Father’s Day Weekend
As “dad” I try to teach my children as much as I can about the important things in life. When they’re little this task is exhausting, but fairly straightforward; ‘take that out of your mouth’, ‘it’s not nice to hit people’, ‘you have to share’, ‘everyone takes a bath’ and so on. It’s as they get a little older that exhaustion gives way to hysteria and parenting gets a lot more complicated.
For example, I have always told my children to tell the truth and not make up stories. This was a principle that I was certain could be found in any good parenting book. But I have discovered that my presumption that truth and tales are mutually exclusive doesn’t fit so neatly with real life. Indeed, my children have taught me that it’s not always clear where the truth ends and a tale begins. And how do you explain to a child how today’s truth may prove to be tomorrow’s tale?
Confronted with this paradox, it dawned on me that the real test of “dad-hood” came down to finding meaningful answers to tough questions about life, while balancing on the fine line between the truth and a tale. As I have been walking this line for 11 years now, I realize that my children have clearly preferred the song of a tale to the edicts of truth. And the more I listened to the music of our tales, the more I began to understand why.
Like the wind that fills a sail, tales fill truth with meaning and help bring it to life. It was my son who helped me realize that truth and tales are actually two sides of the same coin, standing back-to-back, holding each other upright. It’s just that with their backs together, neither one can see how important the other one is.
This is a story of how a tale shared between my son and I 8 years ago helps me remember that truths written on chalkboards or preached in hallowed halls are just words; signposts pointing us in one direction or another. If we’re smart enough, or young enough at heart, we remember the messages of our tales and we carry their spirit with us on our journey to experience the mysteries of life. Before my kids came along I had become so good at spotting tales in truth that I had forgotten how to see the truth in tales. My son got me back on the right path one early summer afternoon in 1998 as we weaved a tale of trees and bugs, and along the way we learned a little something about growing up.
The Trunk and Its Tale
One summer afternoon, as my son (then 3 years old) and I chased each other through the hidden passage-ways of a row of evergreens, we stumbled upon a tree that had a rubber and wire “branch” parting its trunk like a lost arrow. I listened as my son wondered aloud about the possible adventures that could have led the tree to grow such a branch.
“Hey daddy, how did the tree eat this hose and wire?”
I smiled to buy some time but the look on my son’s face reminded me that three year-olds are on a very tight time schedule. So I knelt down, face to face to trunk, and explained that trees don’t eat hoses or wire. I said that the rubber hose and wire were put around the tree a long time ago to hold it up, but apparently the tree had grown so much that it broke the wire and eventually the bark grew right around the hose.
The look on my son’s face stated in no uncertain terms that my answer had failed to live up to his expectations for such an unusual sighting. What I had said was true, but my son had hoped for something more. There had to be a story in there somewhere. Empowered by the moment, we left the truth behind and set out on a journey that would live up to the possibilities of a hose-chewing, wire-eating monster of a tree.
I tried again and this time, I knelt close to my son and whispered (so as to not wake the tree) that a long time ago trees would eat hoses because they thought they were giant tree worms. My son nodded and smiled anxiously as I explained how giant tree worms could wrap themselves around a tree and squeeze them until they could hardly breathe. Then, the worms would spin a web around the tree so that it could never escape. The tree was usually too weak to break out and after a while it would just give up and stay trapped forever.
“Wow. Wait a minute, this wasn’t a worm, it was a hose.”
I know, but this tree must have thought that it was a worm, and in a panic ate it. The tree can laugh about it now, but at the time it must have taken a lot of courage to stand up to such a giant worm. It takes a lot to face our fears, and this tree shows how silly our fears can turn out to be once we face them head-on (or eat them).
“But when the tree bit into the hose and found out it wasn’t a worm, how come it didn’t just spit it out?”
The tree ate the hose out of fear, but now it keeps the it close to its heart so it can remember how far it has come and what it took to get there. The tree wears the hose like a badge of bravery. This way it will never forget that sometimes it takes courage to grow up.
“But how can a hose teach a tree to be brave?”
You see when trees are little, its parents try to do their best to take good care of them and make sure that they are safe so that they can grow up to be big and strong. To do this, sometimes they need to wrap them up in things, like rubber hose or strips of cloth.
“Does it keep them warm?”
“Well, not exactly warm from the cold, but it does make them feel warm inside knowing that someone loves them so much and will always be with them.
“What about the wire?”
“Once the tree is good and wrapped up, the wire is used to give the little tree something to hang on to, even in the worst storms.”
“Does it hurt the tree?”
“Maybe a little bit. But they’re little hurts, and little hurts make sure no big hurts happen.
Well, when the wind blows really hard, the wire may hurt a little as it tightens around the trunk. These are little hurts. Now if the wire wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be any little hurts, but if the wind blew really hard, the tree might break and that would hurt a lot.
