“. . . and the tree was happy”


For the longest time, I wondered how a cute little children’s book that I’d always held dear could evoke such strong and polarizing emotions in adults. And yet, if my experience is representative of the whole – and I have reason to suspect it is – that’s precisely the case with Shel Silverstein’s 1964 classic, The Giving Tree. Trust me, you’ll find very few readers in the gray area on this one. People either “love it” or they “hate it”, but in both instances they do so with great passion. And, I think I finally understand why: It’s the juxtaposition of the image above and the 5 words that accompany it – “and the tree was happy.” I’ve actually gotten into some spirited discussions with “the haters” over the years and most thoroughly enjoy the book right up to the time that the no-longer-so-little-boy becomes a selfish ingrate, who is indifferent to the tree’s existence – save for the extent to which he might be able to use the tree to acquire the material things and enhance the relationships he grows to covet.

But, it’s the tree’s response to the growing boy’s ingratitude that irks “the haters” the most. You see, in spite of her friend’s cold indifference, the tree continues to give – and to love – first urging the boy to sell the entirety of her harvest of apples, then insisting that he strip her of her very branches and use them to build a home and, finally, donating her trunk so that he can build a boat and sail away – and, hopefully/ finally/maybe be happy! Eventually, approaching death’s doorstep, the boy returns for what will likely be his final visit. To “the haters” it’s what happens next that is most unsettling: Despite having every reason to turn her back on her childhood friend and already having given him her leaves, branches, apples and trunk, the tree gladly offers all that she has left (i.e., her stump) as a place for her bone-weary friend to sit and rest. Indeed, “the haters” are convinced that had her friend needed to grind her stump, the tree likely would have complied. In my mind (and that of “the lovers”) there is no “likely” about it!

I have no doubt Silverstein chose that image and those 5 words for a reason, namely to illustrate the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of a giver’s heart. His fictional tree is intended to remind all of us that, at the end of the day, our true beauty, our self-worth and the fullness of our life, indeed our happiness, is not dependent on how we look, what we possess or how we compare, physically or otherwise, to those around us, but rather the extent to which we empty ourselves in serving and loving others. The fact is: Silverstein’s heroine could have been the most magnificent apple tree in the orchard. Its trunk could have been sturdy and straight – perfect for climbing. Its branches could have been especially well-proportioned and strong, perfect for swinging. Its leaves could have been lush, exquisitely defined and brightly colored, perfect for weaving into a crown. Its fruit could have been plentiful and delicious, ideal for a mid-afternoon snack. Its canopy could have cast a broad net of shade, a welcome respite from the hot summer sun.

And yet, without the ability to share – lovingly, selflessly, unhesitatingly, whole-heartedly, unconditionally – all that it had to give with the boy and without the boy’s corresponding willingness to accept and embrace those gifts, even if it wasn’t always with an appropriately grateful and reciprocating heart, it would have been just another tree anonymously blowing in the wind, subjected to the vagaries of the elements of nature, destined, like all of the other trees in the forest, to live out its life, wither away, and die. As it was, however, the tree’s life was full and its joy abundant, albeit not in the “smiley face” way we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and experiencing happiness and not without its share of longing and heartache along the way. Why? Because the tree came to understand that selfless (okay, sacrificial!) giving and loving is the essence of Life. It’s also an integral (I would submit indispensable) part of what it means to be fully human in a world of thirsting hearts.

Silverstein makes it clear that it’s not always easy being the tree. She certainly had her share of sadness. But, in The End, she was happy – I promise!


Do You Really Know Your Own Strength?

how strong you are

On September 27, 2014, Steven Souza, Jr., a rookie outfielder for the Washington Nationals, made one of the most remarkable catches of the 2014 MLB season, if not in the history of Major League Baseball. The catch was doubly spectacular for at least two reasons. First, it came with two outs in the ninth inning and preserved a no-hitter by Jordan Zimmerman – only the 5th no-hitter in a season-ending game and the first of Zimmerman’s career and in Nationals’ history. Second, if you had been able to freeze time at the moment the ball left the bat of Florida Marlins’ outfielder Christian Yelich and polled everyone in the stadium, including Zimmerman, who “stepped off the mound, flung his head back and stared up at the sky” convinced that his bid for his no-hitter was gone, not a single one of them would have given Souza any chance of making the grab (“A double,” Zimmermann replied when asked what he thought when the ball left Yelich’s bat – “A no-doubt double”). As incredible as Souza’s improbable catch was, however, it was what he said in a post-game interview that stopped me in my tracks: “I didn’t know how I was going to get there,”Souza remarked, reflecting on the historic grab. “I just knew I had to!” (http://wapo.st/1rtY1Bk)

Souza’s remarks struck me, in part, because they closely echoed those made by Jason Lezak, a highly-decorated U.S. swimmer moments after swimming the anchor leg of the Men’s 4 x 100 Meter Relay at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Like Souza, Lezak’s performance was impressive enough standing alone, but this was no “ordinary” anchor leg. To the contrary, Lezak’s gold medal-securing performance would enable his teammate, Michael Phelps to break Mark Spitz’s record of 7 individual gold medals in a single Olympics – a record that had stood for 36 years and to most was thought to be unbreakable. Even more impressively, if you had hit the “pause” button at the instant Lezak left the blocks (or, for that matter, at the 60 meter mark!) and asked the most astute swimming experts – none would have given Lezak any chance of overcoming the body length lead held by then 100 meter freestyle world-record holder, Frenchman, Alain Bernard (Announcer: “The United States is just trying to hold onto second here . . .”). What they didn’t know and what even Lezak couldn’t have imagined was that he was about to swim the fastest relay split in history: “I remember thinking,” Lezak said “there’s no way I can catch this guy. I just have to finish this race as hard as I can.” (http://tinyurl.com/cl3r2x6).

