Film The Tree of Life: Spiritual and Cosmic Paintings in Motion

Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life sweeps the film-goer into the universe and the life of Jack O’Brien, the character at the center of the film, along with his family. The cyclical and arcing non-linear narratives of universe and daily human life overlap one another with metaphors galore. The film is a complex masterpiece; it is a series of paintings on celluloid.

The film’s title, The Tree of Life, is significant as it points to everlasting life in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. The counterpoint to this tree is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God instructs Adam and Eve to stay away from the tree of knowledge. As is human, both were tempted to eat from the tree knowledge, and God cursed them with death rather than everlasting life on earth. Good and evil are central to Jack and his family lives, a dot really in biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the origins of the universe and life.

The film opens with passages from Job 38:4, 8 which frames the film:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding . . . Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”

If you missed these first words in the film, then you missed critical themes of the origins of life–foundation of the earth, water–H20 as life-giving and -altering, revelation–a door as transition and change, and the womb–birth as part of the meaning of human life irrevocably tied to death.

Malik’s overarching themes of religion, based in part on the Bible’s book of Job as a signpost, are origins of all kinds including the universe and Jack’s birth are traced throughout the film, well is actually the film.

The seemingly simple lives of the O’Brien’s are embedded in the Big Bang and religion. Jack’s birth is paralleled with the first spark that becomes the universe transitioning to simple and later complex forms of life-anemone to dinosaur–on earth.  Jack and Mrs. O’Brien, his mother, narrate the entire film with whispered phrases filled with cosmological and theological meaning set against the backdrop of an expanding universe and evolution:

  • Death of one of the middle O’Brien children at 19: “He’s in God’s hands now.”
  • As the universe becomes . . . : “Who are we to you? Answer me.”
  • In the midst of crashing water and moving clouds: “We cry to you . . . Hear us.”
  • A meteor hits the earth slamming earth into an ice age: “You spoke to me through her . . .I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
  • A boy drowns in a swimming pool: “Was he bad? Will you die too? You’re not that old yet, Mom. Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”

The last words intertwine with recurring themes of good versus evil–consider the Garden of Eden once again–central to Jack as he grows up. He’s born as raw material like the universe. Jack grows into evil; does the universe move along the same path? He vents his frustration when another brother, ultimately the middle child, is born. Jack’s anger expands and pulses like the universe as he bristles under the control and abuse by his father, and becomes his father full of anger and resentment. Both son and father’s ethics are skewed as Jack breaks a neighbor’s window and his father tells his children you have to look out for yourself. Is the universe, is God free of these ethical dilemmas? It seems Malik asks these and other question through the images and words in the film As is true of life in which we ask the big questions of who is God and how did the cosmos come into being, questions often remain unanswered.

Middle-aged Jack contemplates his life, the painful death of his brother, his damaged relationship with his father and mother, the meaning of the universe and life; it is all revelatory and cosmic. The towering trees and skyscrapers (spiraling urban trees)–reaching up to God vertically for comfort and answers; the water–a source of life, the skies–celestial heavens where God prevails are all part of a visual symphony that brings Jack around full circle from birth to death to after-life. His life parallels the universe which ignites with the Big Bang and closes with a supernova leading to a black hole, perhaps where the universe first begins again.

Another layer of the many narratives is religion paralleling in many ways the expansion of the universe, evolution, and human life. Jack’s experience is salvific. He is born unaware of sin, clay to be molded into good or evil. Ultimately, his father’s oppression turns in on Jack reinforcing evil. Jack does bad things like breaking into a neighbor’s, a woman’s, house stealing her underwear. He feels guilt even as a boy growing into adolescence. At the end of the film, Jack revisits his life through memories walking through a door, representing transition, to meet his family as if re-experiencing childhood. The family forgives the father with loving gestures. The 19-year-old son who died also appears as a child signifying reconciliation of past hurts. Perhaps Jack has died and is in heaven on the beach, experiencing a reinvention, redemption, happy times with his childhood family, much different from reality of his childhood.

At the end of the film, Malik shifts to scenes of a dying universe that parallels Jack’s experience of salvation–original sin, grace, repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and perfection–coming around full circle. Interestingly, the last scene mirrors the second scene of the origins of the universe as flame-like. I saw the bosom of a woman in the flame at the end of the film. Perhaps the woman was Jack’s mother, reflecting grace through her gentleness and kindness toward her children. Malik closes the film with by returning to the beginning echoing words from earlier in the film by Mrs. O’Brien: “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” 

Like a Picasso, a cubist painter, The Tree of Life is what you make of it. And it changes with every frame and every viewing. The universe. Evolution. Humanity. Salvation.

