I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron’s “Summer with the Psalms” on Hallow when I sensed a tap from one of my muses: “I am like a growing olive tree in the house of God…” (from Psalm 52). Diverted by that ripple in my stream of consciousness, I then scrolled through my iPhone Notes to find a potential poem starter I had inscribed a couple of years ago and up until now had not revisited:
The olive tree
Deeply rooted in the desert of my backyard
Sends an urgent SOS
To its ancestors
What is it about olives that inspires me? In addition to my passion for eating them at almost every meal, I realize I am often drawn literally and metaphorically to the olive tree and the fruit it produces. I remember being a cub reporter on the local political beat in Tucson shortly after graduating from college. One of the stories I covered was when the county board of supervisors banned the future planting of olive trees because so many are allergic to the seasonal pollen. Judging by the thousands of trees still blooming in Tucson, the success of that decree may still be up for debate. The fortitude of the single olive tree in our backyard is also testament of this when each year it drops a bushel of olives from its branches despite its advertised “non-fruit bearing” status!
I delighted in the prolific olive trees at my former school. One year, during my tenure as principal at St. Augustine Catholic High School, I carried empty buckets into the courtyard to harvest a crop of black and green olives to share with my neighbors. We scoured the Internet for methods to cure the fruit of its unyielding bitterness. After a month of brining them in saltwater baths, we preserved them in olive oil, lemon peel, and fresh herbs. So good.
During my recent trip to Israel, fellow pilgrims remarked about my meal choices while observing me fill my plate at breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a handful of those salty jewels, which I graced with a drizzle of oil, a sprinkle of Za’atar, and a side of fresh feta. I had to increase my water intake substantially during those two weeks to counteract the salt-induced swelling in my fingers.
It is not the simple joy of eating olives that has drawn me to the Bible and back to my poem (or not) starter. I am discovering new meaning in the Psalms, and not necessarily for reasons that could be defined as holy. I feel tuned into the way the authors – David, Solomon, Moses. Asaph, and others – don’t seem afraid to say it like it is. They recognize times and people in Israel’s diverse history that were both tragic and filled with hope. While some of their words are quite colorful, critical, and harsh about the actions of their fellow man, they also express a deeply-rooted longing for what is divine and true.
I limit myself in what I express out loud about the world, its leaders, its politics, and its problems. After all, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and I try to be very respectful of that. Those who know me often accuse me of being “too nice.” Yet, I should not have to apologize for striving to be someone who always seeks the good in others and places high expectations on herself to model that good. That is not to say, however, that my resolve does not waiver at times. For example, these lines from Psalm 73 also recently caught my attention: “How good God is to the upright, to those who are pure of heart: But, as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my step had nearly slipped because I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they suffer no pain, their bodies are healthy and sleek, they are free of the burdens of life, they are not afflicted like others…They say, ‘Does God really know? Does the Most High have any knowledge?’ Such then, are the wicked, always carefree.” (Asaph).
I cannot even remember the last time I felt carefree. When I read that psalm, I do not visualize Israel. Rather, I see and hear the news broadcast from every channel on my television. I witness the incessant “breaking” updates that flash across my phone’s screen. I cringe at the arrogance and skewed statistics barked from the mouths of those we elect to be our voices as they interrogate those who have chosen to serve their country. I cannot escape what I observe. My “feet almost stumble,” my “step nearly slips.”
I reflect on the olive tree in my Arizona backyard. I see me – still green in so many ways – in this garden of God. I observe the sturdy trunk that has thickened over the years, the fragrant blossoms persistently hanging to the branches despite being battered by desert monsoons, the gnarled roots continuing their journey outward and downward. I whisper a prayer of my own design, sending words to play among wind-tossed leaves – “an SOS” to our ancestors. Like that olive tree referenced in Psalm 52, “I trust in God’s mercy forever and ever…. I will put my hope in your name – for it is good.” Thank you, Asaph, David, Moses. Thank you, dear ancestors.