Last week, spring came to north Texas.
Ok…I know, astronomically speaking, spring came to the entire northern half of the globe last week. But in north Texas, spring specifically means that the iconic bluebonnets have been spotted, ushering in pleasantly warmer weather and wave upon wave of wildflowers…at least until we get to the withering heat of summer. I used to be solidly a fall person, but since I moved here, spring has become one of my favorite times of year.
This particular vernal equinox I spent some time wandering around my backyard, looking to see if my adolescent fruit trees, bushes and vines—having been confused into budding by an earlier than normal warm up—were going to survive the inevitable late-season freeze that followed. If you read my last post, you know that I have fancied myself a classic car enthusiast. Well, I also like to dabble in a little horticulture now and then. I don’t know—maybe it makes me feel settled to put stuff in the ground and hope it grows. But since my name literally means “Happy Farmer,” at least I come by that inclination somewhat honestly.
At any rate, as I was checking out our fledgling trees (thankful that not only had they apparently survived, but we actually have some fruit beginning to form!), my thoughts drifted to the topic of pruning. I have never been especially good at pruning. It always scares me that I am going to take too much and the poor plant will get mad at me and decide to die out of sheer spite. Pruning always makes me feel bad. But by not pruning, I am usually doing the plant a huge disservice.
Pruning is generally a winter activity. It’s hard for a plant to concentrate on surviving and growing at the same time. (Think about that one a minute and then put it in your bag of metaphors for the next time you’re frustrated at someone for being stuck in “crisis mode.”) As I was reflecting on the job I did (or failed to do) making use of those dormant months to prepare my trees for new growth, I couldn’t keep my thoughts from shifting to my family.
This past year has included seasons of what has felt to us like heavy pruning. My little tribe has faced lots of loss and pain in relationships, living conditions, and physical resources. We have often been left feeling abused—forced into survival mode—having to adjust to yet another “new normal.”
My thoughts hovered over three different situations in which pruning happens:
Storms. When high winds, torrential rains, and hail collide with living objects, damage is bound to occur. Often the trees that take the most damage are those described as “self-pruning.” These trees tend to have branches that stick out brusquely in all directions. Their connecting points are brittle, causing branches to snap off in seemingly random patterns that, many times, cause the trees to look even more misshapen and unfriendly.
On the other hand, trees that weather storms without major damage tend to be both strong and flexible, having the right amount of “bend” while remaining true to their shape.
All analogies break down at some point—I recognize the fact that, as far as we know, plants don’t have the ability to choose how they are structured—but often those of us who could be described as “self-pruning” tend to do the most damage to ourselves when the storms of life come. When we refuse to accept input from others on the dangerous shape our lives have become, and when we let those connecting points dry out, we leave ourselves vulnerable to painful breaks in unfortunate places. Learning to be appropriately pliable yet strong enough to stand on our own often takes many seasons of poorly weathered storms.
Removing Dead Stuff. This is probably the easiest form of pruning for me to understand. When a part of a plant dies, it is no longer pretty and becomes an easy target for removal. It’s pretty obvious at that point that it is doing nothing to help the plant either survive or grow. Sometimes though, the difficulty comes in determining what has actually died, especially in winter when the whole plant looks dead.
In our lives, determining what has outlived its usefulness and become dead weight can sometimes pose the same problem. Whether it is an idea, a habit pattern, or an old way of coping, sometimes we can look at these dead things through the lens of when they made sense—when they still had value. Distinguishing what is dead from what is viable in our lives requires serious self-study.
Thinning Back. Often the hardest thing to do in my garden is to take the shears to what appears to be healthy growth. This is particularly true of my grapevine—which is probably why we have yet to harvest any grapes! I just can’t get my mind around cutting off a part of a plant that is still green. Failing to do so, however, does not give my grapevine a clear sense of priorities, resulting in springtime growth that is haphazard and ineffective.
People pleasers and performance-driven people (like me) are especially susceptible to this error. It is easy to fill our lives with activity and commitments that are good and useful. The problem often comes when we realize we are overcommitted and can not determine which “good” thing to let go, resulting in a lower “yield” in the “fruit” of our labor. (Case in point: This blog post—already over a week behind, and now I’m trying to wedge it in before leaving to coach my grandson’s soccer game!) Thinning back on the “good” can provide enough energy, motivation, and focus to concentrate on the “best” for our life.
Regardless of the reason or method, one constant about pruning is that the hoped for results are never immediate. There is always a time gap between the loss and the new growth. This space offers us more choices…we can fill it with anxiety, worry, and fear. We can fill it with unnecessary activity and stress. We can fill it with unrealistic expectations. Or, we can make the harder, wiser choice and fill it with healing…and hope.