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Springtime: Wesley Woods in Atlanta

I am slowly tunneling out of the winter here in Atlanta. As spring comes, I find myself increasingly desiring to be outdoors.

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I traced the winding walk on the Wesley Woods, Emory Hospital Campus. Trees are blooming. Plants are budding. I too am beginning to be rejuvenated.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Winter Holidays

The winter and holidays are upon us. For some, December means great times. For others, the holidays evoke sadness.

Because of the cold, we often stay locked up in our offices and homes surrounded by the dry heat pumping through the vents. Give yourself a little nudge to walk around to look at the holiday decorations. And again, if holidays makes you blue dress for a short hike. The trees in the state parks around Atlanta cast a silvery grey like being in a natural cathedral. Treat yourself spiritually!

If the holidays are merry and bright, if these times are melancholy and sad–you decide–I call on you to simply care of yourself. You can do it outdoors even in winter.

Photos by Dianne Glave

As an African American, Am I Afraid of Nature?: Guest Blog by La La

Dianne with La La

La La and I were at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit for a weekend retreat.  We came to spend contemplative moments with the monks, our fellow retreatants, and most importantly God. Walking through the paths of the monastery grounds we were also treated to nature.   

Read more about the retreat and La La’s feelings about nature from an African American woman’s perspective. She grew up in an urban predominantly black urban neighborhood and I think her background is reflected in some of her words and thoughts:   

All around me at the monastery was nature with the geese near the pond, the trees in the garden, and the bugs just about everywhere (I thinks something bit me!).  I was on a journey, a short one for the weekend taking the time to embrace, feel, and hear God, and take in creation.  I sought a connection between being spiritual and living in nature. Being there made me think of all the ways I have been trying to connect with nature in the past. It has not been easy.   

  

I arrived and realized that the place was going to be GREEN when I drove down a long strip with magnolias on both sides. I saw ducks and geese; snails and spiders; just beautiful green life. It was lovely to look at and experience.   

La La at the Gazebo Near the Entrance

Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t all perfection. I love the flowers and trees but I’m not all the way there with the creatures. Some are pretty and cute. Yet I prefer the swans, ducks, and geese kept their distance. When they got close, I panicked because of the fear of them biting me.

I didn’t get bitten but somebody else did.  A couple, a woman and a man, came down the hill to feed the ducks and geese. She had a bag of food and she fed the birds by hand while her partner took pictures.  When she ran out of food a swan flapped its great wings, arched its neck, and attacked her. I was shocked as it grasped her ankle in its yellow beak gnawing away.  She backed away and started shaking her leg. It had such a hold, a grip on her ankle. Well, the moral of story is the monks and the rest of the staff told us NOT to feed the birds. I would not have fed them anyway because just the thought of them coming close to me terrifies me. I know this much: geese and ducks are still wild animals at the end of the day and should not be messed with at all.   

So where did it all begin, this tension between an appreciation and fear of nature? When I was a young girl at age 13, I went to visit my aunt in Atlanta. I was not afraid of bugs prior to that visit. I was sitting on the side of the house on the porch and a big wasp stung me. The pain hurt so bad I jumped off the side of the house. It wasn’t a small leap because you had to take several steps to get up to the porch. I don’t remember if it hurt when I landed because the pain of the sting was so intense, more intense than the fall. After that, I stayed in the house because I was so afraid of getting stung again. So much for nature.   

Since then I can be around animals more than bugs. The insects that fly and crawl really bother me. Of course, I won’t run if I see an ant. It can’t catch me. The worst are spiders and bees, any stinging insect or creature.  If I hear zzzzzz, the buzzing, I’m running. Keep in mind that the wasp makes a buzzing sound so it all goes back to when I was 13 and stung. I know a fly won’t do me any harm but I can’t stand the noise.   

Ok so long after the wasp sting incident, I met my husband who LOVES the outdoors including the beach and mountains. So we are outside regularly. Since I met him, I have been going outside a little more. Again, baby steps. I have come a long way because of my husband. When I first met him, he was always outside working as a mechanic. He would not see me until he came inside. Now I can go outside to be with him. He makes me feel safe. My husband says, “I got you. I got you. Nothing will happen to you.” He teaches me about different insects. They are not all in one category. Each has its purpose. Though it is contradictory, I would prefer bugs to keep their distance but these days I’m not so quick to kill them as I did in the past. Thanks baby—that would be my husband.   

On the Grounds of the Monastery

I think the next important experience was when I went camping overnight with black Boy Scouts from my church. The deacons who came on the trip were like wow our wives wouldn’t come because there was no electricity to curl their hair. At the time, I was paralyzed from the waist down in a wheelchair from a terrible car accident so the trip was even more complicated (I’m healed and walking now!). My husband was a Boy Scout leader. On the trip, I slept outside in nature. There was a spider in the tent. My husband freed it. He was with me and I felt safe. I was THERE in nature. That’s one of many pluses marrying a good ole country boy from the South.   

