If we’re friends on Facebook you might recognize this tree.
This is the long rambling story of the tree.
For over a year I’ve posted this tree regularly. The Christmas tree from 2015:
The rain tree:
The New Year’s Tree (2016)
…which earned a comment from a friend:
I like this tree’s capacity to be many things. 🙌🏼
The Spring tree (2016)
The green tree
And one of my favorites
At some point someone commented “what is it with the damn tree?”
I must have posted well over 100 photos of the same tree.
I’ve taken many more. I have a love affair with trees, particularly the grand sycamores next to creek beds, with their bright, barkless branches. I’m obsessed with these large, beautiful trees, and I’ve taken thousands of photos of them. There’s something about the way they capture light that lifts my spirit, especially during the darkest days of winter.
These are two of my favorite trees, these close companions. In the summer they’re surrounded by lots of green and share a beautiful canopy. I imagine their roots intertwined, sharing water and carbon and nurturing healthy soil for other living things among them.
I love to visit with them, see how they’re doing, see how they change.
|election day, 2016|
So this is the story of our tree. It’s not much of a mystery but it’s meaningful to me and a lot of people ask me about it.
Bear and I take walks in the woods or fields almost twice daily when I’m not traveling. On dry days we’d hit the Loop (Farm view) at County Park or F&M’s Baker field, but when it rains we head here or Kiwanis because they’re mostly paved. But once I started the year of the tree, City View became the daily ritual, with few exceptions.
Before we met this tree I would take pics of the beautiful trees, the beautiful reflections in water, my beautiful friend Bear, the beautiful sky. I wanted the beautiful family, and that hasn’t worked out. The perfect album, the perfect song, the perfect love, the perfect concept, the perfect justice–just perfection all around. But in my daily life I’d sometimes struggle to find the beauty, the good in people, and in myself. Especially in myself.
My world fell apart in 2008 and didn’t stop falling until about 2013, but even then I hadn’t really processed things. Back then I thought I could do no wrong–I was, after all, the founder of successful software companies, able to make money out of thin air, make the big things happen, and of course, I was always right, informed by what I thought was a sense of justice. I was arrogant and self-assured.
But in 2008 the economy crashed and I crashed the project I had started, hurting people along the way. I spiraled down and ballooned up. I’ve posted about those years so I won’t rehash, but in 2013 things started to turn around. But something still wasn’t working. Sufficiently humbled, I might have gone too far in the self loathing. Even with the excellence of the new company, finally working directly on changing the world and having impact on people’s lives, I still didn’t have it right.
Our tree is a sycamore.
It’s not tall, beautiful, or grand; it’s a flawed, weak, struggling sycamore, fighting invasive weeds and vines for sunshine and water, growing far from any creek bed on top of a landfill.
One day I was about to post a picture of the perfect tree,
on the perfect day, and realized my pattern. I sought the obviously beautiful, the ideal, the excellent, instead of finding the beauty in the ordinary, the flawed, the struggling. It was always about the future perfect and not the present. For several years I listened to a Thich Naht Hanh lecture asking “do you see” about the how the tree is fed by the clouds, sun, and soil, and “smile to your eyes” in gratitude for the joy they bring, in every moment.
It’s hard to articulate; I’m writing this post in pieces and not everything connects. But on that day late in 2015 I decided to find the beauty in our struggling tree instead of the perfect one, and committed to posting only that one for a year. I felt like I needed to develop a discipline of it. Some days the beauty was in the fog, sometimes the moon, sometimes it was Bear, sometimes the vines seeming to hold the tree from its aspiring but unlikely glory.
Sometimes it was the glow of the city in the far distance to the right, sometimes the wind, sometimes the deep blue sky on a summer’s day, and sometimes it was just the tree persisting, day after day, fulfilling its purpose, a grand sycamore.
On my mind on any given day might have been trying to make payroll, or the Syrian refugees, or challenging news from last year’s election, or life without a partner, or the list of things I needed to get to later.
