While taking a walk, I spotted a Charlie Brown tree in one of the yards.
And by Charlie Brown tree, I mean a tree that looks rather pitiful and sad, like the famous and beloved Christmas Tree in the television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The tree grabbed my attention, and I paused there on the sidewalk to gaze at it for just a moment. I felt like I was honoring some kind of grief, likely because I am aware of a great deal of grief taking place right now in our world. I honored that tree, and hopefully, it didn’t mind that I snapped a photo (nor its inside humans).
There it was, bent over. I wondered how it had come to grow that way.
I wondered how it would continue to grow.
I wanted to add my acknowledgment.
“I see you.”
I wanted to add my hope.
Of course, this was just one tree in one yard that had tapped into larger realities beyond one yard. But an interesting thing kept happening as I walked through that neighborhood. More trees continued to grab my attention. Interesting and intriguing trees. . . I wondered what their stories were. How and why did their branches bend, stretch, snap, or grow just as they did? How did each one get to be a tree in its unique way?
As I continued to walk, other trees demonstrated grief and loss as well.
This tree has had its branches and leaves cut off.
Then one tree made me smile with its eccentric confidence.
Its house had a hopscotch game lovingly sketched onto the sidewalk. I looked over my shoulder first, but I won’t lie to you. With no one around, I hopped across it with eccentric confidence.
The entire experience of walking through these visual and imaginary tree narratives brought me back to an experience several years earlier. Before moving to Ann Arbor, I lived in Southern California, and one weekend, I had the occasion to visit Joshua Tree National Park. Until entering that place, I had never seen a single Joshua Tree, let alone an entire park of them. When I saw them together in one place, I was delighted, and I could not stop giggling in their presence. Instantly, I felt as though I had entered a Doctor Seussian reality. Like any of the trees in my Ann Arbor neighborhood, one Joshua Tree might grab my attention and express its uniqueness. But as I entered the Joshua Tree neighborhood, there was a sudden proclamation of particularity.
These trees were all shaped so differently. Some reached their branches upward in ways that seemed most typical for a tree.
This tree has its branches upward. The sun is setting. Public domain image.
Some branches grew entirely downward.
A tree in the foreground has two primary branches pointed downward.
Some trees appeared to be windswept, but had actually grown that way. “My left side is my good side,” they seemed to say.
This tree in the foreground is growing to the left! Public domain image.
“Well, I prefer my right side,” others would reply.
This tree in the foreground is growing to the right! Public domain image.
The branches of others burst with growth in all directions once, reminding me of the snakes in mythical Medusa’s sinister hairdo.
This trees branches are growing in many directions. Public domain image.
To see all of these together. . . It was nothing short of hilarious to me! And it was a freeing kind of hilarity — a delightful proclamation of particularity.
This delight piqued my natural curiosity. How could all of these be Joshua Trees, while each tree was so dramatically different in the presence of another? How could they be the same plant species yet so unique? I wondered how I could understand these differences.
Could it be genetics? Clearly genetics did not mold them uniformly or limit the directions of their growth. Could it be the environment? This might be true if they were scattered in different locations, but in this park, they were in one place with the very same environment that was granting them the freedom to be sculpted in a variety of ways.
So naturally, I did a Google search. And that’s how I came to learn the beautiful process by which Joshua Trees grow.
For the first few decades of their lives, Joshua Trees simply grow upward with no branches at all. Then at some point — who can predict it? — each Joshua Tree does something it has never done before. It produces a blossom. It’s monumental, and it’s beautiful.
A joshua tree blossom. Public domain image.
But that’s just the beginning of a new process of growth. When that blossom falls off, it leaves dried stalk behind, and from that stalk, a new branch begins to grow in an entirely new direction. It can literally jut out in the quirkiest of ways.
And the process continues. . . Eventually, this branch too will blossom. And when it blossoms, another flower will fall to the ground, allowing the space for an additional branch to burst forward with its own unique angle in mind. It goes on and on.
It appears as if each branch expresses newness, yet is connected to the whole.
I thought about all of this again as I walked through my Ann Arbor neighborhood, recalling the stories of grief in our world.
Grief invites the compassion to pause and acknowledge, “I see you. I may not understand fully, but honor how painful this really is.”
And it invites the compassion to pause and add our hope-filled reminders, “You’re beloved. Don’t forget that truth no matter what.”
Witnesses to grief should never try to clean it all up or dismiss its impact. We must be present to human lives in such a way that we recognize their authentic pains and sadnesses. But with the best sensitivity, witnesses can also add a powerful reminder that the story isn’t over. Our lives, even with its unexpected twists and turns, constitute a delightful proclamation of particularity. Sometimes the possibilities surprise us.
Joshua Trees always remind me that the story isn’t over.
“I see you.”