The Aspen Tree

Typically, when people think about vulnerability, they think about sentiments I discussed last week, feelings of weakness, helplessness, exposure. Yet vulnerability is the birthplace of our greatest strength, an inherently empowering experience and position to be in, one in which we can strip layers of ourselves that no longer serve us, layers that have hurt us, and step forward into the person it is we are capable of becoming, the person we want to become.

Cañada Bonita, the trail my dad first taught my sister and I to mountain bike on when we were around 5 and 7

One of my favorite trees is the Aspen. To me, it is the Jemez mountains, where I grew up, and Southern Colorado, which has always been a second home, since my parents took us frequently throughout childhood. The sound of the quaking Aspen leaves, the smell of the Earth and the clean air where they grow, all feel like home to me.

I have fond memories of my parents pulling us out of school on the best fall days, when the weather was still warm and there was just the slightest, gentlest breeze, when the Aspens were at their peak, to take us to the Santa Fe ski basin or up in the Jemez mountains, for an all day hike and picnic. My parents would call us out of school, telling the teachers they were taking us out for a mental health day (I remember every teacher I had coming up to me, beaming, and saying: “what a wonderful and important gift and lesson from your parents”, ironically, I was at Aspen Elementary School when my parents started this tradition). They would pack picnic lunches, or we would stop on the way for treats, and they would remind us that we were responsible for any makeup work we missed, but this day, this was our day. They valued the family time and wanted to teach my sisters and me that THIS, this is what life is about: spending a beautiful Tuesday in the middle of September with loved ones, prioritizing nature and love and family, taking time for a “mental health day” as my mom called it, taking time to slow down and appreciate life for all of it’s simplicity, all of it’s natural beauty.

Aspen trees are a pioneer species, they are one of the first species to grow in a burn area after a wildfire has destroyed and burned everything. They serve as a nurse crop to allow conifers to eventually grow on the burned area.

Last summer, I was running in the mountains in a remote area with my sister, it was the perfect summer day, the weather must have been in the high 70s or low 80s with a slight breeze, enough to make the Aspen leaves quake. I stopped and closed my eyes, turning my face toward the sun, allowing the warmth to wash over me as I listened to the Aspens, as I breathed in the damp Earth and the clean air from all the plants around me. That was the first time I had a feeling of “I will be okay, this will be okay…someday…” and I felt it viscerally, almost at a cellular level, a change in my body, mind, soul, telling me that I would be okay. It had been a long 9 or so months, but the heavy weight I carried was beginning to lessen, not every day was as painful. Some days, for a moment, and it might be brief, but it was there, breathing didn’t hurt so much.

I remembered a moment when I actually found out about the baby, and realized that, in hindsight, I’d known for months – months that we still lived together and I thought everything was great.

It was a Saturday morning and I was playing on the floor with the soon-to-turn four-year-old, my ex was right next to us, washing dishes in the kitchen. The child said to me: “mommy has new brother (it sounded like “bruddah” the way he said it in his three-year-old voice) or sister in belly”, and I remember looking at my ex to see if he reacted, I thought it was weird he didn’t tell me his ex was pregnant, and my first thought was: “thank GOD, she finally moved on”. It never came up again for the following 5 months we lived together, it didn’t even come up when, confused and dismayed, I packed up and left NYC.

I breathed in the Aspens, the magnificent blue New Mexico sky, breathed in this moment, and started running again. One foot in front of the of the other, that’s all you have to do, Laura, just place one foot in front of the other… Aspen trees were beginning to build me back up, growing and flourishing over the burn scars, bringing new life, new vitality, regeneration where I had been burned. I would be okay. Life would be okay. 

IMG_1655After a wildfire rips through the Earth, or your life, that position of vulnerability itself is empowering, it is at that point where insight, creativity, strength, and regeneration begin. It is strength and empowerment. The land, or your life, will never look the same, but there is opportunity for growth, for beauty, for rebirth. The burn scars may never fully disappear, but they will become less visible over time as new layers, new life, grow and build over them.

Whatever you are going through, have gone through, or will go through, remember to be patient with yourself, with time, and remember that even after the most damaging fire, new life is always, always possible. Some scars will never disappear, some hurt will never disappear, but the human capacity to recover, indeed nature’s ability to recover and heal itself, to bring new life to devastation, is truly extraordinary.

And, please, remember that recovery does not mean never feeling loss or pain or grief again, it means finding beauty and joy in spite of it, it means living with the paradox of the emotions and experiences and realizing you can live with both, realizing that they are not mutually exclusive. It is realizing that human life is a complex web of complimentary and paradoxical emotions and experiences.

22 mile run on a beautiful day in October, running through a burn area now covered in young Aspens

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

~ Brené Brown

Run on, my friends.


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