Creating Space

January 13, 2017

Our mulberry tree was a jungle unto itself. Despite its constant exposure to the blazing Phoenix sun and a sporadic watering schedule, it had become an impressive, if unshapely, beast. Last summer it was full and green and lush, with leaves bigger than my husband’s hands – limbs stretching toward the endless blue sky. And climbing onto the patio roof. And reaching down into the sandbox. That ambitious tree was taking over our yard inch by leafy inch.

Not that it was the only thing attempting to expand its back yard empire. The girls had received new bikes for Christmas, along with sidewalk chalk, sand toys, a soccer net and ball, and on and on. The yard was beginning to resemble a post-apocalyptic Toys R Us. A densely forested one, thanks to the mulberry.

Ten years of living in the scorched Arizona desert hadn’t afforded me many opportunities to see a neglected and non-native plant grow with such zeal. So while I knew the tree needed to be cut back, I hesitated. That mulberry was bold; it was tenacious. I couldn’t help admiring it. Besides, I had no idea where David kept the saw. But my mom is the kind of person who just gets stuff done without waiting for other people, so while she was in town visiting a few months ago, she picked up some supplies and taught me how to prune a tree.

Under her tutelage, I learned that branches growing across or entwined with each other needed to be removed so those that remained could breathe and flourish. More branches don’t always indicate a healthier tree; in fact, she pointed to a few places on our full tree that showed spots of disease. Creating space by removing everything sick or superfluous would allow the tree to focus its energy on growing bigger, stronger, and more beautiful.

Pulling on some work gloves, I glanced at the soccer ball languishing in the corner of the yard, and my mind wandered to topics David and I had discussed many times. In what extracurricular activities would we enroll our children? Soccer or dance? Martial arts or gymnastics? Music or STEAM club? They have so many interests and talents! We wanted them to take classes and be part of teams, but not too many of them at once. If we’re running from obligation to obligation, we would remind each other, when will we stop to relax and enjoy time together as a family?

Each time the subject came up we reached the same conclusion. We were committed to helping our kids choose one or two things to focus their energy on, so they could really master new skills and learn important lessons without sacrificing all their free time. Unstructured play is important, after all. And they need time for homework, and early bedtimes to ensure they get plenty of sleep.

Now I eyed that soccer ball and wondered if we were allowing ourselves the same luxuries.
All afternoon Mom and I worked. We sawed and trimmed and, more than once, narrowly avoided being smacked in the head as heavy limbs crashed to the ground. We dragged each branch toward the back fence and heaved them into piles, sweating from exertion. We sealed cuts to prevent infections and pests from getting inside. At first the task seemed Sisyphean: endless, pointless. Each knot we unraveled revealed yet another mess of branches. I asked Mom if I should cut off fairly new growth.

“No,” she advised, “let’s give our attention to the bigger problem areas now. When spring comes and the leaves fill in, you can go back over it with pruning shears as needed.”

Cutting out the nonessential was not turning out to be as simple as I’d initially thought.

Despite the seemingly impossible snarls, we slowly began to clear away everything dead and disabling. Our shoulders ached and our hands were tired, and I knew my mom would have to leave soon. Still. It was progress. I surveyed the mess of twigs all over the lawn and grinned. Even if the tree wasn’t perfectly pruned yet, there was no denying the difference we’d made.

David was (understandably) worried when he saw just how much we had cut down. When the triple digit temperatures arrived, as they always do in the Valley of the Sun, would our tree still serve us well? All last spring the girls played under its shadow, hiding from the sun as they built castles and scrawled their names in chalk on the pavers. Through the summer it shielded the kitchen from the worst of the afternoon sun. With so many branches now gone, how could it possibly provide as much shade as before? More concerning, would the tree even survive all that sawing and trimming?

Only time would tell.

In several books I’ve read recently, I’ve discovered so many gems on creating space. Advice to “get rid of the unwanted [in order to] make room for what is needed,” and to use money to “foster experiences or create space in our lives for the things that matter,” and so on. A home decor blogger I follow mentioned more than once that she uses Sundays to create white space in her life. At the women’s session of LDS General Conference, one of my favorite people taught that “love is making space in your life for someone else.” And then there’s that whole Konmari businessof getting rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy.

And it occurs to me that my mulberry tree is not the only one tangled and overgrown with purposeless effort. I also need to create space.

Rather than waste my energy on the unimportant, I want to focus on creating some space in my life. In my finances for emergencies or occasional treats. In my home for only the things I consider useful and beautiful. In my schedule for service, spontaneity, and enough sleep. In my body for better food, less tension, and bigger breaths. In my mind for the things that are truly important. In my heart for more love and more grace.

To do that, I must take a good look at myself and ruthlessly eliminate any branches that block the sunlight or choke their neighbors. Is there any other way to make space for the right kind of growth?

Several months after we pruned the tree, it appears to have forgiven us for cutting so much of it down. Spaces left empty from our heavy-handed pruning are beginning to fill with new life. Branches that were once scraggly and bare are now lush with greenery. I’ve found baby leaves sprouting around many of the sealed cuts.

Like our own private oasis in this scorched desert, from trunk to tips, our tree is thriving.

I look at out my kitchen window to see it, once again, slowly taking over the back yard, and am reminded of the pile of clean laundry that grows steadily bigger. The unread library books waiting patiently by the neglected yoga mat. The appointments filling my planner over the next few weeks, too many of which fill me with more dread than excitement.

Time to prune again.

1 Comment

  1. Kim in Virginia

    January 17, 2017

    THIS is a truly inspiring post! Just what I need in January. Thank you, Jen, for the lovely prose, fascinating analogy and inspiration!

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