meet this ancient woman and honor her. And honor myself.


Read more about this Madurai neighborhood and my meeting the Grandmother for the first time on a morning walk at this link to my travel blog.