I drove through the hill country on Tuesday afternoon, on my way to a conference for Young Clergy Women. Part of my drive took me through Bastrop, TX, an area of the state that was consumed by wildfires several years ago. I traveled through a substantial section of that ravaged forest, amazed to see that tragedy of which I had only previously heard. Large trees flanked the road, branches like claws reaching toward a too-blue sky, blackened bark where greenery once spilled forth. It was grim to travel through the scars of devastation, to imagine the fear and loss echoing beyond ear shot.
Upon an even deeper look (as deeply as one can look when driving 75+ miles per hour), green was peeking up everywhere in this graveyard forest. The slender trunks of young trees were springing forth between their dead foremothers, verdant beneath shadow. I had heard of this before, that life spills out of loss; even children learn that the soil around volcanoes is especially fertile. I know that some trees in California need the fires of summer to open their hard pods and release the seeds of their next generation. Life often demands fire, sacrifice and risk to continue on.
But what I did not expect was the one tree that couldn't make up its mind. Half of the tree was scarred and burned beyond life. Broken branches still dangled perilously over the earth, jagged edges to be carefully maneuvered by. The other half, though, cascaded with green growing leaves, an audacious explosion of possibility firmly attached to a visage of death. How was that possible? The myth of Janus tells us that we often contain contradictions within ourselves: that love AND hate tumble within us always. But how could a tree be both living and dead? The tree seemed impossible.
Sometimes I feel like that tree. These days, I present a green and growing face to those I love and serve. Here are the branches of my new call, here are the buds of joyful relationship, here are the fruits of love bursting forth. But I know, despite what is seen, that a black thread runs through my life’s tapestry. Less visible is the scarred and burned part of me, the aching grief that still whispers internally. I have trimmed my new growths around me, to shade the scars, to draw your eyes away from the places where life no longer grows. You would need to look closely to truly see that I am an impossible tree, that life and loss linger near each other and brush against one another on windy days.
I don’t often let eyes linger on my scars, but I have discovered that sometimes people need to see them. In the time since I began to write of my grief, I have been party to conversations that never could have happened without my continued unveiling. Women and men who suffer through the incarcerations of their loved ones, through adultery, death, depression and the tangling of their lives, they find me and speak to me. They bare the red, raw edges of their wounds, they uncover the burned and blackened remnants of their lives on fire, and they say “it hurts!” I have discovered that all they need from me is to pull back the obscuring greenery of my new life, to show the gnarled edges of my own pain. They need to feel the ridges of my scars alongside tender unmarred skin to believe that it is possible.
Jesus did this, you know. The story goes that he appeared to his disciples after his death and resurrection. They trembled alone and afraid and he appeared to them with open wounds on his side and in his hands and feet. He was their friend and God, the one who had died on a tree and came back as a living one. An impossible man, an impossible hope, an impossible tree. Perhaps that’s why I tell my story, again and again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve chosen to spend my life telling the story of Jesus. Because people need to believe. To believe that they themselves can be impossible trees, that they can stand under too blue skies in the midst of devastation and defiantly exist as a crossroad of life and death.
How did Whitman say it?
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Sometimes life is ash. Sometimes it is growth. And many times, it is both.