Summer with Romans
creative nonfiction by Cathryn Hankla
The last week of July finds me not on Roman holiday but in the thick of rereading Romans, wanting to blast Paul as I attack stubborn English ivy on a tree in my backyard. He starts right in, not wasting a chapter before steeping us in shameful lusts and unnatural desires. Way to start a letter, Paul. This is the sort of tawdry stuff my mother must have had in mind when she pronounced my novels too clean to be popular.
I am contemplating the weave of ivy and Virginia creeper winding the trunk of my giant tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), an invasive species from China, credited with harboring the spotted lantern fly, another import from China, an insect of disproportionate potential damage compared to its alluring dots. My tree doesn’t yet harbor lantern flies, but it does have the thickest bonds of ivy I’ve ever seen on a living tree. Mornings at my kitchen table, day by day, Paul bleats on, preaching, beseeching, witnessing, building his case. Who could ever make proper apology for the havoc wrecked by Pauline theology? If you want your slave to stay a slave, point to Paul (Romans 6:15). If you want your wife to serve you better, Paul’s your guy, but you’re going to have to render unto Caesar and pay your corporate taxes. And yet, also up front in the mix: for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself (2:1). Paul calls himself a slave—to God’s law and to his sinful nature (Romans 7). The best I can say is that much of what he writes is by analogy. In reading Paul it’s wise to prepare to follow extended metaphors until the wisp of regular sense has long dispersed.
At the end of his letter to the Romans he commends brothers and sisters in Christ arriving in Rome before him, among them several women whom he lists by name, Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Julia, and Rufus’s mother, a woman who’s been like a mother to him. These are, I presume, some of the same women he binds to silence and submission in the newly established church. But the author of many of those regulations wasn’t actually Paul; he was a later author who assumed the authority of Paul’s name and shifted his theology into a far less inclusive, less radical stance, redrawing boundaries around Jew, Greek, slave or free, male and female— instead of erasing those boundaries in Christ as the actual Paul had previously stated (Galatians 3:28).1
Nevertheless, we do have real Paul to thank for splitting flesh from spirit, as in the mind governed by the flesh is death (Romans 8:5). This split traces to the heart of our schizoid treatment of others and the earth. The elevation of spirit over embodiment has led us to the abuse of women, children, indigenous cultures, the disempowered across the planet, and the planet itself.2 The urgent separation of spirit from flesh probably stems from the apocalyptical yearnings of the first century’s faithful, who believed Christ was soon returning. Demotion of material reality and the materialized body finds us torn from ourselves. But isn’t this exactly what the incarnation of god in Jesus was designed to heal us from, restoring us as custodians of this world and ourselves and each other? If only Paul would just stick to conversion while complaining of his own affliction, his thorn in the flesh. I wonder what it was that prevented him from thinking himself perfect. It’s probably the only thing he had going for him.
These vines are thick as old black snakes and twice as tough around the trunk. Earlier in the week my cousin Barbara died in her early eighties, and no one really knows why she declined so rapidly. We hadn’t shared a phone call since the fall of 2020 during the thick of pandemic isolation and at that time all seemed copacetic. I keep a framed picture of the two of us with our hair sopping, drenched from a giant waterslide at Busch Gardens near her house in Williamsburg. Our smiles reveal a certain kinship and gameness, dimples on both sides of our mouths, twenty years apart. Relocated back to Virginia and recently widowed, she surprised us by popping up to eulogize my father at his funeral, speaking of my parents’ marriage as a great love story. And it was, but of a complicated sort. Perhaps there is no other sort of love story.
This is also the week of Joni Mitchell’s resurrection at the Newport Folk Festival, something one of my Facebook friends said blew up on “old people’s Twitter.” If Joni can’t bury that ageist tripe with her baritone “Both Sides Now,” nobody’s ever going to break the space/time barrier. Sits Brandi Carlile beside her, paying homage and spurring along some verses that I can’t exactly remember either. Joni’s regal in her lonely painter’s beret. Five years younger than my cousin, and so different in direction; Barbara married a naval officer whose ship roamed the South China Sea.
Every damn year I’m out there in the backyard skating over green husks of nuts, trying not to fall. The walnut has no ivy winding it but carries a bad reputation for poisoning other plants. So far, the plantain lilies are doing okay, wild violets multiply, and I have to hack back the lamb’s ears every spring, but forget tulips, they won’t grow here in the walnut’s shade.
Close to my tree of heaven a mature black walnut drapes some of its long dirty limbs across the fence from my side into the neighbor’s yard, extending over their shed; the branches of my two large trees meet and mingle in the air. Squirrels trapse between them as if they were a single tree. Only one of them is sought after for its wood, but I could make a good argument for the black walnut’s being messier than the weed tree most would expunge. Last fall I couldn’t even give the walnuts away and filled up three or four trashcan loads over as many weeks. Every damn year I’m out there in the backyard skating over green husks of nuts, trying not to fall. The walnut has no ivy winding it but carries a bad reputation for poisoning other plants. So far, the plantain lilies are doing okay, wild violets multiply, and I have to hack back the lamb’s ears every spring, but forget tulips, they won’t grow here in the walnut’s shade.
My instinct has been to try to save the tree of heaven by releasing it from the choke even at this late stage, because it makes shade for my deck and holds squirrel and birds’ nests, concealing them from predators. I pull out my clippers and start tearing bites into the woven vines; some are as thick as my wrist, while others pry into the bark with strong boney fingers. I take a trimming saw to the thickest clumps, try to clip through the rest. Paul, a Jew and a Roman citizen, stood before kings and officials bound in chains for offending tradition. He said he wished all could believe as he did; be like me, he said, except for these chains (Acts 26:29).
