This essay first appeared in the January 20, 2018 issue of The Drafting Desk.
Back in October, I embarked on a self-prescribed assignment to pay more attention to the world around me—to look up more, to notice subtle changes, to really see.
Naturally, this led to me making a lot of observations about, well, trees. Let’s just say I took the looking up thing quite literally.
Well brace yourselves, friends, I’m about to talk trees again.
Hurricane Irma thundered through our neighborhood last September, and though cleanup has long since ended, evidence of a storm lingers: mismatched shingles, blue tarps draped across still-leaking roofs, gaping spaces between yards where fences used to separate one person’s property from another, and stumps—so many stumps!—where grand oaks and sycamores and sweetgums used to tower.
It’s easy to spot the places where tall trees once stood, while many of their surviving neighbors now lean one way or the other. When a cold snap this month helped our still-standing deciduous trees finally start letting go of their leaves, the belated autumn revealed effects of sustained winds that I hadn’t been able to see before. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what had changed; the bare branches just didn’t look quite right. Something was definitely off. The more I looked, the more apparent it became. There’s a haunted-house vibe going on—limbs sticking out at strange angles, twisted and mangled, some pointing toward the earth where they used to shoot skyward.
There are broken bits everywhere—snapped branches that never fully disconnected. They just dangle there like the ugliest ornaments ever, brown, dead, and out of reach. Or, like the huge sweetgum limb wedged precariously high over my house, they were ripped away, only to be caught by other branches—stuck, waiting for another storm to dislodge them and send them to the ground (preferable to through my roof).
I’ve been mourning the beaten-up trees this month. Will they heal? Will they right themselves at some point—like when I remember to water my drooping houseplants and find that they’re able to perk back up after all, reaching up toward the sunlight streaming through my kitchen window?
2017 was a year of much learning and (sometimes painful) growth. It was a good year in that way, full of firsts and seeing old things with new eyes. But as it wound to a close, I found myself dwelling on its disappointments more than I wanted to: opportunities that didn’t pan out, dealing with rejection, and accepting critique and criticism that my pride didn’t appreciate much. I pitched my first book proposal to an editor; she was incredibly kind but not interested. I heard the word cliché attributed to something I’d written; it stung. Doubt crept in, and I retreated—burying my idea notepads under stacks of “more important” things on the desk and leaving the laptop closed and tucked away.
This is the first time in many years I’ve walked into the new year with no clear sense of direction, no goals, no lists, no “word of the year” (a practice I’ve grown to love!). Starting the day after Christmas (by the way—too soon, people), I watched my newsfeeds fill with challenges, resolutions, and inspiration. I wanted to have the same boundless energy as those charging into 2018 full speed ahead, but I didn’t. I felt… tired. Uninspired. Quiet. Like everyone else had taken off running, but I hadn’t even tied my shoelaces yet.
What will this year be about? What will I learn? What will God do to surprise me this year (because he always, always does)? And what is it I’m supposed to be doing?
I haven’t had so much as an inkling, even as we inch closer to flipping the calendar page to February. Time is ticking away and I’m standing still, frozen by indecision and uncertainty. What if I choose the wrong word? What if the goals I dream up are unrealistic? Am I expecting too much? Am I lacking faith?
Yesterday I shuffled my little girls out the front door for a walk around the neighborhood in an attempt to dissipate our group crankiness. (Life tip: Fresh air can turn the worst day around. Pretty sure there’s some science behind that.) My 9-year-old scootered down the sidewalk, taking the lead, and I followed with her younger sister, who had opted instead to be pushed in a too-small stroller. I soaked up the warm sun and felt the bite of January air in my lungs as we lapped our block. As has become a habit now, I looked up while we strolled. And I found myself distracted by those ugly, dead branches, hanging on with no purpose and nowhere to go.
What we need is another big gust of wind to shake out all the junk, I thought. Just shake it free!
Shake it free.
Ohhh. I see you there, God. Maybe this is where I need to begin.
Last year’s failures? Shake them free.
Last year’s disappointments? Shake them free.
Fear of future failures and disappointments? Shake that free, too.
Hold on to what’s worth holding on to—the lessons learned, the steps taken, the evidence of God’s goodness and faithfulness (because even on the hard and disappointing days, he was and always will be good and faithful).
But it’s time to let the ugly stuff go. It’s time to shake the broken branches to the ground and watch the winds of grace sweep them away—and then reach toward the sky again.
Once a month, my friend Lindsey and I share stories like this one—along with links to writing we love, Scripture, music, and more—in an email we call The Drafting Desk. Come check it out.