The Pond

I also went to Pine Mountain in Georgia to the Wild Animal Safari. I do love animals but I don’t want to be that close. We were in a Chevy Tahoe, a BIG truck. The animals were bigger than the truck. A zebra and buffalo came up to the truck. I thought the buffalo was a bull it was so humongous. My husband said different. Mind you, I had never seen wild animals like these—only in the zoo closed in. I saw a big black pig and learned later it was a wild boar. They had tusks and were dirty. I like baby pigs that are pink not dirty boars. I also saw a camel, a llama, foxes, and ostriches. I wondered why the smaller animals were in separate sections. I learned later that foxes would prey on other small animals if let loose. And of course you can’t leave the smaller animals with the lions and tigers. The giraffe was beautiful. They were all beautiful except the buffalo and the boar. There were so many different animals I’d never seen before. It was like the Lion King come to life, except they weren’t talking. Maybe because of my height—4’11”—everything was bigger than me. Even the ostrich was taller than me.   

We also do stuff as a family. I remember a trip to Callaway Gardens. We went to the Butterfly Haven. I love butterflies. They are so pretty. All these big butterflies landed on us. The butterflies were from all around the world which was nice but they still freaked me out. My son said, “Don’t panic. They are just butterflies.” I said, “I know.” It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds except I was surrounded by butterflies. Can you imagine pecking butterflies? Thanks Alfred! Beyond the fear and sarcasm, I stayed and did not run. I felt uncomfortable. I did not want to hurt them. I didn’t want them close either.   

Burial Site of the Monks: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Now at home I have a garden. Well ok, I went to Home Depot to buy the seeds and seedlings; my husband planted everything and tends the garden. Hey I paid and he tends: we both had a part.  I anticipate the beauty of the garden.  I planted the flower seeds, while my husband has planted the fruits and vegetables, bell and hot peppers, tomatoes, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and grapes, cabbage, romaine lettuce, green beans, corn, watermelon, watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumbers. We planted a peach tree three years ago. We just planted an apple tree. I am proud of myself because I went to Home Depot to buy the plants and seedling, however I must say that my husband has but a lot of hard work into the digging, planting and creating a beautiful garden. I’m taking baby steps to get closer to nature.   

I love animals and nature. I would prefer some distance. I know I said this already but it’s important enough to be repeated.  The closer I draw to God the more I am able to see the beauty of all of God’s creation.  This was just the beginning of many beautiful and learning encounters with God and nature, my experience as an African American woman outdoors.   

La La Typing the Blog

   

   

    

Guest Blog By La La  

Photos by Dianne Glave

Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit

I  listen for environmental references in lyrics. The first to come to mind is Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”

Billie Holiday

The lyrics go like this:

Strange Fruit — Composed by Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan)

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Abel Meeropol

Abel Meeropool, a Jewish New Yorker, wrote the lyrics because he was horrified when he saw an image of two black men who were brutally lynched. In the song, the tree, in my estimation, represents lynching and its strange fruit are racism, violence and death during the first half of the early twentieth century in the United States.

Listen to:

Mother, Lumberjack, and Turpentine!?

Daphne, my mother, all 120 lbs of her, laid down sod and chopped down trees when we lived in our second house in Queens, New York during the 1980s. She was very serious about getting the trees down because she was tired of raking and bagging the leaves in the fall.

Daphne is Second Over from the Right with Her Sister and Brothers.

Two stories . . .

My mother would start by killing the tree by hacking away at the trunk with an axe. She started on one of many tree projects and our next door neighbor came running. She’  had crossed the property line–there was no fence–and was attempting to bring down our neighbor’s tree.

Some months later, she worked on a tree in the backyard. Whack. Whack. Whack. The tree started falling towards our HOUSE. The same neighbor came running out. With ropes he leveraged the tree from falling on the house.

I know everyone is saying poor trees. Looking back, I’m thinking the same thing. But remember it was her yard and it was the 1980s.

Consider some context for my mother’s own suburban world and experience. African Americans worked in logging and turpentining in the South so there is a parallel concerning labor/work and perceptions of trees as natural resources. To learn more about African Americans and the turpentine industry during the first half of the twentieth century, go to: http://www.cfmemory.org/Learn/Stories/StoryView.php?s=19.

I have no idea what became of the wood from the trees my mother chopped and sawed but looking back I hope the wood was used in someone’s fireplace. Utility trumps waste?!