The Goldilocks balance

dead-treeMy best human interaction this week occurred not with a friend, nor a family member, nor even a co-worker. It occurred with a stranger, an arborist who had come to take down part of my dead Siberian elm.

He arrived as arborists will, with a massive truck towing a wood chipper. Before he had even parked, he had done damage, clipping two healthy evergreens near the road in front of my house, dropping a low-hanging branch from each. Not a good start, and I was already anxious about the job.

The elm, which had provided a shady canopy over part of my sun-washed deck, died when an arctic front moved through in November 2014, freezing the sap still flowing in its veins. The loss shocked me. For decades, the towering old tree had been hardy and uncomplaining, surviving through years-long droughts while other trees and shrubs withered. Losing it hurt.peaches

In the time since, though, I have seen consolations: the small blue spruce once shaded by the elm straightened its eastward tilt and pointed skyward. A peach tree beneath the elm put on a verdant new leader, blossomed for the first time and is now carrying the kind of peaches you see only in Harry & David catalogs: big as tennis balls, burnished rose-red.

The finches, pine siskins and chickadees perch easily in the elm’s bare branches as they plan their approach to the feeders. And the tree itself has become food: nuthatches and woodpeckers mine the conjoined trunks for bark beetles living in the decaying wood.

In death, the tree has mingled with life, so I had carefully considered how to maintain the bird habitat while also protecting my house from the big, bare branches that would eventually cede to wind and gravity. Still, I knew the day of the trimming would be difficult, that the violent yawp of the chainsaw would open a hole in my chest as it took down part of my good tree’s skeleton.wbnuthatch

I know that hole:  Grief. And fear, too — of how the tree’s diminished presence would affect me no less than the wild things.

I didn’t want to feel that. So when the arborist clipped the evergreen branches, I was angry. I jumped him about his carelessness before he was even out of the truck, assuming aloud that he would be similarly heedless with the elm and the smaller trees beneath it.

He apologized and looked at the damage, promising to prune the broken evergreen stubs. But he was defensive. He was a certified arborist, he said, a little angrily — he would show me his paper — and it was an accident. If I didn’t want him to do the job, he would let his boss know, and leave. A wall had come up.

And that was the moment. I felt it, and maybe he did, too. You know the one: the tipping point at which an interaction escalates from bad to worse, or softens from bad to better, or maybe even good. The moment of possibility, made palpable.

“Let’s start over, OK?” I said to the arborist.

“OK,” he said, meeting my eyes, smiling just a little. And we shook hands, and in the next 15 minutes, while we talked about the job, Dustin — that’s his name — answered my tree questions, seeing that I respected his expertise. He told me how much he likes my back yard, the groomed parts and the wild ones, the little homemade pond. He saw how the birds perched in the bare branches of the dead elm.finchintree

Dustin has an identical twin brother, Justin. They were both Army Rangers, both stationed in Iraq, and now, both arborists. Justin is still in North Carolina, because his girlfriend is there — she’s in college, seven years younger — but Dustin moved to Colorado because he loves it here. He and his wife have a little redheaded daughter named Charlotte; he told me that after I told him my red Welsummer hen is named Charlotte. Dustin keeps chickens, too.

And then he had to go to his next job; he will have to come back with a bucket truck later to trim my elm with proper care. I apologized again for jumping him; he apologized again for clipping the evergreens. And again we shook hands, and told each other what a pleasure it had been, and I asked if he would come back — him, personally — to do the work. “Of course,” he said with a smile. And climbed into the cab of that big truck.

As I watched him drive off, I realized Dustin and I had done this simple, profound thing: We had been patient. We had allowed each other to go within, to work with our own reactivity, and then to look anew on each other. And in that act, the careless guy with a chainsaw and the persnickety homeowner had given way to two imperfect human beings sharing the same goal, wanting to connect and willing to make that effort.

already-freeIn his remarkable book Already Free, Buddhist psychotherapist Bruce Tift describes what’s necessary in our lives and relationships for optimal growth. “Not enough disturbance is comfortable, but unlikely to bring into awareness what we must work with,” he writes. “Too much disturbance is likely to take us into a dissociative or even re-traumatized state, in which it is very hard to stay present.” What we need, Tift says, is a kind of Goldilocks balance: just the right amount of suffering.

