Discovering New Kin

Discovering New Kin

Collecting an imaginary album, where places in nature have made their mark.


Suddenly, the Joan I had been, filled with emotions and questions about self and life, vanished. I was one with the setting sun, still lake and ribboned sky, feeling a deep peace I had never known before.

I was in my 40s in the Arizona desert when another powerful natural image inspired me. The saguaro cactus!

I had just begun collecting pictures and stories of vital octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians who had reinvented themselves in exciting ways as elders. They inspired me to believe that, although I had had a very rough time in my early 30s, it wasn’t too late for me to grow.

When the guide that brought us to the desert told us about the cactus, I felt exhilarated. The saguaro, at 75 or even 100 years old, can generate a new arm! And the arm always points upwards. Those arms I saw seemed to be demonstrating, like the elders in my collection, “You can do it!”

A couple of years after that, I spent a week in the Berkshire Mountains. Every day I sat outside on my deck communing with the huge trees. In silence and seclusion, I’d look up at their gently swaying branches. Once again, Joan disappeared and I was at one with nature. Inspired, I wrote this poem.

dance in lace

the treetops


the morning sky

in dark green lace

when the lace
took pause
i snipped
a yard or so
swirled it around
my bare swaying body
to join their dance

Recently, the red lacey limbs of the Japanese maple in the beautifully landscaped garden of the building where I live enticed me. Its lush branches hung low to the ground. One day as I walked in the garden, I suddenly noticed that there was a little space underneath.

I found myself kneeling down and crawling into that space. I sunk my rump into the earth and raised my knees to my chest, my feet planted firmly on the rich, brown soil. Looking up, I could see the blue sky through the delicate openings in the lace. I wrapped each hand around a limb.

The infusion I felt was not just of absorbing earth and sky with my full physical being. I was also transported back to the first time I felt at one with the lake, and the sky, and the setting sun.

Suddenly, an album appeared in my mind’s eye, complete with captions under each image. Lake in Maine. “Joan Disappears!” Saguaro Cactus in the Arizona Desert. “You can do it!” Berkshire Mountains. “Joan Disappears Again!” My building’s backyard garden. “Cathedral Tree.”

This album, needless to say, is not a traditional family album. There are no snap-shots I can share with others. Only my mind perceives them. It’s not that I don’t love our family photo album. I cherish the photo taken in Russia of my father as a boy with his family before immigrating to America. And the photo of my newly wedded maternal grandparents, both German, who met and married in America.

But the images in my new album link me to a lineage that transcends what country my ancestors were from, the year I was born, or who I have married. Just as some Native Americans believe that all nature is kin, this album of my “kin” connects me to a heritage more complex and mysterious than that of my ancestral roots. They join me with the wholeness of nature, and its inherent wisdom.

Unlike my genealogy, the transformative images in my album are not something I can search for, at least consciously. Yet they are there for the taking, waiting in nature for me to discover, embrace and honor them in that place that only my mind’s eye can see. Caption them. And then wait for time to tell their full story.

Joan Leof is author of a new collection of her personal essays called Matryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing.

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