I miss summer—the long warm days, the occasional rain showers that nourished me all the way down to my deep roots, those random hot breezes that’d show up unexpectedly and sway my leaves in directions they didn’t even think they could go: up, down, intertwining with each other and curling around my twigs, before returning to their resting place. They were having the time of their life.
But, it’s mid-September now, and summer’s almost over. The Earth—who’s been holding hands with me since I was born—has been singing “a…u..tu..m..n” for the past couple of weeks, and I can feel it. I can tell that the days are getting shorter and cooler. The sun, as it sets, no longer lingers on my top branches anymore; instead, it’s further down and more to the right.
I know what’s coming: over the next few weeks, I’ll have to let go of my leaves as I prepare for winter. Soon, I’ll be bare-naked and down to just the basics—my branches, trunk and roots. And, it’s alright. I’ve been through this before; it’s not easy, but it’s my 40th time going through this cycle.
For now, I’m doing what I need to do: basking in the fading warmth of the late summer sunshine, and enjoying the cool breeze blowing through me.
Julie and Isabel discover the tree
She had her chihuahua, Jasper, on her lap, as she took a sip of water and buttoned up her jacket. It was one of those days that felt warm enough to sit outside, but not so warm that it didn’t warrant a jacket.
“Such a beautiful day, isn’t it?” she asked her friend, Isabel.
Julie put her dog on the bench between them, as they both snuggled up to it. “We had our children and grandkids visit us from Arkansas. They stayed with us for a couple of weeks, and we did go to the beach once, and for a couple of nice hikes nearby, but mostly, it was such a relaxing summer. I can’t tell you how much I loved tending to my garden.”
“I know, me too. I love my garden. The tomatoes in our backyard were so yummy and plentiful. I think I went for almost the whole month of August without buying any from a store.”
“I can tell you that I’m not looking forward to winter storms, and cold and rain and gloomy overcast days. It’s not my thing,” Julie said, as she put Jasper on her lap again.
“Yeah, same. I get really depressed, just thinking about those cold, grey days. I think that this time, I might have to see a therapist. I just can’t handle winters. Just talking about it now is making me queasy.”
“Oh gosh, sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up,” Julie replied. She ran her hands over Jasper and gave him a biscuit. “What do you think, Jaspie? Do you mind winter?”
“How did we go from talking about it being such a lovely day, to my wanting to see a therapist three months from now?” Isabel asked, shaking her head.
“I know, if only I could keep myself in the present.”
“Speaking of the present, look how big this maple tree is,” Isabel said.
They both looked up at the tree they were sitting under. A light breeze came along every now and then, rifling its greenish leaves. They’d dance for a while and take a break, and then, as if on some unspoken cue, pick up their dance again.
Change is coming
My leaves feel it. They know—in their veins, their stems and their laminas—that change is coming. Maybe it’s the not-so-slow-anymore fading of daylight, or the cold nights, or the gusty winds, but they’re getting ready for it. They’re slowly winding down their chlorophyll-making process, a process that has kept us nourished, strong and healthy all spring and summer long.
With less chlorophyll being made on each successive day, their other colours—colours that were hidden in spring and summer—are starting to take over, slowly removing their masks and revealing their true selves: hues ranging from a mix of orange, red and yellow are replacing the greens. Not that one colour is better than any other; each colour has its role, its purpose and its season, and I’m at peace with them all.
There’s another maple tree next to me. Its leaves are mostly orange and yellow now, with barely a tinge of green left in them. I like to think that perhaps my leaves and its leaves talk to each other often: “Does looking at my oranges and yellows make you feel anxious about what’s coming?” its leaves ask.
“Are you envious that I’m greener than you?” mine retort, with a smile.
Juan’s true colours
“Hi Juan, how are you doing today?” Rob, his therapist, asked.
“Honestly, I’m damn exhausted,” he replied, as he sank further down into the bench in the park. It had started off as an overcast day, but it had gotten sunnier later. He had monthly teletherapy sessions on Wednesday afternoons, and today, since it was sunny, he decided to do it from the park.
“Sorry to hear that. Did anything specific happen that made you tired?”
“Don’t know if I told you this before, but one of my hobbies is being an entomologist. I’ve been fascinated by insects since I was, like, eight.”
“That’s cool, my daughter also loves bees. I think they’re amazing creatures.”
“Yeah. Except that yesterday, my colleagues let loose a bunch of yellow jackets on me. Yeah, it was crazy.”
“Oh god, so sorry to hear that. Are you feeling OK?”
“Luckily, since I’d been studying them for years, I knew what to do and walked away slowly, covering my face. But really, it goes back to a much bigger problem,” he replied.
“Well, I’m glad you’re safe now. Tell me more about what’s on your mind.”
“I’m tired. I’m tired of not being my authentic self. I work as car mechanic, and a couple of days ago, when I told my co-workers that I love studying insects, pretty much all of them started making fun of me. These are guys who are into target shooting and ATVs, so my being an insect nerd is a great opportunity for them to poke at me.”
“I’m sorry that you’re having to go through this, especially at work, where this shouldn’t be tolerated.”
“Yeah. And usually, I don’t tell people much about myself. I mostly just go along with what the crowd’s doing and keep my stuff to myself. I’m not an extrovert. I like weird things. I’m not much into socializing, but I just do those things to appease others, to fit in, so that I’m not the guy standing outside the circle.”
“What part of you feels the most hurt right now?”
