Is the leaf lonely?
It was almost winter now, and there was just one leaf left on the tree in my garden. Since September I had watched the tree grow gently gold and amber and slowly fall like young birds leaving the nest, until the mother had only the spring to look forward to for company. I had just made myself a cup of tea when I looked out the window and thought that it must be awfully lonely, so I went outside to ask it how it was.
‘Hello, leaf,’ I began tentatively as I approached the tree, with that song-like tone of voice that acknowledges all may not be well. ‘How are you?’
‘Me?’ said the leaf. ‘I’m just fine. Thank you for asking! How are you?’
I smiled at its concern for me, which I assumed must have been put on. It seemed strangely upbeat for the last living leaf on the tree.
‘I’m very well, thank you! I was just wondering – see, I was looking out the window of my house just now, and I saw that you are the last leaf left. All your brothers and sisters have died. I thought you might need some company.’
The leaf laughed heartily, and I was taken aback.
‘You think I am lonely? No, no!’ And it laughed again that warm, compassionate laugh.
‘Well, aren’t you? I asked again.
‘I assure you I’m no such thing,’ chuckled the leaf as a small wind blew it ever so slightly from side to side. ‘It is not possible to ever be lonely.’
‘Not possible to be lonely? Whatever do you mean?’
‘Well, let me show you,’ said the leaf. ‘I can see that you are someone who has experienced a lot of loneliness.’
‘Yes, I suppose I have. In fact I’m rather inclined to think that life is a lonely business. We live alone and we die alone.’
‘That is absolutely untrue,’ gasped the leaf in shock. ‘What a terrible thing for you to believe! I must prove to you that the exact opposite is the case.’
I raised my eyebrows in surprise.
‘Well, please do! I will be very interested to hear. All I’ve ever heard is evidence to the contrary.’
I didn’t quite know whether to smile or frown. Impossible, I thought, that this leaf could show me that life isn’t lonely. Everything I’d ever learned seemed to show me the opposite.
‘Well, well, where to begin,’ the leaf pontificated. ‘Ah, I know. You see the tree I’m hanging from?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘In your mind, don’t you think of the tree as the tree and me as a leaf?’
‘Er, yes I do.’
‘But at the same time you can see clearly that the tree and I are not separate. We are physically connected.
‘Yes, I see that.’
‘In this case, then the tree and I are the same thing, not two different things. Although you may say I am a leaf and that is a tree, in reality we are exactly the same thing and there is no distinction between us.’
‘I think I follow,’ I said slowly, like a schoolboy trying to overcome a new maths equation. ‘I can see that you and the tree are actually the same thing because you are physically connected.’
‘Yes,’ nodded the leaf. ‘The only reason you might think we are separate is because you call me a leaf and you call the tree a tree. You think in terms of symbols, and when you define things with symbols then you automatically separate them in your mind. In fact this is an illusion, and they are not separate.’
‘I understand,’ I said. ‘Like the mug I’m holding. I think of the handle as the handle and the mug as the mug – but actually they’re the same thing. I just think of them as different because I have different names for them.’
‘So are you saying you’re not lonely because you are connected to the tree?’
The leaf laughed again, a sweet, gentle laugh that was full of love. It is not often I ever hear a laugh quite like it. I suddenly realised that was because most human laughs I had heard in my life were riddled with anxiety. I thought then that I ought to pay close attention to what the leaf had to say.
‘But what about your fellow leaves? Aren’t you lonely because they are dead?’
‘Dead? Oh, no, they are not dead! I am not separated from them at all.’
‘But how? They aren’t alive any more. They’ve fallen from the tree.’
‘Look at the ground you are standing on. Do you see how the tree rises out of it?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘And you see how I am attached to the tree?’
‘Well then you will see that I am not separated from my fellow leaves at all. They have moved from the tree to the ground, but you can see clearly that we are all part of the same process. And because of that, we are not separate. We are always together.’
‘I don’t understand; they were on the tree and now they are not. Surely they have left you behind?’
‘But I am just as much the ground they have fallen to as I am the tree they have fallen from; and I am just as much the sun, the wind and the rain that have given birth to all of us as I am everything else in the universe. Without the rest of the universe, I could not exist. Because the universe has provided all the things that have made me what I am, I am the universe; and if I am the universe, then I am my brothers and my sisters, and I am the wind and I am the sun; because I am everything, then everything is me, and I am not alone.’
I paused. I didn’t understand this. Something about it rang true, but I couldn’t quite get my head around it.
‘Because the tree and the ground are the same thing, then all the leaves are the same thing as well… And that’s why you’re not alone?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t understand. I can’t see how that’s true…’
But before I began to pick apart the leaf’s argument, it radiated that fascinating laugh of its again. I stopped and listened to it. It was so warm and so lovely; it seemed to span out of deep, deep places, where an equally deep joy resided. As I listened to the laugh, I might almost have been inclined to believe that I was hearing the leaf’s brothers and sisters, as well as the tree and the ground, and the sun and the rain. In fact, as I listened closely, I could have sworn I could hear the entire universe.
I stood and watched the tree and the leaf for a while longer, and hearing the loving contentment in the leaf’s voice I suspected that it might be onto something. So I went inside to make another cup of tea and came back out again to resume the conversation.