Sometimes when you’re feeling a bit melancholy, and the world seems too confounding for words, the best way to express yourself is through a story. So today, rather than my usual newsy blog post, I’m going to tell a story.
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Once there was a young sapling who grew up on a grassy mountaintop. From his high perch he breathed the fresh air and gazed out at the endless blue sky full of possibility.
The big world felt intimidating, but the sapling wasn’t afraid. This is because a much bigger, stronger tree stood nearby, sheltering and protecting him. This was none other than the sapling’s father, a tall tree with outstretched branches that seemed to touch the sky.
The tall tree watched over the whole mountainside and all the creatures that lived there. Birds made their nests in the tall branches, rabbits scampered in the shade, honeybees and insects roamed among the flowers.
The young sapling wanted to be more like the tall tree, and stretched his branches as far as he could. But he knew he could never stretch them as high as the tall tree.
In the summer, torrential storms brought wind and rain. The sapling thought the whole mountaintop would blow away. But the tall tree clung to the ground, holding the earth together with his roots.
In the autumn, the tall tree’s leaves turned orange and fell to the ground. The little tree watched and did the same. Birds flew south, and the winds became colder.
In the winter, heavy snow fell, but the tall tree caught most of it so that it wouldn’t fall on the little tree. The sapling noticed how the tall tree’s branches would bend but not break, and he tried to do the same.
Finally spring came, the snow melted, and the tall tree sprouted fresh new leaves. The little tree knew it was time for him to sprout leaves as well. The birds returned to build their nests, and everything was as it should be.
The years passed, and the young tree watched the seasons go by. He laughed as the squirrels chased each other around the meadow, and he gasped as a butterfly narrowly escaped a frog. He thrilled as a flock of starlings swooped down and away in a flutter of wings.
During one particularly bad storm, part of the hillside washed away. This made the young tree sad, for he always liked the flowers that grew there. But the tall tree comforted him, saying, “Don’t cry little tree. Sometimes things change whether we like it or not.”
“Well, I don’t like it!” said the little tree. But he tried to be strong like the tall tree.
Many seasons passed, and the young tree grew bigger and stronger. The tall tree looked down at him and smiled. “You’re becoming a fine tree indeed,” he said. But the young tree knew he still wasn’t as big and strong as the tall tree, even though the old tree had lost a few branches from all the storms he had weathered.
Then one summer, the tall tree became sick. He had overcome countless injuries in his life, but this illness was stronger than anything he had ever encountered.
The tall tree grew weaker. His bark became brittle, and he could no longer hold up his branches. The young tree wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do, he could only look on helplessly.
Finally one summer evening, the tall tree could not hold himself up any longer. He took his final breath, and he died.
The little tree, who was no longer little, felt sad and alone as he stood on the cold mountaintop. His leaves fell like raindrops and he bowed his branches. He didn’t know what to do. The old tree had always been there to watch over him, to show him what to do next.
As the winds turned colder and the birds flew south, the tree stood alone. He no longer enjoyed watching the seasons pass. The world froze around him as snowflakes fell, and he wished the snow would bury him forever.
All winter long, storms pummeled the hillside, but the tree did not budge. He clung to the earth and slept beneath the snow and ice.
After what seemed a very long time, the days became longer, and the snow melted. The tree awoke to an empty gray world. He knew he ought to be doing something, but he couldn’t remember what it was.
Then he felt a tingling sensation in his branches, and noticed buds sprouting into fresh new leaves. But how was this possible?
He heard a chirping sound, and looked up to see the birds returning from their winter travels. He was surprised when they started to land in his own branches.
“Wait,” he called out to them, “I’m not strong enough to build on!”
“Of course you are,” the birds chirped. Meanwhile, two squirrels began to chase each other around the hillside. A rabbit peeked out from the grass, munching on a flower.
“No wait, this is all wrong,” said the tree. “Don’t you see that the old tree is gone? I can never do what he did.”
“Yes you can,” chirped the birds, “you’re doing it right now. And we need you now more than ever.”
“But it’s too hard, I can’t do this alone,” said the tree, feeling more helpless than ever.
“You’re not alone,” said a voice behind him.
He looked around, but it was not a bird or a squirrel who spoke. It was another tree, much like himself, growing nearby. And there was another tree near that one. And another. In fact, the whole mountainside was covered with trees.
“We all miss the old tree,” said one of them kindly, “but we have to carry on his work, we have to pass down what he taught us. That’s what he would want us to do.”
The young tree blinked through his tears. He looked out across the hillside, where a field of fresh flowers was blooming. Then he looked up into the vast blue sky and stretched out his branches as high as he could, as the birds landed and began to build their nests.
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Like most of my stories, that one was inspired by true events. My own father passed away last fall, and the ensuing months have been challenging. But I also count myself fortunate in many ways. My creative pursuits have provided both an escape from real life and a way to explore it more fully, to try and make sense of it all.
I have no plans for this story, and it would have likely remained hidden in my notebooks with so many of its cousins, except that I had a need to share it. And even if only five people ever read it, that’s okay. It’s the sharing that counts.
The start of a new year is often a time for making big plans, but this year I don’t have such ambitions, I’ve seen too many big plans fall by the wayside. This year I’ll be looking for small gains, small rewards, like the tiny shells on the beach that get overlooked, and yet that very fact makes them special. And if I’m the only one who sees their value, perhaps that’s all the more reason to protect and nurture them. So I’ll continue to write and draw, and tell stories in every medium that I can, and share them with anyone who wants to listen.
Thanks for reading this terribly long post. Now I’m off to look for shells.