“But why does it have to hurt at all?”
Just because something hurts doesn’t mean it’s bad. The little hurts actually teach the tree about growing up. You see, there are things in life that the tree can’t control like whether it will be sunny and warm or windy and cold. When it’s sunny and warm, the tree is happy and can grow a lot. But when it’s windy and cold, the tree may be sad and even a little bit scared, so it’s afraid to do much growing. But just because the tree can’t control these things, it can’t stop living; it has to change with the world around it.
“Brrrrr, I don’t like cold days.”
Even though the cold doesn’t feel so good, it helps the tree learn about growing up. It’s the cold days that teach the tree what things are good for growing and what things aren’t. Think of it this way, when a tree wakes up on a cold day it says, “My branches are shivering, my leaves are stiff and my bark is frozen. Nope, it’s too cold to try to grow today. I’ll just save my strength for the next warm and sunny day.” And when it wakes up on a warm sunny day, it looks around and says, “Birds chirping, sunny skies, warm temperatures, Hurray! I can grow a lot today!”
“I like sunny days!”
But see, if it was sunny every day, the tree would get lazy about growing. It might figure, “I can grow any day, so I’ll just take it easy today.” Pretty soon, the tree takes it easy so much that it forgets about growing. And without any cold and windy days there is nothing to remind the tree how special the warm days are. So the tree takes everything for granted, until all of sudden, the tree isn’t even happy on warm sunny days.
Yep, that’s why it is important to have both warm and cold days. It’s the cold days that make warm days feel warm. So on really cold days, the tree should be happy knowing that the colder it gets today, the warmer it will feel tomorrow. And the warmer it feels tomorrow, the more it can grow!
“But if it hurts to grow, even just little hurts, why does the tree grow at all?”
From the time it was born, the tree had everything it needed to grow up to be big and strong. Its roots were made to drink and eat food, its trunk was made to take the food up to the branches, the branches were made to hold the leaves up to the sun, and the leaves were made to take the sunshine and turn it into more food for the tree to grow. And when all the parts of the tree are doing what comes naturally, they’re happy and the tree looks beautiful.
“But can’t the tree just stop growing?”
The tree can try to stop growing, but not growing only avoids the little hurts today, and it actually sets the tree up for a big fall later on. Although the trees don’t always realize it, not growing can hurt more than growing. The difference is just when and how the hurts happen.
“What do you mean?”
You see, when the tree stops growing it doesn’t feel any more little hurts so it thinks, ‘Hey this is great! No more hurts, not growing is good’. But the trouble is, stopping growing goes against the nature of the tree, and pretty soon the roots, branches and leaves no longer feel needed, they don’t know what to do with themselves, and they don’t feel important anymore. Sure, they keep the tree alive, but when they stop growing, they get stiff from being stuck in one place for so long.
“Maybe they can just rest for a little while, like a nap.”
Resting for a little while is fine, like on cold days, but resting for a little while can easily turn into a long while. And when that happens the tree loses its flexibility and becomes brittle. And worst of all, the parts of the tree that would usually be hard at work to keep it growing, begin to rot from the inside-out from lack of use. Now the tree might not feel it, but the rot weakens the tree and makes it an easy target for killer tree bugs.
“What’s a tree bug look like?”
Tree bugs come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share one thing in common (besides great big teeth)– they love to eat trees! You see, tree bugs are always hungry and trees are their favorite food. And once they’ve found the right tree, they tell all their friends and before you know it, they work their way deep into the tree and suck the life right of it.
And the worst part is that the tree might not even know that any of this is happening until it’s too late. Most of the time, the tree never imagines that it started all this trouble when it decided to stop growing.
“You mean the tree made the tree bugs?”
The tree didn’t actually make the bugs, but as soon as the bugs hear a tree complaining about how the wood rot hurts here, and how tired their branches are, how the weather gets worse every day, and how the other trees don’t seem to care, they start looking for the menu because they know they’ve found an ‘all-you-can-eat tree buffet.’
“So what happens to a tree with bugs in it?”
It depends. Some trees never really catch on and they just say ‘Oh well, it was meant to be’ or ‘its part of nature’s plan’ and they let the rot and the bugs carry on until eventually they knock the tree down. Now some trees will get mad and try to break off their branches that are rotting or bug infested, but this can only go on so long until there is nothing left of the tree. Then there are other trees that try to act like nothing is happening. They tell themselves that their bark looks fine, so there can’t be anything wrong. But after time, a hollow tree collapses.
That’s right. Now there are some trees that try to take care of themselves. They work on regaining some flexibility by exercising and stretching in the wind. Unfortunately, they can’t always remember how to go from stretching to growing. And even though stretching helps make it easier to grow, if a tree doesn’t grow, stretching only prolongs the fall.
