We moved this year and, in our new backyard, is a forest of oaks. They’re centuries old, tower above our house, and their gnarled limbs interlock and dominate all other vegetation on the forest floor below.
Not far from our back deck, nestled amongst the oaks, is this little-engine-that-could. This little-tree-that-could. Less than a decade old, its trunk is only inches in diameter. It gets almost no light and it has no room to grow. So, it’s doing the only thing it can:
It’s shooting straight up through the oak trees.
And it’s gaining on them fast. It’s called a tulip tree—one of the few trees that can survive in a grove of oaks or maples. It will eventually push through the treetops and tower over them. Around that time, its canopy will bloom with flowers.
I meditate upon that tree, and it reminds me of the people in my life.
It reminds me of my wife who decided, when she was a thirteen year-old girl, home was not the best place for her to be anymore. So, all by her young-clueless self, she applied to boarding school. She applied for financial aid, too. And she got in and she went and then this little one who’d never done anything athletic was forced to choose a sport, so she chose cross-country. And when the forest paths couldn’t stop her, this tiny young lady decided she was going to pull an oar and join the crew team and she pulled until she puked if that’s what it took. And by the time I met her she’d pushed her way through all of the towering odds, and she was a graduate student at Penn State University. And when she told me her story, I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.
Because I think it’s a good idea to surround yourself with people who will find a way to survive when the Zombie apocalypse hits.
And the little-tree-that-could reminds me of my younger son, who recently took a ball like a rocket to the gut during a soccer game. He crumpled and he had a moment to choose between the big oaks or the sky. For a moment, it looked like he’d fall over. But then he put his foot on the ball and while everyone was still standing around wondering if he’d throw up his lunch, he sprinted with the ball up field, through several dazed defenders and danced it right into the net. It reminds me of him turning around with his hands in the air.
Like limbs that refuse to quit reaching for the sky.
The little-tree-that-could reminds me of my older son, on his first day of middle school. In a new town. With no friends. It reminds me of him waking up with a glint in his eye. Scared, yes. Uncertain, yes. But, somehow, savoring the challenge. It reminds me of the moment he hopped out of the car and into a crowd of strange kids. In the Stephen King Dark Tower series, a gunslinger is someone who shoots true when the pressure is on—someone who finds something steely at the center of them and then draws upon it when the big oaks tower all around. On that morning, my son was a gunslinger.
Like a tree that just won’t stop growing into what it is here to be.
It reminds me of my daughter, who can find her way to joy in almost any situation. Regularly, she sits at the dinner table and fake laughs until it turns into a real laugh, because she trusts there is always a real laugh waiting to be found. Her giggles eventually morph into happy tears, and she invites all of us other tall, solemn trees into the light with her.
She pushes us all upward.
It reminds me of every client who sits on my therapy couch. They come in, surrounded by these big oak trees of pain, and they insist on growing through the suffering, until one day, they finally push through the canopy and taste the light.
It reminds me of the many silent heroes in my new hometown. Amongst the great oaks of this world, they get absolutely no publicity. Instead, every day, they do their work, they raise families the best they can, and with whatever time they have left over, they turn to the forest around them and try to raise the rest of the world up a little bit, too.
It reminds me:
Every single one of us can grow and push through all the towering, overwhelming parts of life and existence that surround us all the time, every day, and year after year. In the words of e.e. Cummings, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
We can get taller, one inch at a time.
Trusting the light is always waiting for us.
In the big sky above.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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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.