My friend Ralph Eckhardt sent this picture the other day. He wrote, “I had just been thinking about your latest Breathe Deep and praying for you when I saw it, and it was a picture to me of how complicated life is that produces the wonder of who we are.”
My mind keeps wandering back to this picture. Usually roots remain hidden beneath the ground, but surely every thriving tree is supported by a gnarled network like this. If you see a tree from the trunk up, you’re seeing only half the story.
David’s fall play goes up next weekend, and everything that could possibly go wrong has been going wrong. Key actors moving away, helpers falling through. I send him out the door in the morning and face the ache like an incoming tide. I’m doing what I can to help him, but I cannot fix this.
I cast desperate eyes about for blessings to count. The cat sits beside me. The Christmas cactus has begun to bud.
But today my salvation lies in the laundry room. Three minutes left on the dryers when I walk in with my basket, so I pull some napkins out and begin to fold. The fabric is warm against my chilly fingers. One by one, the dryers cease their rumbling rhythms and leave a perfect hush.
It’s so beautiful that I take the elevator back up four floors to get my camera. I want to capture the colorful stack of napkins. The stained dishcloths. Someone else’s misplaced sock.
I clean the lint screen and remember who I am: the kind of person who cleans the lint screen for the next person. The kind of person who notices the slice of sunlight coming through the door.
Maybe next week I’ll discard these woebegone dryer sheets. I’ll bet I can get one more use out of them.
I fill my basket with warmth and cleanliness. I leave the laundry room brighter than I found it. More sunlight, less lint. The sun rises with or without my effort, but the lint screen cleaning was 100% up to me.
And the world is restored, ever so slightly. I have not solved my husband’s teaching dilemmas or untangled his students from the chaos of poverty, but I have filled his drawer with clean shirts.
Like a tree I reach toward the sun for warmth, and like a tree I dig down into the earth for nourishment. Roots will spread in all directions to find good soil, to find dark waters. If they meet an impediment they’ll turn and try again.
I come back to the picture and realize I’m looking not at a single tree’s roots, but at a cluster of trees.
Over the weekend Lindsay visited us. We ate good food and caught up on each other’s lives. We walked by the river and traced the ways our roots have intertwined. Perhaps we haven’t grown as tall and impressive as we expected to, but we’ve been learning to dig deeper.
I sit in my apartment, knowing that David will come home weary and Lindsay’s current struggles won’t evaporate overnight. The laundry basket will fill with dirty clothes again. Even at its simplest, life is complicated.
But Ralph is right, isn’t he? Its life’s complications that produce the wonder of who we are.