This year, the maples all turned purple.
They usually die all at once in an explosion of blood red and burning orange. This year, though, it looks as if they all got together—had a tree-meeting of sorts—and agreed to die differently. Purple, at first, instead of red. Starting at the crown, and then pausing for a couple of weeks, before turning fully red. Slower than ever. Better than ever? I’m not sure about that.
But definitely different.
I have a friend who says that death and resurrection is the pattern of everything. It’s not just trees in their ancient, seasonal rhythm. Whole forests burn and whole ecosystems are resurrected from the charred remains. Our skin cells shed to dust and are replaced by new tissue. Every night, our consciousness dies in sleep and is resurrected by wakefulness. Every twenty-four hours, the day dies at sunset and is resurrected at sunrise. Everywhere you look, everything finds itself somewhere in this cycle of death and resurrection. And this year, the maples reminded me: the death and resurrection is different every time.
This autumn, for instance, I died differently than I’ve ever died before. Three times.
Right around the time the vines—which wrap themselves around the tree trunks in the deep, deep woods—turned red before everything else, standing out in contrast from the still green forest, I died anew to the idea that I’m blameless in the the sometimes painful journey that is marriage. I’ve told myself for years that I’ve never used my wife for anything. Around the time the vines were being exposed, my selfishness was being exposed as well. I use her to take away my loneliness. When she fails to do so, I can be quick to criticize her; and when she succeeds at doing so, I can be quick to discard her.
We have to die to the love we pretend we give, so that we can be resurrected into the kind of love we were meant to give.
Then, as the walnut trees and honey locusts conspired with the chilling wind to shower their little yellow leaves upon the green autumn grass, I sat down for a heart-to-heart with my friend and business partner. It had been a long, hard season of transition at Artisan Clinical Associates, and it had taken its toll on our relationship. We talked. It hurt. And in the end, we changed two words in the Artisan motto. It used to read, “We are here because the path is long, and sometimes steep – but its rewards are rich. We have traveled it ourselves, and if you’re willing we can walk with you a while.” Now, it reads, “We are traveling…” Not past tense. Present tense. We, too, are a work in a progress.
After all, the job of a therapist (and every person, really) is to die a little more every day to their arrogance—their self-assuredness, which clouds judgment and discernment and wisdom—so that they can be resurrected into even more clarity about themselves and about the people who are walking with them on the journey.
Then, as the dry, crackly carcasses of the cottonwood leaves began to litter the roadways, crunching underfoot and beneath tires, I coached my last youth soccer game of the season. I’ve done this nine times before. But this time, it was different. It wasn’t just my last game of the season; it was the last game of my coaching career. My kids are aging out. It’s time to let more skilled coaches coach their skills. I’ve loved this season of parenthood. The memories of it will survive as long as my memory survives.
After the last game, I stood on the empty field—players and fans all departed, my kids waiting for me in the car. It was the kind of clear, autumn night that makes living in north central Illinois worth it. The setting sun fighting its way through the tree tops. The air as crisp and as pure in your lungs as God originally made it. As I briefly mourned the death of this fleeting stage of my life and my parenthood, four geese flew overhead in an uneven V, heading south, honking. I recalled those lines from Mary Oliver:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
We have die to the small “we” so we can be resurrected into the big “We.” We have to die to our limited loneliness so we can be resurrected into our limitless Belonging. We have to die to our definition of family so we can be resurrected into the Family of Things.
The same old pattern of everything, as my friend would say.
But every time, a little different, like the maples.
Death and resurrection.
They call to you, like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.
Announcing your place in the Family of Things.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.