I make excuses for my tree—it’s gotten this far on its own— distressed to read that only male trees of this species should be retained as “lantern fly traps,” and the rest removed. Tree of heaven is dioecious, meaning that it comes in two sexes. I have no idea whether my tree is male or female. The “panicle-shaped flowers of the male tree have a noxious, skunk-like smell” and the leaves “a repugnant smell similar to burnt peanut butter, wet gym socks, or cat urine.” This is not something I recognize in my tree, but as I read on in Nadia Hassani’s article (“How to Identify and Remove Tree of Heaven”), I learn my tree must be female because it produces samaras, helicopter seed pods. Of course, I would have a female tree, and a stray cat in the yard disguising the tree funk with its random spray. The tree’s female sex seals its fate, I suppose, but I built a fence up to the trunk on both sides as it squats on the property line. It’s a little late to take out this tree without taking out the fence. My tree holds the line, so to speak.
Reading our revised city plan I learned that the city’s tree canopy has diminished in the past twenty years. This will become more of a problem for us with escalating temperatures due to climate change. On walks, I start to notice when property owners choose to remove a tree instead of trim it or leave it be; they must not be aware of the cooling canopy that extends beyond their property and connects with others, of the part we play beyond our fences. Experts tell me this tree should go, is probably already hollow and thus could fall on my house or the neighbor’s car in stiff wind; it’s allelopathic like the walnut to boot, poisoning plants in proximity, and the leaves can cause rashes; generally, it’s stinking up the place and specifically sending suckers everywhere that I have to yank by the roots. Suckers spring up in flowerbeds, around the foundation, among tomatoes, behind heat pumps, stealthily hidden in lavender and Russian sage. I wish I weren’t such a tree hugger; it’s not like it’s the family tree. And somewhere in there I think about my father and his sister, Helen (Barbara’s mother), and his brother, all dying within one calendar year. Like Barbara, Helen didn’t make it far into her eighties; my uncle not mid-seventies; my father—a veteran of WWII—a few months after turning eighty. My grandparents lived longer lives than their children.
I peel back a section of vines like I’m opening a giant can of worms with my bare hands. The amount of the trunk I’m able to free today is no more than ten inches square. This morning I found some of Mother’s sparsely penciled lines hugging the end of Romans chapter eight with rare emphasis, my reward for slogging in hot weather, no Italian ice in sight: For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (RSV). Freed from the vines covering it, the rough fissures of the trunk become visible, a middle to light shade of grey described as resembling cantaloupe skin (Hassani). I can see a ghost pattern where gripping tendrils that fed the gnarled thatch were embedded.
This stubborn tree of heaven; I will be more stubborn. Here I cling to my tree, so much like a vine, remembering the rustling wind and torrents of rain pouring down over the tent last week, as I camped with my girlfriend. A seventy-foot tall regenerated forest swaying over us at dawn with thunder rolling in, we snuggled closer, spooning until we fell asleep in the rustling storm. We’re survivors of loss, having played our parts in stricken stories we can’t forget, and yet the rain beats over the tent fly without pouring in. Cutting losses, riding gains. We zipped down the vestibules as the temperature dropped. Sleeping pads kept us dry, and we rolled together like a couple of kids on a sleepover tuckered out from staying up late.
I chop and pry these vines until my hands ache and my eyes water and sting. I’m allergic to something in the dust. Enough for one day. Enough.
Joni sits in the middle of the stage, sage and shining, supported by younger voices. At first, she might appear torpid mouthing her own tired lyrics, but soon she lets go of the cane and shimmies in her chair. She’s the same person who sang about how we put trees in a tree museum and charge people to see them. She sings baritone at age seventy-eight a song she sang soprano at twenty. I am mesmerized by her phrasing, cored by her resolve in the mystery of both sides, balancing losses and gains I find it hard to wrap my mind around, my arms around these years that river toward great falls. So often I’ve grasped only to find nothing. Arms hugged to my own chest, I know, save for these chains, that I really don’t know, I really don’t know life at all. Joni ends the song laughing lightly as tears stream down around her.
Notes & Consultations
1 Paul instructs wives and slaves in submission and describes the expected corresponding behavior of husbands and masters quite concisely in Colossians 3:18-4:1. But Colossians and Ephesians were authored after Paul’s death. The later author appears far more concerned with regulations and moral constraints to guide believers in established church communities (Guest 2006, 630-638; 656; 684-692).
2 In When Time is Short, Timothy Beal discusses “human exceptionalism” sourced in the creation story of Genesis, as well as colonial expansion and definitions of primitivism that led to western domination and exploitation of the natural world and indigenous peoples (Beal 2022).
Beal, Timothy. 2022. When Time is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene. Boston: Beacon Press.
Ehrman, Bart D. 2020. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 7th ed. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Guest, Deryn, et. al. 2006. The Queer Bible Commentary. London: SCM Press.
Hassani, Nadia. 2022, July. “How to Identify and Remove Tree of Heaven,” The Spruce.
Martin, Dale B. 2014, July 2. “New Testament History and Literature.” Yale open source.
Cathryn Hankla grew up in far southwest Virginia; she has written about and from Appalachia for decades in several genres, including the novel, A Blue Moon in Poorwater; the memoir, Lost Places: On losing and finding Home; and various poetry collections, among them the new release, Immortal Stuff: Prose Poems; and recent titles: Not Xanadu, Galaxies, and Great Bear. “Summer with Romans” is an excerpt from a memoir in progress focused on rereading the Bible from feminist and LGBTQI perspectives amid ideological extremes, plague years, grief, and climate change. Professor Emerita from Hollins University, Hankla paints and writes in Roanoke, Virginia.