Those years after college—busy ones that I mostly remember for their early mornings in the classroom, not their sunsets—I used to run at dusk. I’d come home from school, bone-tired from a job that was physically and emotionally draining, and grudgingly put on my shoes to go running, lured out (but only on dry days) by the promise of a nice sunset. I would jog along the cliffs overlooking Puget Sound, with water below and the sun sliding down behind the Olympic Mountains to the west, and as the water turned from pewter to gold, I would sink into the sunset myself, becoming as close to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” as I can ever remember. The exercise was incidental; my feet existed to bring my eyes to this sight.
In November, the parts of my path that had once been shaded by great oaks and maples became bright and airy. I could see the water again through the lacy fractals of interlocking, now-barren branches. The sunset shone through, the boughs dividing the pearly sky and water like lead on stained glass, as I crunched over the sweet-smelling fallen leaves. It was magnificent, an experience that would follow me from Seattle to Germany, and now back again, every late fall and winter. Those leafless days and their glory.
I remember now because those years in my early twenties, I felt a little leafless. I’d lost the allure of being a college student, with that season’s sense of endless possibility, then settled into my career as a teacher. I had a calling, yes, but daily life was neither glamorous nor, in those early days, too much fun. And I was mostly single, which both surprised and annoyed me, as my best friends dated and got married around me. Why didn’t I deserve an exciting job, or a graduate degree, or even a boyfriend?
Still, I remember looking through the bare branches at the last of the day’s light, these uneven golden shapes and impossibly fine twigs, and thinking how the absence of leaves—supposedly the tree’s most beautiful accomplishment—made this glory possible. The missing leaves didn’t rob the tree of its beauty, but somehow made even more beauty visible.
The titles, the relationships, the fancy life I felt I was missing; those were just leaves. I was more than my leaves: the ones I had, the ones I’d lost, the ones I never had at all. And perhaps how I existed in a leafless place could be beautiful, could reflect the goodness of my Creator in ways that a full branch could not. Take this leafless time, I thought then, when every winter branch was a prayer for beauty from unexpected places.
I think about it now as I consider the leaves that have grown and fallen since then: the calling I came to love, the family that God built around me, the faraway home we left and the career I’ve set aside. It’s easy to miss the fallen leaves, even when I’m thankful for the new ones.
And I think about it now as leaves fall all around me, as I walk the path around Greenlake, peering at the grey water through new windows created in the last few weeks. I am more than my leaves, I remind myself. The leaves I have and have had, the leaves I’ve lost or never had. Let the leafless parts of me sing Your praise.