The Secret of Life

Yesterday afternoon the sight of sunshine bouncing off of tender, green leaves and bright pink blossoms pulled me through the sliding doors and out onto the warm and welcoming patio. The sun was high in a vast blue sky and lively birds offered a loud and cheerful accompaniment to the tiny white butterflies flickering about. It didn’t take long for me to decide that this was indeed a far better place to spend some time than seated in front of a computer or television screen.

I grabbed my book, a cold drink and my sunglasses and set up camp between two lawn chairs. Jackson Browne’s Greatest Hits played on the outdoor speakers as I debated whether or not to read another chapter or just close my eyes, getting lost in the music, the scent of the freshly-cut grass and the feel the hot sun on my face, arms and bare feet. Truth be told, I did a little of both on and off for over two hours.

It’s been a bumpy couple of weeks for us as we have been confronted with such a huge loss. But three things are becoming increasingly certain as the days go by… Number 1: There are so many worries that are simply not worth the effort. Number 2: There is so much more to enjoy about this life. And Number 3: Number two far outweighs number one.

The older we get, the more tragedy and loss we are exposed to. It’s only natural. We become more aware of the frailty of life. And if time is to teach us anything, any, ONE thing… it is that NO thing is certain. There are no guarantees, no such things as perfectly fufilled promises. Only best efforts, best hopes and best wishes as we vulnerable, fallible, fragile humans keep moving toward. Everything else is out of our hands.

Anything can fail. Anything can end. Anything can crumble and fall away. All we have is TODAY. All we have is NOW. Time changes like shifting sands.

James Taylor performs a beautiful song called “The Secret of Life” and the essence of it’s message can be summed up in this lyric: “Well, the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” His song says it much better than my words ever can so if the mood should strike — I encourage you to take a few minutes and give it a listen…

Interrupted

Of all things, it was a simple basket of laundry and the unopened April issue of Martha Stewart Living that got to me the most. Yes I knew that she was gone. Or I was—at the very least—attempting to wrap my mind around her sudden, unexpected and premature departure. But these small, mundane pieces of normal, daily life suddenly served as monumental reminders of a life interrupted.

When my mother-in-law-to-be passed away a little over a week ago, plans were being made while food and condolances began arriving. All sorts of larger details pointed to the devastating reality that a wonderful, caring wife and mother was taken from us way too soon. And yet I wandered around her home… finding myself entranced by the littlest things.

Bread crumbs of regular life have a way of lining a path through grief — making it utterly impossible to forget that time is capable of standing still. We are shaken. Taken firmly by the shoulders and put in our place by a power that is far, far greater than anything we can comprehend or imagine. We are reminded that we are not immortal. We are reminded just how fragile life truly is. We are reminded that time is a finite thing.

And then an intriguing thing happens.

Our perspective changes. Dramatically.

The regular worries of this life don’t weigh quite as much. Former frets and concerns suddenly seem petty and paper-thin. The slight we experienced by someone we thought was a friend loses it’s sting. The opinions of others don’t matter anymore.

You see, as I found out a week ago… death has an uncanny way of clearing away the cobwebs in our minds to make room only for that which matters NOW. Living fully. Living intentionally. Giving our energy and attention to those who deserve it most. Not wasting one, single ounce of it on futile people or endeavors. And finding every bit of joy and beauty there is to be found before our living too, is interrupted.

Colorful Despite the Clouds

In late September, there isn’t much light outside at 7 in the morning on a clear day… let alone a cloudy one. So on a dreary morning, you might imagine my surprise when I noticed a vibrant orange tree just a few blocks away from my house.

Cars still had their headlights on and the streetlights burned brightly as the shrouded sun was barely peeking out of the east… Yet there stood this tree, practically glowing by the side of the road, not even partially illuminated by the assistance of a street lamp. Still you could see that its color was magnificent.

Wow! I thought to myself. How amazing that the luminous fall colors of that tree are still noticeable and even radiant despite the darkness!

And then I considered how the same could be said of people too. Just like the brilliance of that tree, the gathering clouds and darkness of tragedy, illness, abuse, loss or depression that sometimes surround us do NOT diminish our colors. We may believe we’ve lost our luster when we’re hidden beneath the heavy grey fabric of our circumstance. We may feel drab and ineffectual. We may think we go unnoticed by most. We may even seem completely invisible. But do any of these conditions actually have the ability to change the design of who we really ARE?

Our unique and vivid colors exist whether we are able to see them or not.

If I say, Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. ~ Psalm 139: 11-12 

The Survivor Tree

In the middle of a busy city, surrounded by traffic, concrete and glass, stands a very special tree. To simply look at it, you would assume it’s just an ordinary tree. And if you did not know the history of it or the reason why it is so special, perhaps you might walk right by without giving it a second glance.

It isn’t a very big tree, it isn’t a rare type of tree… yet it stands humbly and proudly in the center of America’s Heartland serving as an icon of survival. People travel from miles away to stand beneath the shade of its branches and reflect on its sheer existence and resilience. Perhaps they gain strength, perhaps they feel the freedom to surrender to their emotion and weep, perhaps they receive healing, or perhaps their chests swell with pride to be in the presence of such a cherished natural landmark.

I have had the unique fortune of visiting the tree 3 times in as many years. And on each occasion when I stood at its base, examined the bark and gazed up at the sunlight streaming though its canopy, I have been inspired. Several times I have driven across this country, and while passing through I have never failed to stop in Oklahoma City and pay a visit to my favorite tree… The Survivor Tree.

The tree got its name by surviving the bombing that occurred at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children under the age of 6 and 3 unborn babies in addition. The survival of the tree was quite amazing considering that the sheer force of the blast ripped most of the branches from it. Glass and debris were embedded in its trunk and fire from the cars parked beneath it blackened what was left. Most thought the 104-year-old tree would not survive. However—almost a year after the bombing—family members, survivors and rescue workers gathered for a memorial ceremony under the tree, and they noticed something quite extraordinary. In the midst of this field of desolation and despair… this tattered tree was beginning to bloom.

Drastic measures have since been taken to see that the tree is cared for and preserved in honor of those who survived that tragic day. A beautiful memorial surrounds it so that anyone who cares to may come and marvel at the wonder of the tree’s endurance. The inscription on the wall around the Survivor Tree reads: The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.

As I look back, I am reminded that my deeply rooted faith has sustained me thus far. You see, each time I traveled across the country and took the opportunity to stop at the memorial, I was never really “just passing through.” In my case, all three times found me in the midst of a personal life transition and when I approached the tree, it was always with a burdened heart. Standing on the hallowed ground of such a place, one’s mind cannot help but reflect as it reels with doubts, fears and endless questions about this thing we call humanity. But each time… the Survivor Tree stood there for me as if to say: You WILL survive this circumstance, after all… more fragile things than you have survived much deeper devastation.