How lucky we are when we experience the right amount of suffering, when we have disturbing experiences with people who don’t walk away when we falter, but give us the opportunity to look within and retrieve our better selves. And, equally wonderful, who accept our gift of the same.

It’s what we want — and, usually, don’t get — in our closest relationships. Instead, we stay on the surface: not enough suffering.  Or, we create too much suffering: proxy conflicts with each other that distract us from the difficult feelings within —  often grief, or fear, or both.   And so we miss the experience of becoming our best selves with those we most love.

Experiences like I had today with a stranger named Dustin, who has an identical twin named Justin, who was also an Army Ranger and is now also an arborist.

Let’s start over, I said.

OK, he said. And met my eyes. And smiled.

76 comments

  1. 74 comments and counting … My response is already voiced by others. I thank you.  As we all do, Rafiki

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    1. You are welcome, my friend.

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  2. What a lovely story – both the meeting and the telling of it.

    I need to constantly remind myself that the jerk-wad who just cut me off in traffic is a worthy human being with hopes & dreams, positives & negatives, just like me. OK, not just like me – my hopes & dreams are much more important, and I have a lot more positives than negatives, but still. The other guy is worthy of respect.

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    1. This made me smile.🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post and shared your thoughts.

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  3. Nice good observation

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    1. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

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  4. It took me very long to read it… But I was done with it I didn’t regret it.
    Nice especially those stunning photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for giving the piece your time and attention!

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      1. It was worth it

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

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  5. That’s great then.

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  6. I love this. It’s a reminder that deep down we all just want to be heard and respected.

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    1. That’s so important, isn’t it? Thank you for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I liked the way you presented the meeting with the arborist. Being a nature lover I can understand your feelings about the trees disturbed and thanks for introducing me to the book ” Already free “

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you find the book as wonderful as I did.

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  7. Very inspirational!

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    1. I’m glad. Thanks for saying so!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Such are the moments! Thank you for this post.

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    1. You’re welcome. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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  9. The elm tree did not die, Cate. It lives in you. Somehow, I believe that tree, represented a special part of you, that you would not have given to anything or anyone else, but the elm.

    Before a seed can grow into a beautiful tree, beneath the soil, the old roots, the creeping vines, and the weeds must be pulled out. This is the most painful part of the process. Letting go of the elm.

    But the moment you did, the moment you gave patience, the way you gave for the tree, the hurt was deeply uprooted & uplifted. The soil in you was tilled. The seed of the tree you cared so much about, has finally taken its place in you. With that, the elm lives again : )

    I’m very touched by this & deeply inspired. Thank you. For the wonderful peach.

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    1. This is such a gentle and thoughtful reflection; I thank you in return, for taking the time to give of your heart and your wisdom. Just lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Shaheen Ali · · Reply

    Wow amazing post! Beautiful combination of enlightenment, self-evolution and inspiration! Loved each and every bit of it!

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    1. That’s a beautiful compliment. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for sharing, Cate! I loved how you described the importance to birds and wildlife of the wild parts of our living spaces, and how hard it is to balance that with our everyday lives sometimes! And I appreciate your humility, as I’m sure Dustin did as well. What a lovely example of giving one another grace and understanding that we all bring our inner “selves” to every interaction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! “Grace” is an excellent word for what I was getting at; thank you for reading and commenting so thoughtfully.

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  12. […] Green Study’s Positively Happy Nice Story Contest is off and running. I saw a wonderful post by Cate that is exactly the sort of thing that would be a contender. The deadline is October 1st. […]

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    1. Thanks for the referral! Your contest is a great idea, and I look forward to reading your picks — though not as much as I look forward to reading your original posts.🙂

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  13. Cate, I enjoyed this piece because of your use of descriptive imagery and diction. I love this particular bit… “How lucky we are . . . when we have disturbing experiences with people who don’t walk away when we falter, but give us the opportunity to look within and retrieve our better selves. And, equally wonderful, who accept our gift of the same”. This describes my current self, summed up in that one quote🙂 I can’t wait to read more!