Juan looked up at the maple tree. The afternoon sun was shining brightly through its orange and yellow leaves. A couple of dogs were playing in the distance.
“The part that wants to keep myself safe and not be vulnerable. I feel stupid for sharing my hobby with them. There’s a part of me that’s saying, ‘You’re an idiot. Your sharing of your true self with others literally hurt you.’”
“That’s some great insight. Let’s look at this from a slightly bigger perspective. Think of yourself as composed of different parts: there’s a part of you that wants to be included socially, to not be left out; there’s another part that doesn’t want to be vulnerable; there’s a part that wants to take off that mask and reveal your true self to others, regardless of who they are; and there’s another part that’s keeping you ‘safe’ by being what you think others want you to be. Does that make sense?”
“Sort of,” Juan replied, smiling at a man who was walking his dog on the sidewalk.
“And what I’m saying is that none of these parts are ‘wrong.’ They each have their own role, their own place in the seasons of your life; each of them has evolved for a purpose. What you want to do, for now, is to acknowledge these various parts. You could thank them for being with you and appreciate their work. But eventually, we want you to get to a point where your true colours, so to speak, are shining through in an environment where you feel safe and welcome. And change isn’t an easy process. It takes time, but I can tell you, from personal experience, that it’s possible. And as part of that change, you’ll shed some colours and let other colours show through.”
Juan closed his eyes, his hands held open in his lap. He could hear the breeze blowing around him. Something landed in his hands; it was an orange-ish, yellowish, greenish and reddish-hued crispy maple leaf.
Letting go of that which doesn’t serve us
It’s hard for me to let go of them; after all, they nourished me through spring and summer and kept me alive. But I know that having leaves on me during winter is only going to hurt me, as my leaves’ cells can’t handle the cold weather and they’ll just end up rupturing themselves as the water inside them freezes and expands.
So I do what the Earth tells me to: I let them drift away from me. During the first few weeks of autumn, a new layer of cells starts to grow between my leaves and the twigs that they’re attached to. Over time, this new layer starts to cut off the nutrient supply to the leaves. And then, one windy mid-autumn day, you might see my leaves falling down on the ground, bringing with them the memories of spring and summer.
It’s hard to bear witness to that; sometimes I feel guilty and selfish—how could I intentionally let go of something that has fed me for two whole seasons?—but I know that there comes a time in our lives when we need to let go of that which doesn’t serve us anymore.
I know that my fallen leaves, as they marry the Earth over the course of winter, will eventually feed me back; they, in their composted form, will continue to nourish me all along. Just because they’re not on me, doesn’t mean they’re not in me.
And so it is, with gratitude, sorrow, hope and faith, that blankets of orange, yellow and red drape the ground on which I live.
From nurse to artist
It was drizzling off and on, one of those late-October days when the hourly weather is hard to predict. She parked her car and walked through the park, over to the bench, covering her head with the hood of her raincoat.
She was on a solo road trip along the West Coast, and, after driving for four hours, was looking for a place to rest when she found this park on Google Maps.
The bench was damp from the rain, but she didn’t mind it. She laid down and settled into it. Up above, she could see the towering maple tree, its branches spread out like an upside-down bowl. Most of the branches were bare, but some still had a few persistent leaves hanging on.
It had been a hard decision, but she knew she had to make it at some point. She’d recently given two weeks of notice at her job, where she was a nurse practitioner. It was something she’d been struggling with for years—to quit or not—but finally, she mustered the courage to do it.
It wasn’t that she hated the job or that her workplace was toxic; on the contrary, she liked working there and enjoyed spending time with her colleagues. But 24 years of working was taking its toll on her long-suppressed aspiration to be a full-time artist. She’d been wavering back and forth about it for years; after all, the money and the benefits were great and had sustained her for all these years, but now, it was time to let go of that which didn’t serve her anymore. And, after all, it had done its job serving her: all the money she’d saved would help her through the upcoming years of financial uncertainty.
Three weeks ago, she’d had a clear vision one night: She’d imagined herself standing in one corner of a huge room, at 60 years old, still working as a nurse and financially stable, but with no art career; and then, there she was in the opposite corner of the room, 44 years old and starting a new life, one that was full of uncertainties and doubts, but also one that finally allowed her passion to bloom. She’d walked into the centre of the room and laid down. Within a matter of seconds, she’d gotten up and ran to the latter corner of the room.
Back in the present, she suddenly realized she’d fallen asleep on the bench, as she was woken up by the touch of a wayward orange leaf that had landed on her lips.
It gets dark before I even realize it. It’s a far cry from those summer days, when sunshine would bathe my body late into the evening.
Looking at me, you might wonder how I’m able to survive winter. All I can tell you is what I’ve been doing for 40 years: the cells inside my bare branches force water outside. The water freezes, and when it becomes solid, that releases enough heat to keep the cells inside from freezing. And thus, I live through the winter. It’s not always easy, but life is a cycle of ups and downs and plateaus, and there’s a time and a season for everything.
I remember those late-April days when I was so charged up with energy and sunshine that I was on a roll, my leaves bursting forth with a renewed sense of life. And then there were those quiet July days, when I was mostly basking in the afternoon warmth, my leaves taking short naps when they could. And of course, there’s the present, the winter, when I’m down to my dormant bare-minimum elemental state.
Yes, there’s hope for spring, and there are memories of summer, but what I do now is respond to things as they are and live in the present, regardless of what I’ve been through. Because that’s all I have right now: this cold, wet, dark moment. And, for that moment, I’m forever grateful to my Mother Earth.
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