The Roots of Strength
By: Lynn Jaffee
There is no doubt that we’re living in trying times. People have lost loved ones to the Covid pandemic, businesses have shuttered, jobs have gone away, schools have closed their classrooms and lives have been changed in ways that can never be repaired. In addition, we have become sharply divided as a country, with many people ghosting family members and friends over their political views or their opinions of whether or not to get vaccinated or wear a mask.
Getting through this pandemic has demanded many things from us; the ability to deal with loss, flexibility, financial sacrifice, self-reliance and a good measure of personal strength. While each of these things are a challenge in their own right, the strength to go on day after day in the face of tragedy with no end in sight is one of the hardest.
Having cared for my adult son with terminal cancer has taught me a lot about strength. And when I think of strength, I think of trees—one tree in particular—that has gotten me through some of the darkest days of my life.
I live in Minnesota, in a part of the state that’s blessed with city lakes surrounded by biking trails and walking paths, canoe rentals and sailboat morings. There are parks throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, and one of my favorites is a small patch of woods that runs along a creek. The park is hilly, shaded and a little boggy in spots.
Just outside the border of the park, across the railroad tracks stands one of the tallest white pine trees I’ve ever seen. It’s actually at the edge of someone’s yard, guarding two white Adirondack chairs badly in need of a coat of paint. This tree is my touchstone; my source of strength.
About five years ago, the tree was struck by lightning. The scar is still visible where it hit the top and ran down the entire trunk of the tree and into the ground. At the time, there was a great deal of speculation as to whether the tree could survive such a hit, and we checked it every time we came to the park, hopeful. Over the next year or so, it became clear that the tree was stronger than the bolt of lightning, and while some branches died, this majestic giant would survive.
The tree still stands today with its scar defiantly showing. During my son’s illness, this tree became my symbol, my totem of strength. Despite a life-altering assault, the tree stands strong, spanning the space between the spiritual world of Heaven and the groundedness of Earth. In Chinese theory, the tree also represents the fundamental element of wood. In order to be healthy, it must be strong, yet flexible; otherwise it will snap and break at the first sign of distress. Wood, however, is also represented by the first tiny green shoots that pop out of the ground in the spring. Wood is strength and flexibility, but it is also about potential and hope and rebirth.
The energy of wood rises upward slowly and gently like sap moving from trunk to branches. Interestingly, the emotion tied to wood is that of anger, which occurs when that gentle upward energy rises hot, fast and out of control like a volcano. Wood energy is also about having clear vision and sense of purpose. You can see this sense of purpose at work in the spring—the season associated with wood. It’s the time of year when every green thing springs into life and sprouts upward, regardless of obstructions, like a weed growing through a crack in the sidewalk.
During the days when my son was sick; days that were long and painful, I imagined myself as that white pine tree. I meditated on that tree as a way to tap into the strength of the universe. In my mind, I surrounded the tree with my arms until I became a part of it, growing taller and stronger as I took on its identity. I asked the universe to let me be that tree—spiritual and wise, but with my roots firmly grounded in the earth beneath my feet. I needed to exist in the here and now and be strong to be able to support those around me. Solid and durable, but flexible without breaking.
I got up every morning and meditated on that white pine. Then I got dressed and did what any other parent would do; I took care of my kid. In the end, like that white pine I learned that through adversity we’re able to survive and even grow stronger. Hard times are the seeds of growth that nurtures insight, vision, flexibility, patience and even kindness. We grow and survive because like the plants and trees, we’re programmed to do so.