A Dry and Leafless Land

My oldest daughter was born in Southern California. She learned to walk in a land wrapped in sunshine and palm trees. She passed orange groves on the way to church and swam in the ocean as often as she played at the park. She showed every visiting relative the lay of the land . . . Disneyland, that is. She camped in the mountains of Big Bear and in the wine country of Temeculah. She didn’t own a coat and hardly ever wore a jacket.

So you can imagine her surprise when we moved her to Illinois in the middle of November.

We had taken her shopping for boots and mittens and coats, and we had filled her head with stories of hot cocoa and sleds and snowmen.

But we had not prepared her for the gritty realities of November.

I was not aware of this lack of preparation until one day, as we were running some errand or another, she piped up from the backseat of the car. She was staring out the window, and she spoke with a solemnity far beyond her five years.

“Mommy, why did God make a place with no leaves on the trees?”

Why, indeed?!

I was stunned. Speechless, if you will. Didn’t she remember our visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s the winter before when all was covered in a magical blanket of white and she and Grandpa had built her very first snowman and then Grandma had made her hot cocoa with an extra helping of mini marshmallows?

No, she didn’t. All she knew was that last week she was waking up to sunny skies and orange trees and this week she was seeing nothing but dead grass and barren trees and lifeless skies. She was not aware that just a few weeks before we had arrived, the trees had been alive with bright autumn colors, and the air had been filled with the warm scent of pumpkins and apples. Nor did she realize that – all too soon – magical snow would start to fall and turn our town into a wonderland, and her dad would be outside at the crack of dawn, railing against the magical beauty covering our driveway.

But she was only five, and she did not know any of these things. She could only see what was happening around her at the time, and what was happening around her seemed like one very big mistake on God’s part.

Of course, I was quick to explain to her how the seasons change every year in Illinois, and how each one brings something new and exciting for us to enjoy. I assured her God would never make a place with no leaves on the trees ever, and that we had just happened to move back right in between the beauty of fall and the glory of winter, as everything lay dormant and exposed and waiting.

She accepted my answer because she loved me and trusted me to know what I was talking about. After all, I had never been wrong before. (Not when revealing the mysteries of life to her, anyway.)

Soon after that conversation in the car, I was proven right – yet again – when she experienced her first white Christmas, and then eventually spring, and then finally summer (which is when Illinois can teach California a thing or two about the lushness of creation).

I say all of this now because as I sit here writing on my patio in mid-August, I can already feel Fall trying to sneak its way into Summer, and this conversation that’s over twenty years old is coming back to me with a clarity it didn’t have the first time around.

I’m reminded how life is full of seasons and change and sometimes (unwelcome) surprises, but we have a Father who assures us better things are coming, if we just hang on and trust him.

This resonates with me because I have been in a few dry and leafless lands of my own over the years, and every single time I have found myself asking, “God, why did you make a place with no leaves on the trees? Why did you bring that illness/let that relationship wither/change my circumstances? I was pretty happy with the sunshine and the palm tress, God. Did you notice me back there? Did you see me laughing and smiling in the orange groves, God? Because, to be honest, I really don’t understand why you put me here in this place where I find myself caught between the brilliance of what was and the magic of what will be.”

At those times, I feel dormant and exposed. Stripped bare of everything I’ve been clinging to. It’s always a harsh and cold reality, and it never makes for a very pleasant view.

But that’s when I let my Father remind me how each season brings something new and exciting, and how he would never make a place for me with no leaves on the trees ever.

Maybe for a while, but not forever.

That’s the promise I can hang onto even as I’m looking at the dead grass and barren trees and lifeless skies. That helps me see things in a whole new light. It gives me a whole new perspective on the dreariness around me.

I can hang onto the memory of what was even while I’m waiting for the brilliance that will be.

As for my daughter, she eventually learned that naked trees never stay that way past April. She learned that even the brownest grass will be revived, and that summer skies can be so blue it almost hurts. She has since moved away, and now she lives surrounded by wildflowers and mountains and the sea. Her wildest dreams are being realized.

And to think she once lived in a place with no leaves on the trees.


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