What 3 shrubs taught me about the meaning of life.
"You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves."
It's been a year since I sold my house of 14 years. I put it on the market with the kids' heights still pencil marked and dated on the wall—the one evidence of our lives there I couldn't bear to erase.
The sale was the final step in the divorce. The kids and I now live next door, renting a house our friends own.
When I tell this story, people ask me with sad eyes, "What's that like?"
. . .
Earlier this summer, I noticed three neatly rounded but withered shrubs sitting outside a window that faces the backside of my old house.
I wondered, what poor plants fell victim to Snowmageddon?
It took a few weeks, but I finally figured it out. At the front of the property, there's a narrow strip beside the sidewalk inhospitable to most plants. I managed to get creeping thyme to spread there luxuriously, but even that suddenly dried up one spring.
The Golden Euonymus shrubs had been pulled out from that spot.
They started as scrubby little things in 1-gallon pots from Home Depot. I remember struggling to space them evenly, and scorching my back while digging large-enough holes in the rock-filled soil.
Once they were established, the most I did for them was to pull out weeds growing nearby. But the Euonymus shrubs responded by thriving in that impossible microclimate anyway.
They'd been so hardy and such a steady presence. So I assumed these shrubs would always be there, the way air is still there when I wake up in the morning.
Now they were gone.
. . .
Growing up moving back and forth between Seattle and Tokyo and not fitting in either place, my future home was a beacon. The vision of it got me through long periods of loneliness. I expected this home to give me the safety and belonging I craved.
Through the divorce, I held on tight, cooking up every creative solution imaginable to keep the house. My insides were on fire. I thought the flames my engulf me, that I might lose the will to live.
. . .
Lately, I've been contemplating what kept me from collapsing in that fire. What kept me going after losing so much ground?
When we think about what makes life meaningful, loving what we do and who we're with are the first things that come to mind. Careers and families fill us with deep satisfaction, yes, but to be perfectly honest, they give us a lot of angst, too.
Meanwhile, we're also quietly loving a million other things on any given day.
With these tiny things, the stakes are relatively low. So we open our hearts nice and wide to them. We admire and adore things like hardy shrubs without expecting very much in return. We let tiny things into our hearts, day in and day out, even though more than a few of them have let us down along the way—and all of them eventually change or die off.
I was hurt, but also completely prepared for, the loss of the Euonymous.
Without realizing it, I've gone through 47 million passages of love over a lifetime. My body has been digesting these experiences as matter-of-factly as if they were pieces of fruit. And your body has, too.
Loving what we do and who we're with matters a lot. Our homes, as the physical and symbolic container for the things that matter, does too. When we experience loss around these big things, our hearts permanently shape shift. We wonder if we'll ever find meaning again.
But what's a meaningful life if not an experience of giving ourselves over, again and again, to free-flowing love?
And how beautiful is it that, through the million tiny things we're wired to love, we've all been growing this capacity from the very beginning of our lives?
I didn't collapse because my body innately knew how to build a meaningful life through loving many tiny things. And because this knowledge endures, no matter how hot the fire.
. . .
It's not as hard as I thought it would be.
That's how I respond to the question of, "What's it like?" after letting my house go. Maybe the more valid answer is, it's differently hard than I thought it would be, and I've come to appreciate it.
Today, if you're struggling with heartache, disappointment, disillusionment—or fear of all of the above—I hope that what you've just read comforts you like a blanket.
You aren't lost in the woods by yourself.
And you already know how to come home. No matter how disconnected from home you may feel.
If you want to find your way, there's only nothing special you need to do.
You simply need to let your heart keep beating.
PS. This 80's ballad came back to me on a Sunday morning. It hasn't stopped playing in my head.