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    1. It’s good to hear that that particular section resonated with you; there’s comfort in knowing other people are having similar experiences. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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    1. Thank you kindly.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. mischerious · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Site Title.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for passing it along!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. mischerious · · Reply

        welcome🙂 you’ve wrote a very inspirational message🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  15. Wow! He met you while you were in a bad mood and became defensive due to your tone… your ability to have sensed the wall and quick offer of starting over, I would say, saved the day…being sensitive to others feelings is the key to being nice.
    A wonderful post, I enjoyed the read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much. I’d say we both came through for each other; I have often failed at this in the past, so it was gratifying both to give this kind of grace and to receive it.

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  16. A touching post, gives you a beautiful peek into life, relationships and our own inner evolution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. So beautiful thanks, lov Enoch sar ha-padim

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome. Thank you for your appreciation!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. oracleofeerwah · · Reply

    Lovely words, so simple… thanks. I see things you cannot. Read; ‘White Feather Black Feather’ just one of the strange things thats happened to me on this ‘Story Hill’… it’s in ‘my page/blog’

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  19. Amazing post! im sure that you have put your lots of effort!

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    1. Writing is work, but of a deeply satisfying kind. Thank you for your appreciation.

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    1. Thank you.:)

      Liked by 1 person

  20. My goodness – this definitely spoke to my writer’s soul. I absolutely love the format, and I love the little touches that decorated the scene. I felt like I was back in 4th grade Language Arts, reading a short story that is entertaining, as well as teaches a small lesson.

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    1. That’s a lovely compliment! Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 2 people

  21. A lovely post, thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it; thanks for saying so.

      Liked by 2 people

  22. Thank you for the great book recommendation. I never considered the concept of struggle and conflict in relationships and now i have a clue. I am sorry about the elm but i am sure other great tree would live. Oh you have a homemade pond too!!

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    1. Thank you! The book is one of my favorites; I hope you, too, find it wise and deeply helpful. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to better appreciate the immense potential of conflict and disturbance to help us grow in love and self-awareness. The tricky part is finding others who value that aspect of relationship in a similar way.🙂

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      1. Isn’t that always the tricky part at the end of the day?

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  23. Hi. I just happened to read this post. It’s a really beautiful piece. I think you’ve wonderfully brought out a very important message through this small experience of yours. And it’s true…. Very true. We waste way more time in brooding over what doesn’t go our way instead of maybe trying to be our best selves and make things simpler.
    I’m glad I read this.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I’m glad you found it meaningful, and could relate to my experience.

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  24. A beautiful refreshing post. Proves that we can better any relationship, if we change our perception. If we can let go of our assumptions!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you enjoyed it; thanks for reading and commenting! I agree about relationships: Much so-called interpersonal conflict originates with unconscious or unexamined thoughts and feelings within each of the individuals.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you kindly!

      Liked by 1 person

  25. I love this so much. To me, the most redeeming thing about writers is our way to find profound lessons in small occurrences. There is great beauty in that. You are a wonderful writer and I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for this lovely compliment! I visited your blog, too, and appreciated the depth and nuance of your post about reading your grandmother’s diary. An especially nice turn of phrase: “There’s this exciting type of vertigo, almost like a folding of time, when it almost doesn’t seem real, what I’m reading.” How wise you are to invite this indelible experience when you can still share it with your grandmother.

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      1. Thank you very much! It may have been wise but there was no way I was going to turn down the chance to do this! ❤!!

        Liked by 2 people

  26. It was a beautiful blog. Nice peachy peaches. Let’s say – all well when ends well. & I liked the goldilocks balance concept. You experienced & let’s say i experienced it through you & let’s say i am responding to say you that yes – it exists! I feel so… And lend you my big bro hug!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Wow! A big bro hug! I gratefully accept and return same, in my smaller female fashion.🙂 Thanks so much for your enthusiastic and affirming response.

      Liked by 2 people

  27. Great post! Had to laugh, we had an arborist named Dustin come over last week to prune trees on our rental property. He is actually a friend, but still I noticed my tension while talking to him, not happy with the whole idea of chopping down trees. I ordered the book and looking forward to checking it out. Thanks.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. What a coincidence! Thanks for sharing your experience with your Dustin. I’m glad you ordered the book; it’s exceptionally wise and encouraging.

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  28. Although the attitude control related is admirable one important factor was not mentioned. Aside from an intelligent path to settle the emotion the driving force for equable relationship was also given strength in that you needed each other. A good deal of the conflict in the world that might be stemmed by an understanding that humans need to get along is not aided by a need for each other and that can lead to disasters.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good observation. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

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