My Last Leaf

§  If you have never read it, then I will not give away the ending; you must find the story on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it.  §

When I was a young teenager, around the ages of 13 and 14, I was enamored of the stories of O’Henry. I thrilled to the surprise endings, and, being of an emotional age group, I loved the almost sappy sentimentality of many of the stories, as well as the rollicking humor. No matter how badgered and belittled O’Henry’s stories were and often still are by literary critics (all of whom probably have some type of stick up their butts), I enjoy these rare little gems to this day. If I could find somewhere a book containing all 600-some of O’Henry’s short stories, I wouldn’t jib for a minute at the cost; I’d purchase it immediately. For years I’ve found that, when my world seems dreary to the point of misery and difficult beyond bearing, I can turn to the pages of my old O’Henry books and escape to that world of 100 years ago: to love and laughter and surprise. Each year on Christmas eve, I re-read The Gift of the Magi, always feeling my throat tighten and tears sparkling behind my eyes as I reach the well-known ending.

But love The Gift of the Magi as I most certainly do, one of my favorite O’Henry stories is one less well known: The Last Leaf. If you have never read it, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it—thought of it, and of the lessons it taught my young self about surrender and survival, courage and compassion,  true talent and recognition, ultimate sacrifice, and genuine acts of love.

But The Last Leaf  wasn’t really on my mind a few weeks ago as I trotted out my front door to wander down the drive and pick up my mail from the box. I didn’t really get very far on my mission, for as I stepped down from the porch to the walk, I glanced at the ground and saw a single fallen autumn leaf.

IMG_20191004_170142266It was astonishingly beautiful. It could not have fallen from any of the nearby trees, all of which are soft maples, so it had to have been swept there on the wind—swept to just that perfect, bare patch of earth where I would glance down and see it.

I stooped and picked up the leaf, turning it gently in my hands, holding it to the soft and fading afternoon light. Had I been a Millennial, I suppose I would have just reached for my phone and snapped a photo of the leaf, posted it to various social media and picture sites, and gone on my merry way. But a Millennial I am not; I stopped for the leaf.  I picked it up and held it and admired it—communed with it, if you will. I don’t know how long I stood there, enjoying its delicate beauty and amazed by the fact that it had lain there, waiting for me, but I do know that for as long as I stood there, holding that leaf, wondering over its brilliant colors and tracing the tiny veins with my finger—for those moments, I was mindful. Truly mindful. My last leaf became a meditation of sorts.

Eventually, I continued on my way down the drive to pick up my mail…but I did not let go of my leaf. I carried it with me, brought it into my house, and finally photographed it, so that I would have not just a reminder of its beauty, but of those few moments when the world slipped away and I became genuinely one with the Spirit of Nature.

It was then that I recalled the O’Henry story The Last Leaf, and considered that this little gift from the gods and goddesses of Autumn had waited there to teach me a lesson that I–that we all–too often forget: to stop. To stop for just one moment, and be mindful. To notice. To marvel and wonder and admire, for just an instant, all the incredible, astounding and overwhelming loveliness of this world wherein we dwell. To appreciate.

To (like the heroine of the story) learn to live.

Spirituality is Big Business

When I was in my early twenties, I picked up a slim paperbound booklet that discussed a technique called Treasure Mapping. I think I paid about $1.50 for it. (I was not very affluent in those days, so I certainly couldn’t have paid much more.) The technique illustrated in the booklet would today be understood as making a vision board, and I found it fascinating. “Pictured Prayer”, the booklet explained, was simple and produced excellent results.

I gathered together the necessary accessories, all of them easy to obtain and inexpensive: photos clipped from magazines, glue, pens, construction paper — and created my first vision board. I’ve used the technique many times in the intervening years, often with surprising success. I have sometimes come across my old, discarded vision boards and realized with satisfaction that nearly everything I pictured on them had come to pass.

But recently I saw an announcement for a class in vision board making. The cost for the two-hour course, which included all materials, was $150.00.  I thought back to my $1.50 booklet, and the years of photos clipped from magazines or downloaded on the computer, the poster boards, glue sticks, glitter, stickers, or occasional scrapbooking supplies – and realized that I probably hadn’t spent $150 on all my Treasure Maps in the 40 intervening years.

In that distant era, even as I learned vision boarding, I learned to meditate by selecting library books to read about meditation techniques, listening to tapes borrowed at the library, and asking advice of those who meditated regularly. After hours of dedicated practice I found the method that seemed best for me and made meditation a lifelong practice. Today, though, I could chose to spend anywhere from $10 weekly for an hour’s guided meditation at a local new age shop, or up to $60 for an on-line course complete with an instruction manual, interactive forums, and (this one still puzzles me) a certificate of completion. I could purportedly learn the hands-on energy healing system of Reiki entirely on-line, without ever setting foot in a master teacher’s office. I could pay $10,000 for a spiritual retreat with a self-professed guru. I could complete an on-line course to become a “spiritual master” in any one of a half-dozen different disciplines – and, having completed the course, be surprised with the information that there is yet another, higher level available that could not be revealed to a mere novice, but only to a seasoned acolyte. And, of course, that newly-revealed level could be mine for only an additional $59.95!

Americans, it seems, do not believe that anything, even spirituality, has value unless it is paid for – by cash, check or charge, rather than blood, sweat and tears. You need not put real effort into learning as long as you are willing to sit at the feet of a “master” and fork over money – and plenty of it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate costs connected with teaching classes or holding retreats! Retreat attendees have to be fed and housed, and the teacher’s time has to be compensated. A class venue doubtless has costs attached – rent to be paid, utilities to be provided, class materials to be printed. But the hubris of charging $150 for an hour spent “instructing” students how to paste pictures on poster board, or to chant, hold crystals, or meditate, veers (at least to my way of thinking) about 180 degrees north of genuine spirituality.

Once the provenance of moguls of big religion, spirituality, too, has become big business, and a lucrative business, at that. Native American spirituality is taught by those who have not one iota of genetic material from the original inhabitants of North America, and their students pay the sun, moon and stars for the privilege. Instructors with no passion except that for feathering their nests promise to incite a passion for life in their unwitting students, and coin money as they do so.

My personal advice to anyone seeking a spiritual teacher is simply this: remember, first, that you are your own best teacher. There has never been a better or easier time for self-learning. Explore cautiously, keeping both an open mind and a weather eye, but explore. Read, watch videos, learn, practice. And if you find you need assistance to progress on your chosen path, or feel ready for that retreat, or believe a class with others might help – do your homework. Seek out a teacher who is validly a master teacher in her or his discipline, who is passionate about passing knowledge on to others, and who, mostly importantly, lives in such as manner as to demonstrate the value of the subject in which they will instruct you. If a cost is associated with the instruction, investigate what the payment covers, and decide if it seems reasonable, reimbursing the instructor’s costs and time and other essentials, or keeping a center in the black, but not intentionally generating massive profit.  And only then decide if the price is genuinely worth paying, or if you can find methods less financial and more truly spiritual to gain instruction in your chosen discipline.

But the finest spiritual instructor will always be the one you find in two places: your own mind, and your own heart.

And if all else fails, you can always make a Treasure Map.