Chances are we will never find ourselves in a MLB outfield, let alone chasing down a fly ball in the gap with our team’s and pitcher’s first no-hitter hanging in the balance, nor are we likely to mount the starting blocks at the Summer Olympics and be asked to swim the anchor leg of a relay matched against the fastest swimmer in the world – though maybe someone reading these words will end up doing one or both of those things! However, it is considerably more likely than not that, before our lives are over, all of us and/or someone we love dearly will be confronted with an obstacle that by any (all?) objective measure seems wholly insurmountable. Maybe it will take the form of a battle with a physical, emotional or psychological illness, the loss of a job or business when we least expect and can least afford it or, perhaps, it will accompany the unexpected death of parent, spouse, child, sibling or friend. Or maybe it will be in a form “less obvious” to most: confronting the next meal, surviving a difficult class, writing a paper you’re dreading, achieving a goal, earning a degree – paying next month’s bills. Regardless of the “shape” those obstacles may take there is much to be learned from Messrs. Souza and Lezak in confronting them:

1. Whether you’re a “rookie” or a seasoned veteran (apologies Jason, but at the ripe “old” age of 33, you qualified as “seasoned”!) when it comes to obstacle-confronting a moment of self-doubt is inescapable. The key is recognizing it for what it is (i.e., a perfectly human response to adversity) and ensuring that it stays a “moment” and isn’t allowed to become a millstone.

2. There are no short-cuts on the road to becoming an “Overcomer”. Souza wasn’t “magically” teleported to the ball or Lezak to the wall. Each got there one determined, purposeful step (and stroke) at a time. And so it is with overcoming our “everyday” challenges and adversities: The journey begins with a single forward step – followed by another – until the goal is achieved.

3. While neither could be guaranteed success, indeed objectively, anything but success seemed the more likely outcome, Souza and Lezak did not allow themselves to entertain the possibility of failure or to be paralyzed by the fear of it. Instead, both viewed the achievement of their goal as the only alternative then put their “heads down” and went after it – and so must we.

4. Souza and Lezak didn’t bother “consulting” with others about their respective chances of accomplishing the seemingly Herculean tasks before them and it’s good that they didn’t, because they would have been hard-pressed to find a single believer. Why? Because, having never previously been tested at their limits not even Souza and Lezak, let alone complete “strangers” could have known their full capabilities.

5. Self-talk matters, as does single-mindedness of purpose.

Jason Lezak and Steven Sousa are living, breathing examples of the truth of the words written on the back of the young woman in the picture above in action.  Their superhuman athletic feats are a visual reminder of our capacity to meet and overcome challenges that, in the moment, may seem impossible to navigate. I certainly don’t wish adversity on anyone, but when it finds its way to your doorstep, as it inevitably will, I do wish this: that sometime before you kick its uninvited butt back out, you will have come to more fully realize just how strong, courageous, resilient and  competent you really are – and that you were not meant to break!



home is where is the heart is

“Well they say it’s where the heart is
and I guess the hardest part is
when your heart is broken
and you’re lost out in the great wide open
looking for a map, finding your way back
to where you belong – oh, and that’s where I belong.”

Coming Home (Country Strong Soundtrack)

I grew up believing that “home” is a place. But, 20 places later, I’ve finally come to realize it’s not. Home is a feeling – actually it’s a collection of feelings. Oh sure, the feelings may be (and often are) tied to a place, but the place is really secondary to the emotions it evokes, the things that make it a home. What are those things? I’m sure they’re different for everyone, but, for me, home is where I feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, where I’m free to express myself without reservation or fear of being judged, where I can seek shelter from the storms that rage inside or around me or simply be quiet and still, where my heart, fully exposed, is safe – where I can share my truth comforted in the knowledge that it will be met with understanding, compassion and empathy, rather than received as an indictment of someone else’s personhood. In short, home is everything the houses of my childhood (8 in all) were not.

I’d like to think I did a better job in my own children’s lives, that I learned something from the dysfunction and disconnectedness of my own childhood, that one day, when they look back on the houses of their growing up, they will associate them with “home” – not because of the creature comforts with which they were accessorized, but because of the memories that were created there, the support and love that were offered there and the “space” that they afforded to grow and express their individuality.  In some ways, I’m sure I did. In fact, I know I did. Still, in my ignorance of what a real “home” was supposed to look and feel like, I also know in my heart that I fell as woefully short in my role as a builder of their home as I have in finding my own – and it is a source of considerable sadness for me, because I now see clearly just how important home is.

I take some consolation in knowing that, almost in spite of me, each found “homes” of their own. For my daughter, “home” was a stage, the back of a horse, in front of a camera, immersed in a book (or movie) – engaged in song. That’s where she found peace and the freedom to create, to share her talents, to entertain and challenge herself – a sense of community and belonging. My son was at “home” with the grass beneath his feet, a stick in his hand and a ball of any shape or size. His home was a baseball diamond, a pitcher’s mound and, ultimately, a tee box – any tee box. They were where he came alive, where he was free to explore and display his God-given gifts, where he felt comfortable expressing his emotions, where (often enough) he found joy. I’m glad they had those “places” in their young lives and were able to experience the panoply of emotions they found there. Everyone needs a home.

As for the little boy in me, I suppose he’s still searching – but, for now, a blank sheet of paper and a pen will do.