The good news is that once and awhile one of the trees, feeling good after stretching, may actually grow. The tree might not even realize what it did but all of a sudden it feels a little better. Its branches feel refreshed. It feels a little more in control of its life. Little hurts aren’t so scary anymore. All of a sudden the tree will start to remember how good it feels to grow and how much energy it had when it was little and spent all of its time growing.
“But a tree can’t keep growing forever or it would get so big that it would fall over.”
You’re right. The tree has to be careful about how tall it grows so that it doesn’t fall over, but that doesn’t mean it has to stop growing altogether.
“But doesn’t growing mean getting taller?”
When the tree is little growing seems to be the same thing as getting taller. But as the tree gets older it has to realize that growing isn’t only about getting taller, it’s about understanding its role in the forest and taking care of the other trees. Sure some trees may try to use being tall as an excuse and say “Well, that’s that, I am tall enough, so now I can stop growing.” But that tree doesn’t look so tall after the tree bugs finish with it, does it?
“Nope. But if it doesn’t grow taller, how does it grow?”
Getting taller may be the most obvious way a tree grows, but it’s not the only way. The tree can grow in lots of little ways that aren’t as easy to see, but are still very important. The thing is, growing taller was easy for the tree, it came naturally. But once the tree is tall, it has to actually think and make choices about growing. This can be hard and frustrating. When trees have to make their own decisions, they’re going to make some mistakes, and some trees would rather not risk making any mistakes.
“Yea but what about “try, try again”?”
You’re right, but some trees figure that once they’re all grown up it wouldn’t look good for them to make mistakes, and they don’t want face the hurt of making more mistakes, so they think they’re better off not doing anything at all.
“That’s pretty silly.”
Of course it is. Now there are other trees that do the opposite and try to do everything. But these trees don’t think about growing either, they just figure ‘on your mark, get set, grow!’ And they end up sending their branches and roots all over the place. But because they’re not thinking about what they’re doing, they’re never really happy because they don’t have any idea about where they’re growing.
“You mean trees get lost?”
Absolutely. Just because a tree is big doesn’t mean it can’t get lost. Sometimes trees get so busy branching out they stop paying attention to where they are standing. And before you know it, the tree is so big and has so many branches going every which way, it can’t even see the ground to try to figure out where it is.
You can always tell who these trees are because they talk about how great things used to be or how someday good things are going to happen to them again. Sadly, these trees seem to think, “If I just send out a few more branches or get a little higher, maybe then I’ll be able to get back to where I was or high enough to see what’s coming.” And the more energy they spend looking behind and ahead, the farther away they get from the answers they are so desperately searching for.
“Are the answers buried under a rock?”
“Where are they?”
Believe it or not, the tree already has the answers, it just doesn’t remember where it put them. The answers are only hidden because the tree forget where they are.
“I hate when I can’t remember where I put things.”
But you have to keep looking. Some trees may go for years without even looking. And when they think about starting to look, they always come up with a million excuses of why it’s not a good time or how they’ll never find them, so why bother trying. It’s hard work to look, and if it takes a long time, it can be really frustrating.
“Yea but it feels great when you remember and then you go and find it.”
That is a great feeling isn’t it. And after you find it, don’t you feel silly having spent so much time looking everywhere except right where you put it to begin with? Sometimes you even get mad at yourself thinking ‘I knew it was there all along, how could I have forgotten! And how many times did I look right at it but not see it sitting right in front of me!’ That’s when you realize that there is a difference between looking and seeing. You can look right at things but not actually see them.
“It’s like when you tell me to pay attention to what I am doing.”
Exactly. When you pay attention you see things better and sometimes you can avoid falling or hitting your head just by paying closer attention. Paying attention is a lot like waking up. When you wake up, your eyes open and all of a sudden you can see everything that’s been around you that you couldn’t see before because your eyes were closed.
“So how can we wake up the tree?”
How do you like to wake up? Do you like it when your sister comes in and bonks you on the head and wakes you up? Or do you like it better when you wake up on your own? I don’t know about you but I like to wake up on my own and open my eyes slowly. Although sometimes I do need someone to nudge me a little and wake me up so that I don’t miss something important.
“What happens when the tree wakes up?”
Think about what happens when you wake up. First you reach way up high with your arms, you stretch your legs way out straight, and you arch your back way-back. Then you wiggle your toes and your fingers, and you crinkle your nose and you start to open your eyes. It’s sort of like checking out all of your parts to make sure everything is still working.
That’s what the tree has to do too. It has to start by checking out all of its parts. It has to wiggle its roots in the dirt, and stretch its stiff bark and shake a few leaves. It has to pay attention. One tree told me that when it pays attention it can actually hear the water being sucked up by its roots and feel it being pumped up the trunk until it reaches the leaves who smack their lips as they drink the cool water after being in the hot sun.
