The Trees Knew

Snohomish River & Trees. photo by Mary Dessein
Walking along 1st Street recently, where I lived from age five until age twenty, I heard the huge cottonwoods and alders, before I really saw them. Yes, they are over a hundred feet tall, yet it is like driving along the freeway: I see the road surface but I pay minimal attention to it, and make no note of it.
One of my character defects is that when I see something enough times, like the clutter stacked on my love-seat, it becomes invisible.
I did not see the trees … until they called to me.

The “yes, yes, yes,” sound of thousands of their leaves whooshing in the breeze beckoned me. It was then that I turned and really looked at them. I heard the softest, shooshy whisper, “We knew you as a little girl.”

By golly, they did.
Oh, the street has changed – the section that was twenty plus feet below street level for those three blocks along 1st Street had been filled in sometime in the last thirty years. The three houses that were there forty years ago were now gone, replaced by an electric company, the City Public Works, a towing company, and a couple other large truck and construction businesses.

Yet the trees were still there along the edge of the river, as tall and strong as ever. Lush with late summer golden and orange leaves, rustling susurrous voices, gently soughing their song to me.
To the little girl I was, and had mostly forgotten.

Trees along River Trail. photo by Mary Dessein

Hearing the trees, I remembered how I sang to them when I was out in the backyard batting my tetherball around the pole my dad put up for me when I was in elementary school. I remembered sitting in their shade for the picnics on the blanket with my sister and our dolls. I remembered the great dollops of snow falling from their boughs when the sun warmed their branches after a storm.

And the trees remembered me.

Root Bound…

Photo by Mary Dessein
My jade plant is blooming. My jade tree rather, as it is bigger than either of my children were when they started second grade. I’ve had the plant for close to thirty years. Seventeen years ago, it was in a three inch diameter ceramic planter, a swan to be exact. Now it is busting out of a foot tall, eighteen inch diameter pot.

I believe it is root bound. When other plants I have started blooming after years of not, I was told it was because they were now root bound. Really? In looking at articles on root bound plants, it is reportedly a negative thing for the plant and ought to be rectified.

Yet, my jade tree is blooming elegant little white flowers at least once a year, starting about five years ago.

My sansevieria (snake’s tongue or snake plant), which I got off a clearance table at the drug store in a tiny square starter pot sixteen years ago and is now hundreds of times larger, filling a foot tall, twelve inch diameter pot, currently blooms a couple times a year that I know of. Some times the stalk of blossoms is inside the forest of leaves and I don’t see it until much later. Both of my asparagus ferns, sprengeri and densiflorus, which are not ferns nor asparaguses, bloom with wee white flowers and tiny berries. After decades of no blooming.

My hoya. Oh my gosh, the hoya carnosa blooms three or four times a year. Lovely dangling clusters of blossoms whose lush fragrance fills my home.

This root bound concept and it’s physicality. Root bound could mean I don’t venture out or try new things, don’t go new places, or experiment with new ideas. It also could be where I am now: having been many places and done quite a bit over the last twenty-five years, and then having lived a quiet, low activity life in 2017, my root bound-ness was solidifying to allow me to bloom.

I had several gigs in the last three months, challenging me to expand my repertoire, and spend time with my performance pieces of music and storytelling.

And myself.
The quiet time, seeming inertia compared to my previous level of daily and weekly activity, was a puzzlement to me. Then my jade tree blossoms sprung out and began to open, reminding me how I felt enervated by the gigs, by interacting with the people involved, and the preparation time.
That quiet time was as if I had become root bound: I nested, wrote daily in my Artist’s Way journal, stayed up late and slept late, dialed back on my real estate activity and ventures, read novels, and even took an occasional nap. I did all the life stuff of paying bills, doing my podcast, going to various meetings and all, yet I was quiet.
That quiet time was me becoming more stable in this chapter of my life. More confident in who I am. More sure of my talents. Forming healthy detachments. Resolving ambiguities about what I want now, what gives my life quality, and what nurtures me.

What nurtures me and forming healthy detachments are two things that have eluded me during my life prior to now – I learned as a child not to do those two things. The belief presented was “always take care of others, it is selfish to care of yourself.”

Yet when two friends, I thought to be close friends, walked away from me without a word, healthy detachment lessons appeared. I felt the loss of the friendship yet have been able to move away from having to fix the problem; the problem which I was unaware of and is not mine. And to be able to see these people on occasion and be present in that moment with them, carrying no negative baggage forward.
My two children are now young adults with life partners they have chosen; one lives thousands of miles away from me. Healthy detachment. I am still deeply connected to them, yet have no responsibility to fix their problems and challenges. I listen, and offer advice when asked.

