Backing Up

I love trimming my trees and bushes.  Mowing is satisfying although loses its pleasure come mid-July.  Dead-heading and trimming back spent blooms improves appearances for a while, and sweeping spiffs up the place in a flash.  But for pure gardening pleasure, nothing beats lopping off large, low-hanging branches from my crab apple, or thinning out my weigela bush, rose of Sharon, and lilac bushes. 

Enjoyable as the task is, I’m prone to over-zealous thinning and trimming.  Just removing a branch here and there to improve air circulation results in a one-sided crew-cut on occasion.  I’ll blame that trimming over-kill on the sheer joy of large branch removal.  There’s nothing like the satisfying snap of the trimmers or branch cutters.  I avoid the power tools because I’d likely bring a bush down to a stump in no time.  At least with hand tools, I’m more likely to avoid executing the plant.  Risk of maiming and deforming – still high.  Risk of plant annihilation – low.

Last week, as I set out to the back forty (feet) of my plot of land to plant basil, parsley, cucumbers, and turnips, I noticed shade.  Shade over the vegetable garden.  Shade that wasn’t over that garden last year.  I didn’t need to look far for the cause, since the branches of the nearby crab apple were just inches over my not-so-far-off-the-ground head and spreading far across my sun-needing veggies. 

I headed for the garage, returned with my long pruners, and went to work.  While the pruners won’t handle anything larger than one inch in diameter, that restriction merely  prevented me from completely removing the north side of the tree.  The branches fell all around (and on) me, up to 12 feet long and an inch in diameter, as I whacked at all my pruners could manage and as far up as my arms could reach.  Then I paused and looked down at the branches around my legs.  Whoa.  Time to back up.

Call it missing the tree for the branches, to mangle a cliché, but, in the past,  I’ve done enough damage with pruners and clippers to learn an important lesson.  Back up.  Look from a distance.  Examine your subject from many directions.  To omit this perspective leads to lilacs that flower on only one side for many, many years and rose of Sharon with an unnaturally thin region in one quadrant.  Pausing to back up, no matter how sure I am of being in the right in my trimming frenzy can prevent damage (ugly damage at that) to a perfectly healthy, vibrant specimen.

So perhaps you see where my metaphor is going (and if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know a metaphor is inevitable).  I argued with my older son today.  Sadly, this isn’t a new phenomena.  We’re all adjusting to changes in his father’s home and changes in my life, and he’s having a rough time of it all.  Awoken by him early today for a reason I deemed ridiculous coming from a teen, I grumbled loudly and started a lecture on interrupting (one of our big discussion points lately).   I’ve found thirteen to be a self-absorbed age, to put it quite kindly, and I’m fatigued of it, frankly.  Since he’s only been thirteen for two months, I’ve been assured there’s plenty more of this self-absorbtion to come, and this knowledge fatigues me more.

Lecturing away, unaware of how much trimming of his spirit I was doing, I found myself warming quickly to my subject stoking his already hot fire.  His anger has been intense lately, and I did nothing to cool the flames but instead fanned away.  He smoked and ranted; my lecture morphed to yelling.   Time to turn off the power tools and back up.  We took a few minutes to breathe.  I stopped cutting away at him, seeing the whole child and not just the parts blocking my sun and obstructing my planned path.  I saw his rapid growth in mind and emotion, the coming growth in his body.  Our voices dropped in pitch and volume, and with that, my anger melted and his subsided enough to talk rather than rage. 

Yes, I believe some trimming and shaping is necessary when raising our children.  I’ve no desire to remove his spirit or damage his soul, but as a parent responsible for this young being, I’m charged with teaching him how to conduct himself in ways that respects others and to cope with strong emotions.  I’m aware of my tendency to see the offending branch, reach for the pruners and hack  away at the bad habit or troublesome behavior without looking carefully from a safe emotional distance at the whole picture.  I’m usually able to step back, breathe, take that look before my words trim too vigorously.  As for the times when I stay too close for this bigger view, I’m grateful that children rebound so quickly, and, in my better moments, see my failings as chances to discuss what I’ve done wrong, hoping to teach him better ways of coping.

So I stepped back from the crab apple, taking in the whole tangled, overgrown, beautiful organism.  I walked around it, returned to look from beneath, seeing where branches cross, rubbing other branches raw and blocking air flow for the plant and light to my garden.  I’d done no damage with my trimming, thanks to my break for perspective and thought, but I’m far from done with the tree.  Bigger branches need removal if the tree’s to thrive, leaving room for sun to reach the growing vegetables nearby.  There’s room in the yard for both to exist. 

I like that tree, and I love my son.  I see where both need some gentle shaping in order to maximally grow without stepping on those around them, without choking off the air they each need.  And for each, I’m charged with guiding that process, always first remembering to back up, look from a distance, and to breathe.

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