In my surprising new career as office manager for Arbor Art Tree Care, Inc., I’ve learned all kinds of things about arboriculture: varieties of arborvitaes, the value of a sharp, precise cut, and perhaps one of the most important green thumb rules, that there is a proper season for everything.
The warm months are the growing season, when everything is lush and full in vibrant greens, weighted with blooms and fruit. Beneath the bark, deep inside the tiny green stems beneath our feet, flows a warm sap, an elixir of life that forces growth, beauty, and potential. The trees stretch upward, the flowers blossom, the weeds grow too tall, the birds sing, the bees buzz, and there we have it: the season of life.
But then the weather changes and we move into a new season when cold air blankets the trees. Life doesn’t end, but it stills. The sap flowing through the veins of the trees slows. The leaves spend their last days in an explosion of color, and then it’s done. The trees enter a season of rest and what I’ve learned is that this is the time to make those deep, sharp cuts.
The dying season, when the air is cold, the world is gray and brown, and those beautiful, strong branches are cut back, trimmed off, and thinned down. It’s a season of displacement, weightless shifting from one form to another, disfigurement, and a lonely sense of loss.
I’m not sure anymore if I’m talking about the trees or the landscape of my heart. The dying season looks a lot like another empty place setting at the Thanksgiving table this year. It sounds like a voice I no longer hear, and it feels like a deep, searing cut.
When my father-in-law passed away on the twenty-second of September, the landscape of my life changed suddenly and drastically. It grew to encompass members of his family I did not know and in the same moment, pieces of it were chipped away and blown apart. Like the heinous acts of mountain top removal in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, the force of change was violent and I am hollowed, a reed instead of an Oak.
My father-in-law was an exceptional man. He was proud to serve his country in the United States Navy and if you ever decide to travel to Antarctica, you can stop by the research center he built for the scientists who like to live on the edge of the world and study our climate. With time and rising temperatures, I doubt the dock of ice he built is still intact. But his dusty thumbprints are on timbers and frozen nail heads somewhere in the blank white space of Antarctica.
His thumbprints are elsewhere, too: Spain, Guam, California, Memphis, and all over Hopkins County, Kentucky. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of folks lined up in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s to have Jim Mitchell build or remodel their home or business. He didn’t cut corners and he made sure the job was done right and done well from the foundation up. His employees, made up largely of family members, will tell you they had to jack up more than one foundation and repour it to satisfy his perfectionist tendencies.
His thumbprints are all over his family, too. I’m proud of Jim for a lot of reasons. But the lengths to which he would go to do what was best and right for those he loved was valiant and exuberant.
After growing up in various forms of dysfunction, Jim threw himself headlong into the alcoholism he knew so well and added recreational drug use for the fun of it. Generations of Mitchell men had carved a path so straight and wide in that direction, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Jim would pick up the hammer of generational substance abuse and pound the nail of addiction further into himself and his sons. And for a while he did. But there came a day when Jim met Jesus and everything changed. Sometimes it takes a radical meeting, an earth shattering revelation of truth, to blow apart the manacles of addiction and the furrowed avenues of limited understanding. King Jesus did that for Jim. Abruptly the landscape of his life changed and he kicked his addictions and reversed his behavior patterns of dysfunction. The man I fell in love with and married is a testament to the changes Jim made in his life and household. But he wanted more. He wanted those changes for his friends, his clients, and most importantly, his brothers. He wanted a season of life for them. A season so full of growth and vitality that all the long winters that had come before among the men in their family would be abolished, their landscapes changed to bear the weight of the height of summer.
Jim spent years striving toward a life of abundance for himself and his family. In the midst of that striving there were challenges and setbacks, unexpected pitfalls and lonely days of doubt and grieving. I find myself in similar days of doubt and grief, days of yearning when I am heartsick for Home and rest, for clarity and peace.
The trees around me are slowing, growing still and quiet. Every day the guys on our tree crew ascend the urban canopy of Nashville to remove the dead and dying limbs and trees. They cut back the branches that encroach on our homes and trim away the overgrowth. The saw blades buzz sharp and sure and the cuts are perfect. Some of those cuts will lead to new life in the spring, bringing opportunities for new life and beauty. Some of those cuts are the final death blow and like the grief that has changed the landscape of my family forever, the hillsides and walkways where those trees once stood will look different tomorrow, next month, and next year.
Winter. The dying season. I live it anew each day and in the midst of the cold grief I find I am grateful for a couple of things. Autumn is a season of harvest and celebration, when our thoughts turn toward family and bounty, beginning with Thanksgiving and reaching the pinnacle of celebration and joy at Christmas. This year in particular I find myself not only grateful but relieved. I’m relieved that Christmas carols are beginning to play and decorations are coming out of sheds and closets a little at a time. It’s not because I enjoy the shopping or the extra things to fit into my already hectic schedule. It’s because I know there will come a moment when all of it fades. I’ll be somewhere alone and quiet and my vision will narrow to focus on the nativity scene where, in that moment, I will acknowledge hope. I’ll stand or sit or lay for a while and let myself feel hope. I’ll let it sink into my skin and lighten my heart, lending my soul buoyancy as I rest in the promise of Immanuel, God With Us. And then I will lift up my eyes from the nativity to look past you, past me, and see that beyond the grief and death of winter there is more. It is as solid and real as the rough edges of freshly cut wood, crossed at His heart, dripping with the elixir of life.