Nurturing myself. My, oh my. Maybe it is not selfish to prioritize what I need and want, perhaps it is even the best choice I can make. Yes, there are endless needs of millions of people in the world as well as there are starving children in China (which is what I was told as a child every time I did not eat every single morsel on my dinner plate. Both my parents having been raised in the Great Depression, I get where their reasoning was coming from; I am also pretty sure that statement has unintentionally caused many an eating disorder by overriding kids’ natural self-regulation and limits.) However, my job at this time is to take care of me. I donate each month to multiple causes, as well as volunteer. Laugh-out-loud! I am still justifying nurturing myself and not being selfish!

Four years ago on a landmark birthday of mine, my drunkard’s bottle cactus (hatiora) exploded in small yellow blossoms; the plant looked like it was covered in a beaded hairnet. It had not bloomed in the previous twenty-plus years since my sister gave me a tiny fingerling of a start off her plant. It is now a thousand times larger. And in a pot it is nearly growing up and out of, the pot is about a quarter the size of the cactus. Its hundreds of tiny branches hang elegantly several inches. Nowadays, my drunkard’s bottle cactus blooms each year around my birthday.

There is a lot to be said for being root bound.

Can’t Be Won, Just Played

Buchart Gardens - photo by Mary Dessein
Buchart Gardens – photo by Mary Dessein

How would you like to have Jack Lemmon telling you a story? A doozy of a story at that? A Steven Pressfield story.

“It’s a game that can’t be won, only played.”

Jack’s seventy-six year old voice, filled with wisdom and humor, recounting the lessons he’d learned about dignity, the appearance of it, and which of those two actually has value; the lessons he learned watching a man not only look for his authenticity, but to regain belief that such a thing exists. Jack’s voice resonating with a kindness and acceptance that only comes with facing fears over and over, surviving losses over and over, and then standing back up in order to keep on walking.

To find one’s authenticity in part requires that you get out of the way and let it surface. Robert Fulghum wrote about the time he saw a bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think,” which set him off on a creative, introspective tangent about the truth in that statement as he reviewed his life.

I can relate. Times my brain told me to do one thing, seemingly logical and allegedly most efficient, while my authentic self, call it intuition or gut feeling, urged me to do something else. It seemed safer to believe what I thought rather than what I felt.
A significant factor, beyond my perception then, was that my brain is in cahoots with my ego. Of course, I did what my brain told me. I believed it. Was it that I wanted to look smart, appear competent, or to be right? Surely part of the equation. Just as surely, I got in my own way and had no clue I was the impediment, the derailer, the creator of the negative result, not random chance or bad luck.

True self versus ego, eh? Thinking my way through my out-of-balance checkbook register works well. Thinking my way through the conundrum of how to respond to a colleague’s ongoing rudeness or to a friend’s loss of a parent, not so much.

Jack, as his character Hardy Greaves, recalls the conversation six decades before between Rannulph Junuh and Bagger Vance.
“You don’t understand,” Junuh spouted back to Bagger’s advice.
“I don’t need to understand. Ain’t a soul who ain’t got a burden to carry he don’t understand. You ain’t alone in that.”

He responded, “I don’t need to understand,” because he understood a bigger, all encompassing truth?

Being told, “You don’t understand,” has shut the door on many things in my life, as I believed that a high level of understanding was the pivot that mattered. Assuredly, sometimes it does. Yet we come across the bigger truths which “You don’t understand” keeps us from seeing when we are locked in the belief that we are alone. The mistaken belief that our individual circumstances, feelings, fears, sorrows, mistakes, tragedies have to be understood exactly. That they have to be experienced by someone else so they know what we’re going through.

What difference might that realization have made when as an alcohol and other drug counselor, clients said to me, and to other counselors, “You have to be an addict to be able to help me.” Their idea that they were special and therefore alone? There is a phrase for that, ‘terminal uniqueness.’ I remember one lanky sixteen year old in particular, ambling up to me after I had spoken to a group of high schoolers about drug abuse, with his baseball cap pulled low over his face, sporting a whisper of a wannabe mustache, long arms dangling out of his off-white denim jacket, and stating it as if this were E = MC squared, he said, “You can’t help me unless you’re in recovery.” Did that allow him to keep using because no one was qualified to help him? A whole ‘nother discussion.

Over time, without divulging my personal history as that was a clear professional boundary, my response became, “Why is that? We don’t require gynecologists to be female, marriage counselors to be divorced, oncologists to have cancer, or judges to have been incarcerated. Why does a drug counselor have to have been addicted?” Sometimes, they would stop and go, “Oh.” Other times, they blew me off with the classic, “You don’t understand,” alas, shutting their door to the invite of change.

What a concept: I don’t have to understand your exact experience and feelings to be here with you, recognize what you’re going through, and support you.
You don’t have to understand my exact experience and feelings to be here with me, recognize what I’m going through, and support me.

“Time for you to choose.”
“I can’t,” Junuh shook his head at Bagger.
“You can. You ain’t alone. I’m right here with you. I been here all along. Now play the game.”

You are not alone.
Neither am I. If I am silent and still, my authentic self will speak, whether quietly or with a charge of adrenaline.

“It’s a game that can’t be won, only played. So I play.”
Thank you, Steven.