I’m newly 50. Colleagues, peers, friends and strangers of my age are at the top of their respective games. There are books being published, ladders being climbed, foundations being founded and run. I am witness to much ambition, upward and forward energy, future success. That is not my story.
In my early 30s I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Though I’ve felt fortunate in the path my disease course has taken, its gradual, subtle slide is still there. Year over year I’ve changed, now making the shift from chronically ill to disabled. I’ve made one career shift after the other to accommodate my new realities. I now work just a tiny bit, on a few contracts now and then. And yet, I’m an artist, ordained clergy and a parent — these are identities rather than occupations. Ongoing work is a question of how, not if.
In 2017, working as a pediatric palliative care chaplain I was always on the lookout for grief support resources. I stumbled upon a photo of a tree some call “The Tree of Life.” I was immediately drawn to it. This Sitka Spruce makes its home on the Washington Coast at a place called Kalaloch, in the Olympic National Forest. It sits perched on a ragged cliff, with a view of ocean waves, soft sand and round tumbled rocks. The “Tree of Life” seemed to me an embodiment of life after traumatic loss/change, the integration of grief.
Erosion, wind, storms and tides are all normal happenings on the edge of the sea. This extraordinary tree has experienced the very ground underneath it being scooped away, disappeared. Season after season, the cliff erodes and the tree adapts, lives. Like me, it lives the question of how, not if.
When I made my pilgrimage there in 2017, there were hammocks hung underneath. People climbing in the branches. This summer when I visited again, it was much lower, no longer high enough for hammocks or swings. The hollowed-out space all around the center trunk is lighter, brighter, larger. The tree has sunk lower, its broadly spread roots reaching horizontally, ever more tender, ever more fierce. I crouched to go into that open, underneath space to touch the walls, lay a gentle hand on the roots of the tree.
In July my friend and I brought chairs and our knitting and my dog, of course. Our plan was to spend time with this tree, simply to be there. We witnessed a steady stream of people. Many photos taken. It felt like an event. Like we had all come to hear something, see something, ask something. There was a felt urgency, a spark of worry. I wondered if people might be eager to see the tree before something happens.
I wish I could say that the tree told me everything I need to know. In fact, I don’t know any more than I did about disability or loss or the next right thing. I did find someone to accompany and be accompanied by.
That tree feels like a wise sibling, one who knows much more than I do. They have had to be creative, tenacious, and they’ve had to endure some unimaginable traumatic change, live with grief. They’re disabled. They’re displaced. They are beautiful and ambitious, an artist making art of life.
As the literal ground was swept from underneath them, I wonder what their thoughts were. I wonder, did they ask, what now? What am I to do now? I wonder how angry or disappointed or terrified the tree was? Has it gotten any easier? Have they figured it out? Are they content?
Disability is a curious thing. There’s a constant need for adaptation and creativity. There’s a need for advocacy. I have to ask for help, insist, take up space, have needs, be different. I’ve had to shift my priorities. I’ve been told, commanded, advised, shamed. There’s been empathy but there’s also been so much patronizing, anxiety and false comfort.
Here at 50, I’m reflecting. As I look at that tree, that Sitka spruce who makes a life amidst extraordinary loss/change/trauma/grief, I’m realizing that I am not alone. We consider how, not if we will continue. If they are a “Tree of Life,” a wonder to behold, then so am I. And so are you.
This blog post is created out of a piece I wrote for my college’s alumnae quarterly, published this past fall (Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2023). I’ve spoken and written about the “Tree of Life” many times over the years. Many of you have heard me talk/preach/write about it. It is a constant spiritual companion. When I went to see it again this summer, I was in a time of major uncertainty and discernment. Sometime in between visits to the tree in 2017 and 2023, I had a spiritual direction session with our own Pastor Steve. The phrase “how, not if” came from that discernment session. I will be forever grateful for it. It’s been a comfort, a compass and an encouragement. Thank you, Pastor Steve. The tree and the mantra, “how, not if” have been in conversation, these words are a piece of that conversation. The photos included here are ones I made this summer.