In my mind’s eye I can see the Pratt Ginkgo. Named for the civil engineer who planted it on the grounds of the University of Virginia, the 159-year-old giant is a grand doyen of a tree — one that “flings thick, fur-grey branches out, / Branches that go their one sole way toward heaven / As if they [have] a steel rod for their pith,” to borrow from Gordon Lawrence’s description of this species.[i]
The Pratt Ginkgo actually does have a metal rod in it, installed by engineers to save the tree from any calamitous lightning strikes. Still, I’d venture to guess that none of the attention it attracts is due to the shape or the electric conductivity of its branches. This autumn, if students and professors and staff workers look up as they tread the herringbone brick walks, it will be to gaze at the thousands of miniature fans that have quietly turned gold overhead.
Around the same time, the trees at the Korean university where my parents teach — a centuries-old school whose very emblem is the ginkgo leaf — will array themselves in the same luminous hue. Like their younger cousin across the sea, their poised wooden limbs will ripple with bright maidenhair tresses over walkways and roofs.
I hope that some child passing underneath them will stoop to pick up a perfect, crenated half-moon and tuck it into her pocket, as I used to. I can still feel of the heavy yellow silk between my fingers, the delicacy of the striated lines radiating from stem to scalloped edge.
Astonishingly to me, however, I have no memory of noticing the ginkgoes’ most intriguing phenomenon: I’ve only recently learned that they do not release their foliage with the measured largesse of other trees.
In a few weeks, the maples of the Northern Hemisphere will begin brightening the ground with their five-pointed flames. The quaking aspens will scatter bright coins over the cooling earth. But the leaves of the ginkgo will merely quiver and hold on to their wizened branches, like a hoard of fluttering treasure in the arms of Midas.
Then, in a slim span of time, as if to the downstroke of an invisible conductor’s baton, they will all drop at once.
Earlier this summer, I thought of an article I had read long ago, titled “What to Do If You Wake Up Feeling Fragile.”[ii] In it, the author simply notes that he has “mornings when I wake up feeling fragile. Vulnerable. It’s often vague. . . . Just an amorphous sense that something is going to go wrong and I will be responsible. It’s usually after a lot of criticism. Lots of expectations that have deadlines and that seem too big and too many.”
Just an amorphous sense… I turned that phrase over in my thoughts, almost idly, struck by Piper’s insight into his own anxious proclivities. I don’t react in the same way to criticism and deadlines, though I have buckled under the withering attention and pressure of both. But “fragile” was a concept I knew well — a feeling of teetering over a thin crust of ice with the cold throttling threat of something treacherous below — and I was fascinated that at least one man was able to pinpoint the name and nature of the fear that dogged him.
A sudden wondering surfaced in my thoughts.
Could I do the same? Was there a “core fear” that made me fragile?
The answer came instantaneously, not from a cerebral lightning bolt, but from my recollection of the feeling that ran through the most frightening moments of my life. I could taste it.
In that moment, I realized that the anxiety that hovered at the edge of my thoughts was a weaker tincture of the hard-edged, venomous panic I had encountered at specific points in my life — times when I felt that my watchfulness was required to keep some catastrophic disaster from happening. Something terrible might happen, and unless I acted, and acted successfully, it would.
Vivid, unmistakable memories came together then. With no effort at all, I revisited the handful of times in my life that I have felt a fear so strong and so concentrated that every fiber of my body was strained to the breaking point. I knew it as a child, when I thought someone dear to me might take her own life; I knew it as a teenager, when a classmate told me he was contemplating suicide. As a mother I dialed 911 with trembling fingers the night my small child had a seizure, and for years afterward I was afraid that if I didn’t make the right decision at the right time to get medical help, the consequences might mushroom past the point of no return.
Situations like these always provoked the same reaction in me. The catastrophic disaster, the “something terrible” I was trying to prevent, even in my dreams, was always untimely death: my friend’s, my child’s, mine. This was the primal fear that I could not manage, the looming potential outcome that shattered me every time.
And how had I coped? In response, I developed an odd but subtle kind of perfectionism over the years: a personal mission to tune my caregiving and health and relationships to optimal levels. I made a point of saying “I love you” to the people closest to me whenever we said goodbye, and tried to resolve all relational conflicts as soon as I could. When I became a parent, I did my best to avoid bringing environmental toxins into the house, built a menu bank of recipes rich in flavor and nutrition, and began weaving a home atmosphere based after the pattern of wiser families.
These were good practices, and ought to have been the marks of a healthy life. Yet over time they became blighted fruit, embittered through their long connection to my root of fear; they became an attempt to set up a buffer against tragedy. I really said “I love you” because any farewell might be the last time I saw someone dear to me. (It might stave off some the grief and the regret that would inevitably follow.) I tried to steer my young family’s wellbeing into “normal” and “ideal” health margins because some studies somewhere deemed they would be less likely to contract heart disease or diabetes or cancer this way. Even my efforts to establish family traditions and rhythms sometimes stemmed from a graceless fear that my children might lose sight of the love of God. In sum, my habits and practices were not always glad actions carried out under the sheltering sovereignty of my Father; at times they were merely a desperate scrabbling to build up a high rampart against unpredictable but all-too-imaginable dangers.
These thoughts became clear the next evening, when I named my primary fear aloud to my husband. I asked if my reasoning made sense, and he nodded.
Then he said, “And if something that you fear does happen, it will be okay.”
“Right.” I waved the statement away. I had made my peace with the notion of untimely death earlier in the year. My Father alone knows the number of my days. Of course it would be okay.