But when I’d stop at the tree, it was the start of a meditation to clear my mind of all of that, and listen to the wind, or the leaves, or Bear’s feet on icy snow.
The first time I heard the following analogy I hated it. Thought it was hokey. Uncool. Because I’m so damn cool, I guess.
“Put your mask on first before helping others.”
I would try to help others before myself. Maybe I felt I wasn’t good enough. I’ve felt that way about certain people, too–that I just wasn’t good enough for them. My pattern was to super-commit to something, throw myself into it with a sense of higher purpose, and ignore my own needs–physical, mental, emotional, and financial. They are mostly interrelated. I went from a pretty good natural athlete in high school in great shape (soccer) to an overweight depressive during companies 1 & 2 and after. One big difference? My obsession moved from soccer to music to building companies, and left the physical component aside.
I’d work out occasionally, but not regularly, because I hated working out. Training to be the best at soccer, sure, I’ll do that. Surfing half the day, yeah I’ll do that. But going to the gym for myself? No. Couldn’t do it. So I substituted bad practices for good. I’d work late. When I got home I was too tired to cook, or it was more convenient to go to a restaurant and get waited on, served decent hot food but with mediocre ingredients, too much salt, and a few glasses of wine or scotch. The comfort of a few drinks and someone sharing light friendly conversation helped me rationalize it. But really if I went home alone, made dinner, and then had the evening ahead, well I just felt bored and alone. I couldn’t just sit with it. So eating out all the time filled that hole, and well, I don’t have kids so I could rationalize not saving the money. And that bummed me out too–we had tried when I was married but it didn’t work out for us. Part of that long stretch was coping with the reality that maybe I’d never be a father.
This Fall I was moved by the people at Standing Rock and their commitment and dedication to the cause of justice against a deeply flawed and imbalanced system of power concentrated for the few at the expense of the many. It spoke to me on so many levels, and when the State of North Dakota started using violence against people desperate to preserve their sacred land, traditions, water, and lives, it moved me to want to join them and help in some way, even if just showing support by being there. So I went with a group to make Thanksgiving dinner, which turned into a meal for 2,000. It was amazing.
The next day we went to the camps, and I was struck by the rituals–the prayer, the ceremony, the storytelling at the fire, and the list of principles that helped keep the growing camp organized, healthy, and sane. At the gate was a sign that said “No alcohol beyond this point.” I smiled and nodded in agreement. I had already been moving in that direction, so it wasn’t a big deal. It felt like it was time. Over the next few weeks I ate out less and stayed in more, spent more time with family. I’ve been dropping weight pretty fast, sleeping much better, and started working out. It all feels really good and natural, and it makes me wonder how I got into that rut of false comfort. I’ll have a glass of wine with a friend now and again, but that late dinner out alone is over.
Since the summer I’ve spent more time with family, especially over at my sister’s with her very entertaining kids, who are pretty good at dishing out a bad joke. I make dinner and lunch for myself, and sometimes breakfast, but I like my breakfast routine so I’m not changing that too much. When I get home I fill the time with writing, writing music, recording, or a bit of Netflix or a book. Like normal people, I guess.
It took me a long time to learn to put the mask on first, but now that I’m doing it it feel natural. This week I plan to start putting the money I would have spent on false comfort into a college fund for my kids, and if I never have them, which is possible, it’ll be for someone else’s.
Trees are amazing. I’m so glad we got to spend so much time with our tree, but it’s time to move on. Maybe the discipline of it worked. Some days it felt like Groundhog Day, where I was practicing getting it right, to become the person I wanted to be, or rather to love the person I am.
We’ve spent well over a year with our tree, and while we’ll see it again, we took a different path today and focused on the sunrise. It was a cold morning, just 25 degrees, the ground frozen. The shapes in the ground from horse tracks, shadows cast by the rising sun against the fields, the spots of blue sky through cloud cover, it was all beautiful, and flawed, and perfect, and we walked and listened to the wind.