Lessons from the Sweet Gum Tree (Beth)

We have been surrounded by sweet gum trees and the prickly little balls they drop since we arrived here. They remind  me of my childhood back yard where we had one of these trees for years. Wrote a piece about lessons learned from this tree while at a meditation and writing retreat with Dani Shapiro two years ago, just before the lockdown in March, 2020. Check it out here:

It was a wonderful sunny day off from school, or was it after school? I was probably nine or ten, all alone in our backyard, which was filled with natural treasures, planted by the home’s former owner, a president of the local garden club.

Without the usual selection of Highland Avenue playmates and no siblings in sight, I decided to climb a tree. Having mastered the maple and the magnolia and given up on the huge oak at the very back of the yard, I set my sights on a new conquest – that tree with the spiky little balls that grew on it, green in the spring, then brown in the fall, when they dropped down with the leaves. I have come to know only recently it is a sweet gum tree.

Being tall as kids go, and finding a branch within reach,  I took hold with my arms,  walked my feet up the trunk and swung my legs up and over the branch. Good start. Easy beginning. 

From here it was a simple puzzle to solve, coordinating my limbs with the limbs of the tree. One hand on this branch, a foot over on that one, a stretch of arms and standing on tippy toes to reach and grab the next rung up the leafy ladder. I loved feeling enveloped by the leaves and branches. I loved the thrill of moving ever higher toward the sky; the view of my yard from so high above, while being cleverly out of sight from anyone down below. 

Timid at first, I quickly found a rhythm and each new level of successful ascent emboldened me. With confidence, I grabbed the next branch above my left hand, took firm hold of it and released my foot toward the next spot up.

The crack of the wood was such a startling sound it took me a moment to realize I was falling, the dead branch still grasped in that left hand, along for the ride.

I don’t remember when or if I dropped it. I don’t know how I managed to catch another healthy branch on the way down. I do remember the moment after I did, heart pounding, body shaking, and my young mind realizing just what could’ve happened.

Waiting for the shudders to stop, I pondered what would happen to a body when it hits the ground from that height.  How many branches might have banged and bruised me had I not caught hold of one? How long would it have been until I was discovered at the base of the tree and  in what condition – dead, broken, or paralyzed?  The clearest thought, “My mom would kill me!“

I was lucky. The tree had both scared and saved me. I was OK. No broken bones, race to the hospital, pain, discomfort, public embarrassment, or reckoning with mom. 

All these years later, I ask myself, “Did it teach me to trust my daring or to be careful not to reach too high?”

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