Being the Tree, Surviving the Winter

I want to say something about this tree, and since I’m not sure where to start, I’m just going to start.

First of all, a couple of weeks ago, I was losing faith in this tree. After a relatively cold April, the other trees in the neighborhood were starting to bud. But the only sign of life for this tree was the moss growing on its trunk and branches. I took a look at it from my daughter’s bedroom in the front of our second-floor apartment, feeling concerned.

The front yard of our house is small, hardly a yard at all. But this tree is its defining feature, providing a swath of shade all summer and a gorgeous, brief show each fall.

A few mornings later, the neighbor and I were chatting, admiring the quince bush blossoming between our driveways. I gestured towards the tree, expessing my worry, but it was more small talk than anything else. In my head, I wondered: Was it ok? Was it dead? Would it thrive once again? Is this how it’s supposed to look in the early spring? How long do we give it? Oy.

This morning, a perfect 66 degrees, not a hint of humidity in the air and not a cloud in the sky, I took our new pup outside to pee. These frequent potty trips tend to turn into mini adventures as she explores her new environs. Today, we met a dog walker and a friendly golden retriever, with whom Chalupa was eager to play.

The light filtered through the red leaves and suddenly it dawned on me that somewhere along the way, sometime during all the times I came and went and passed the tree, drove, walked, and ran in and out of the driveway, focused on the coming and the going, the errands, the running, the lessons, the meetings, the tree did something. It had come back to life.

* * *

When I was a teenager, my parents once gave me a book called The Tree That Survived the Winter, written by Mary Fahy and illlustrated by Emil Antonucci. The book was published in 1989, so I was probably 15 or 16. Resilience was not a word we used back then, at least not one I remember hearing. I wonder if they looked at me and saw the tree as I saw our tree, i.e. with worry. Would I be ok? Would I thrive? Would I get through a difficult time? When would I blossom?

Blossoming was something I was actively not doing at that time in my life; if anything, I had arrested myself into a semi-permanent state of non-pubescence, by losing weight and entering into amenorrhea, despite the fact that I’d started menstruating and had had a regular cycle since I was 11. I staved off womanhood and swallowed my own voice, the way a snake eats a small animal while it’s still alive. In 1993, the year The Piano came out, I wept, so strongly did I identify with Holly Hunter’s character who had chosen to be mute as a form of protest, though she poured all of that emotion into the keys.

I did survive that winter, and blossoming came in fits and starts for the next 20 or so year. I blossomed, quite literally, during both of my pregnancies. I loved the fullness of feeling the life grow inside of me. I loved nursing and napping and discovering the world through their eyes. And I struggled, too, with depression, during and after both pregnancies.

I agonized over whether to go back on anti-depressants when I was in my first trimester with Pearl, and finally deciding that my falling apart would ultimately be more harmful to the baby than the smallest possible dose of Zoloft. I wondered what was wrong with me when, three-weeks postpartum with my first child, my then mother-in-law commented that I sure was taking a long time to get back on my feet. I saw women jogging with their newborns in strollers and couldn’t figure out how they did it.

My winters came intermittently, but they always came. And each time, I would feel convinced that this was my default state, and that the blooming was a fluke. The fear that I wouldn’t bloom again scared me, and the fear didn’t help matters. Writing became one of my sources of staying anchored inside of myself and my life, rather than drifting off. Everyday life, too, with its rhythms and routines, grounded me. But I would still sometimes think, in order to really bloom, something big must change. I should be different. I should be better, bigger, different, other than this.

The therapist who witnessed me through my second pregnancy and the transition to having two kiddos introduced me to Tara Brach and the notion of radical acceptance. After more than a decade of reading Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhist teachers, this opened a new door for me of practice, one that led me more deeply into mindfulness and meditation practices. I continued writing, too, as well as running, connecting with friends, and making time as best I could with a young family to listen to my own small voice.

* * *

When I first came out, I experience a profound, life-changing understanding of myself and my life up until that point. From body dysmorphia to depression, I was now able to see for the first time the toll it had taken to contain myself in this careful way for so long. It was messy. And I was also convinced, briefly, that that was the end of the line. I’d figured out why it had been so hard for so long, and now, smooth sailing ahead!

