This Year the Bare Trees Became Beautiful

I moved to the Midwest almost three years ago, and the first winter here was ugly. I felt oddly embarrassed about the location I had chosen to call home. I felt the need to apologize to out of town friends from more beautiful places — about the flatness and the bare spaces between the brambled branches on our deciduous trees. Bare spaces that you could peek through to car dealerships and boxy housing developments and huge stretches of racially segregated poverty. It’s beautiful in the summer, I would tell them, when the landscape is lush, and you can’t see anything from the road.

During my second winter, the scenery started to filter through my experiences. The memories of repeated visits to locations spread like watercolors over the landscape. I could not simply see some places anymore. I saw them and felt them and remembered them. Power lines and trash on the ground and utilitarian strip malls dropped from my vision, no longer offending me or otherwise grabbing my attention. And it freaked me out.

I found myself actively pushing back, willing myself to see the ugliness, to see the chain link fences and the chain restaurants and the twisted, empty, naked trees that protected me from nothing. What if I forget that ugly places are ugly, and I am left alone in my experience of beauty? What if I can never share these places, because what I want to share can only be found by tracing the years of experiences that are unique to only me? If I let my vision shift, do I lock myself into a world that only I can access?

The ironic thing about this is that winter in the Midwest is uniquely ugly to me because my world was shaped by living in Northern California and Florida — places that are mostly green year round. The shock of a landscape that can lose its green is something I cannot share with someone who grew up watching it happen year after year. I can never see the trees the same way that someone from the Midwest might see them. Even so, the bare trees have somehow become beautiful to me.

My need to share experiences with other people has been ever present this year. Day after day, my need has been impossible to cover up or to look away from. When my life became one long present and I lost the ability to chase the future in my mind to find relief, I finally came to terms with the fact that I cannot really ever be ok in the world without other people to share it with. And this year, when bare trees became beautiful to me, it felt like the route to me had become that much more complicated.

In John Green’s YouTube love letter to the Midwest*, he says “I love Indianapolis precisely because it isn’t easy to love. You have to stay here a while to know its beauty. You have to learn to read the clouds as something more than threatening or dreary.”

I have been thinking about this since he posted the video last February. Mostly, I have been wondering if it’s bullshit. I don’t object to the idea that you can learn to love something. I might even submit that love is something you always have to learn. It’s the word ‘precisely’ that has been bothering me. Given the choice between something that is easy to love and something that is difficult, doesn’t the thing that is easy offer universal advantages? Don’t we love difficult things in spite of their difficulties? What does it mean to love something because it is difficult to love?

I’m very interested in this question right now, because I think that I might be difficult to love.

When I say ‘difficult to love,’ I’m not talking about the ways I’ve sometimes been neglectful or explosively emotional and I’m not talking about the ways that my fears and self-loathing can sneak into my relationships. These are ways that I have been ‘difficult’ in relationships that are, well, they are just difficult, and pretty universal because it is difficult to be human. There is no ‘precisely because’ implied here. When I say that I am difficult to love, I am more saying that even under the best circumstances, the roads to find my experience of the world are windy and deviating, and it takes work to know me. I know it takes work because I am on the job full-time and I’m pretty confused.

I do think I understand what John Green was saying though. Even if you’ve grown up with bare trees and freezing rain, you understand them differently than lush trees and blue oceans and forests of evergreen conifers. Bare trees are difficult to love for most people, and when we love them, it’s because something else has crept into the spaces. There are places I have been that pulled the air from my lungs and left me feeling crushed and overwhelmed by the beauty. Standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean and surrounded by redwood trees I remember being singularly consumed by the feeling that I was alone and nature was unconcerned about my existence. It was not comfortable. The bare trees are also unconcerned about my existence, but I am unconcerned that they are unconcerned, and that is a different footing to start on.

I have always struggled with the fear that I could somehow become unreachable. I thought, for a while, that magic was real, and if I could just string words together in the right order, that I would always be able to create a path to another person. It’s not true, magic isn’t real, and even the most convincing shared experiences are illusory. We have all walked our own winding path to arrive, alone.

This is my first answer. And I believe it’s true. You will never see the bare trees as I do, and I will never see them again the way that I see them today. But I also have a second answer. The answer to loneliness is not a state of absolute shared understanding, but instead it is the process of caring and being cared for. It is the work we do for each other to learn enough. A tree that starts with nothing but spaces is one you have to fill in with experiences and comfort. And it is because of, and not in spite of this, that they are beautiful to me.

*Wintry Mix