“No, I mean — you take good care of the girls, and your health, and us. If the worst does happen, it won’t be because you did something wrong.”
I fell silent.
I knew he wasn’t saying that I was free from responsibilities in my life, or that “whatever will be, will be.” Yet somewhere in the complex adulthood dance of trying to discern where my responsibilities stopped and God’s interventions began, I had never fully considered what might happen even if I were doing my best in these areas. In a strange way, I was afraid that God would call me to account if something failed, as if He had set me in a place to prevent tragedies and I’d mucked up the entire operation. But could it be that my best was never designed to achieve perfection or safety?
“Trust in the Lord and do good.”[iii] “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with the Lord your God.”[iv] “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”[v] The work of mortal men and women has ever and always been tied to the plans of God, and to the holy tenderness of His heart towards them. Ah yes, I knew this. But it took the keen look and particular phrasing of another to help me grasp this truth well, and shine it in the spaces where fear had seeped through: in caregiving, in loving, in writing. Illumined thus, I remembered that when I work alongside my Lord, I am not striving against inevitability or statistics or time. My safety does not lie in the wideness of my margins. It is in being absolutely known, in being loved, and in choosing to remain in the keeping of the only One who never fails.
I looked back at my husband’s face as his words sank in.
A wavering, and then — a release.
How does a ginkgo know when it is time to shed its leaves?[vi] “What signal from the stars?” muses Howard Nemerov, in his poem “Consent.” “What senses [take] it in?” Although arborists suspect that the timing may have to do with temperature, no one can predict exactly which day will trigger the moment of the fall for a specific tree.
But there is an observable, fascinating process of preparation. Like other deciduous trees, the stems of the ginkgo’s leaves form cells that act as a protective seal, like a scar. This seal shields the tree from disease once the leaves detach. On the ginkgo, these scars form simultaneously, and then the leaves bide their time.
From the vantage point of my mid-thirties, I’m tempted to wonder why my own recent step of letting go was so long in coming. It’s been decades since my first acrid taste of panic, and it seems reasonable to think that I could have named and been shed of this fear before now.
But even as I ask, I am aware of the necessary phases that led up to this one. Only here, after a long journey of learning to look upon anxiety as a friend, after seeing how God can bring great good out of wrenching pain, and after learning to admit the strain of events past, have I become ready to receive it.
The wounds that I have been carrying for years have scarred over — and it has been a deep relief to let them fall. They were not lovely things in themselves, these fears. But the way they have dropped from the stooped shoulders of my soul, in an all-at-once sudden release, has allowed me to look at them truly, and marvel at the rustling sea at my feet. Laid out like this, the spectacle of surrender and relief is beautiful, for it provides evidence of inner workings beyond my control. Evidence that there is a deeper mystery behind the process of healing than I have allowed myself to imagine.
Healing involves the movement of the unseen and unquantifiable, like the wind and the azure crispness sensed by every ginkgo in the world; it involves the Maker of twig and trunk and stem and scar. While our phases of mending will almost certainly require our engagement (not to mention consultations and prescriptions, at times), every one of our resources is a tool in the hand of the Master Physician. The rate, the date of completion, the end state: all the details of healing, thank God, are not up to us.
But the intricacy of His participation reveals how deeply we are loved.
Though we wax weary and must sleep, the Restorer of the broken does not; his labor and watchfulness are ongoing, and his intent is to fit us to dwell with Him. Within the beloved who are growing into the fullness of life, He is ever at work, even when our best falls short — indeed, especially where it falls short. When we do not know what to pray for as we ought, when we do not know how to move forward, He supplies Himself, from the atoning work of the Lamb all the way to this present moment of need.
Grace is always a perfectly timed surprise: unpredictable in its manifestations, but unerringly reflective of a Father who delights to give good gifts to His children.
So I am learning again what it is to give Him my best while trusting Him with the outcome. I’m freed to bless the name of my God whose grace is sufficient and whose power gleams out more clearly in my weaknesses and uncertainties. And I’ve found fresh courage to wait unafraid, roots cast down and out by inexhaustible streams of living water, for Him to prepare me for the turn of each season.
This autumn, here and there, ancient golden sentinels remind me that healing is, at heart, a mystery and a grace. Like keepers of a wise and whispered refrain through the ages, they draw my sight upward to the One who transforms the very breath of chill frost into a gilding touch, who surprises us with signals of restoration, who prepares us for all seasons.
The One who releases beauty from surrendered arms in the fullness of time.
[i] Lawrence, Gordon. “Ginkgo.” Poetry (January 1931), 202. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=19108
[iii] Psalm 37:3, ESV.
[iv] see Micah 6:8, ESV.
[v] 2 Cor. 9:8, ESV.
[vi] Many ginkgoes are famous for losing all their leaves practically overnight, giving rise to various poems on the phenomenon and betting pools held by workplaces to guess the specific date in a given year (see Oliver Sacks “Night of the Ginkgo” and Robinson Meyer’s “The Great Ginkgo Dump Is Here”). Some trees take longer, but the leaf drop appears to be a synchronous event for the species.
Amy Baik Lee writes from a desk looking out on a cottage garden, usually surrounded by children’s drawings, teacups, and stacks of patient books. She is a former scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia, a sometime author of devotional short stories, and a current member artist of the Anselm Society. Ever seeking to “press on to [her] true country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis), she posts essays and stories about Homeward longing at Amy Baik Lee.