Well, yes and also not so much. Periods of intense discovery and growth can be disorienting and thrilling and confusing and blinding in their own ways. So, when I realized I had in fact taken myself with myself into this brave new world, there was something of a letdown. What do you mean I still all this other work to do?!

That “other work” over what is now nearly eight years continues to teach me. Radical acceptance and staying present remain cornerstones of my spiritual practices, as does writing. Learning how to weather occasional emotional storms without getting swept out to sea is a lifelong process of self-love, trust, and patience.

Seeing the ways I expect too much too fast — just as I did with the tree not long ago — is a place of ongoing awareness and subtle shifts, as is the temptation to compare myself to how others are growing. Noticing when I go into fear mode is always an internal signal that it’s time to regroup and return to what is — and allowing what is to be enough.

The tree is in its full spring glory now. Sure enough, its revival happened without external help, because it’s programmed to move through these cycles of death and rebirth. Perhaps we, too, carry these deep instructions, each of us carrying our own unique code of becoming.

To grow more at ease with the process — that seems to be my work in this lifetime. Thankfully, I have some beautiful teachers, one of them right in my very own front yard. The tree survived just fine. Just look at her.

Five Deep Breaths

My wife is reading a book called “The Art of Stopping  Time, Practical Mindfulness for Busy People” by Pedram Shojai. Each day offers a short chapter with a suggested exercise. It may be spending time in nature, or fasting from social media for a day.

Yesterday’s was to take five deep breaths every 30 minutes throughout the day, using a timer. I decided to try it.

Here are some observations:

Thirty minutes goes by very quickly. It seemed like every time I turned around, the timer was going off. I was also surprised by how much I packed into each 30-minute period. This shed some light on periods when I was focused — and the integers when I was multitasking and flitting from one thing to another. The timer gave me a chance to pause and check in with myself.

I spotted the impulse to do other things while I took the five deep breaths — stretch or look at my phone or simply keep working on whatever I was working on at the moment. It took a conscious decision to stop everything and ONLY breathe. I also saw this thought more than once: “I don’t have time to stop.” But not once did this turn out to be true. The five deep breaths took less than a minute.

At one point in the morning, I was nearing the end of a fast and furious freewrite when the timer went off. I was tempted to ignore it, but didn’t. The five deep breaths didn’t ruin my flow; in fact, they slowed me down just enough that when I returned to the keyboard, picking up right where I had left off was easy.

Full disclosure: I missed a few hours. At some point mid-morning, I forgot to restart the timer after my deep breaths. I walked to town to meet Luping for our hour of tutoring, then did some errands on foot. When I resumed my practice in the early afternoon, the five breaths turned into 10 along with some loud yawning and big jaw opening. Suddenly, the interruption was fully welcome, a reminder to get up off my ass, plant both feet on the floor, and say hello to the body.

Late-afternoon brought hot chocolate around a small bonfire with Pearl’s Hebrew school class, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, also known as the new year of the trees. Along with this small caffeine hit, the cold woke me back up, and I detected a subtle connection between the deep breathing I’d been doing throughout the day and the singing we were now doing around the fire. Come to think of it, there’s also a natural correlation between deep breathing and trees, since without them we’d be in deep breathing trouble.

Today, I’m giving it another go. Having a chance to check in every half hour may seem excessive, but really it’s a good way to get in the habit of breathing more consciously throughout the day. I’m already feeling more aware of when my breath gets shallow or neglected. I like this idea of tending to it, in the same way I would another person under my roof.

If breath is life, who are we when we’re running around being busy or trying to cram 10,000 things into every increment of time? Is that actually living?

Practices like this bring me a chance to see my default habits anew. Rather than thinking I failed some test if I forgot to set my timer and breathe deeply the whole day, I’m always more interested in what happens when I don’t judge myself but bring patience and care to the process of trying things. Anything that smacks of holier-than-thou-ness will send me running for the hills, but I will gladly play with ways to wake myself up, mentally and physically, and make more of me available to whatever or whomever is in front of me.

I have six minutes left till my next five deep breaths, but you know what? I’m not waiting. I’m taking them right now, even as my hands fly over the keyboard.

When do you neglect your breath? When do you tend to it? What reminds you to come back to yourself throughout the day?