“Mmmmm. That sounds good.”
It is good because as the tree checks out its parts, it will toss the dead leaves and decayed branches, it will kick out the bugs, and it will start to heal old wounds. This may take the tree a long time, but each day, it gets a little healthier and it can see a little clearer. Until one day, the tree suddenly says ‘Hey, not only can I see the branches, but I can actually see my leaves and roots and branches all at once!’
When this happens, the tree realizes that its roots tell a story about where it came from, and the trunk shows where it is now, while the branches dream about where the tree is going. When all of these come together, the tree feels whole again, and it knows where it needs to grow to find the happiness that it has been looking for all along. The tree realizes that it is finally home.
“Is that like a tree-house?”
That’s the idea, and just like your house, a tree house is a place where the tree lives with its family and plays with its friends. It’s a place where the tree can feel safe and loved and free to grow. It’s a place of comfort and shelter from storms.
“Oh no, do storms knock the tree-houses down?”
Sometimes they can, but storms will also wake up sleeping trees — although it’s a lot harder way of waking up. When big storms come through they knock down a lot of trees and tear off a lot of branches. These storms are often tragic but after they’re done, they will have cleared room for each tree to stop and look around to see where it is.
Often, when the trees see how fragile they are amidst the winds of a storm, they stop trying to grow only for themselves and they start thinking about growing in a way that helps all of the other trees grow too. After a storm, the trees realize that all of the trees are in the forest together, and even though they don’t all look alike and they don’t all grow at the same rate, each of them contribute to the beauty of the forest and none of them can stand alone for very long. Trees that survive big storms understand that there is room for every tree in the forest. The forest is really the biggest tree-house of all; it’s the place where all of the families of trees live and grow together.
“Do the trees all get along then?”
Just like you and your friends, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
Some trees like to think, “Now that I am big, I can do what I want. I’m going to grow a branch here, then another one there. Then I’ll send some roots there and add a few extra leaves over here. Better yet, I’ll grow the biggest branch ever and all the other trees will see how great I am.” Trees that think like this are setting themselves up for a fall, and worse yet, because they are so big, when they fall they knock down other trees too.
“But that’s not fair.”
No it’s not very fair, but trees like that don’t think about being fair. Every day they take food, water and sunshine away from a lot of other trees that need it too. Pretty soon, the smaller trees start leaving until the big tree is finally all by itself. And a tree that is all by itself has a hard time surviving since it has no other trees to lean on when the winds blow really hard, or cover up with when it rains or when the sun is hot.
It’s sad because the tree knows better in its heart. It knows that sharing and caring is better for everyone. It knows that when trees share they all grow together, and when they all grow together, the forest thrives.
It’s sad because the trees are so close, but they just can’t see it.
Like weary travelers, we rested for a few minutes to catch our breath and let it all soak in. We had covered a lot of ground. I sat and looked again at the tree that started us down this tale. It was easy to see how the tree trunk had grown around the original tree-stake tubing that was never removed. It was also clear that this happened many years ago, as the tubing was buried within years of new growth in the trunk.
These were the facts, but this was not the greater truth offered by the tree. The facts were based on observation not exploration. By looking with my son, I saw how truth is actually more than the sum of its parts. I was reminded that truth unfolds all around us, especially in our tales.
My son and I had stumbled upon a tree that rather than allowing itself to be choked by an old wrap, decided that it made more sense to grow around the wrap, so that it could get back to its more important business of reaching skyward. We all have our own tree-stakes that hold us back or afflict us in one way or another and prevent us from reaching skyward. The story of the tree reminds us that we were not made for tree-stakes; rather, the tree-stakes were made for us. And when the day comes that the comfort of our tree-stake begins to rub and tighten around our core, remember the tree that so naturally and gracefully grew around it.
If we are to grow and experience the richness of life, we must be true to ourselves. We must be like the tree who chooses which stakes to keep and which stakes to break free from. When we try to ignore our tree-stakes, lament over them, or fight with them, we merely serve to tighten their grip over our lives. Too often we forget what every tree and flower seems to know by nature; that we are the keepers of our own gardens. And ultimately, we empower the stakes to either hold us back or support new growth.
Life moves forward, ever branching out like the tree. What we achieve in this life depends upon our capacity to experience it. There will be times when our tree-stakes prevent us from fulfilling our dreams. But like the tree, when we grow through our restraints, we are forever changed by them, and we draw upon the energy of liberation to scale new heights.
As I make my climb, I will think often of the truth revealed that afternoon and the pride I felt as my son, after a few more moments of thoughtful reflection, took my hand and said:
“Come on dad, we need to tell the other trees about this.”