Fall has arrived and I find myself standing the middle of San Juan National Forest. We are hiking a trail that winds up a mountain in a series of switchbacks and I pause to catch my breath. I quickly become captivated by the sound of the breeze as it begins rustling through the Aspen that line our path.
What begins as a whisper beckons my eyes upward, and the sun glints down through their outstretched branches over the trail. The bright green leaves are just beginning to turn and fall, and they shimmer like twinkle lights above my head. The sound grows louder and reminds me of the deep Ujjayi breath my yoga instructor always encourages my class to use. It starts far across the valley and gradually grows louder as the wind flits and twirls effortlessly along the winding path. Dancing leaves reveal its progress as it climbs, until it reaches me, flying by at full speed.
I answer back with my own deep breath. Cool, dry air stings the inside of my nose, slowly expands my lungs, and finally descends to fill my belly. Still winded from the high altitude, I exhale into the Autumn mountain sky with a dramatic, noisy release. I try to hurl my worries into the last of my breath with hopes they will be swept away with the leaves. They are not.
We have been looking forward to this trip for months, my wife and I, (a grownup vacation with part of our quarantine pod) away for an entire week. This has been (for all of us) one of the weirdest, most emotional years I’ve ever lived through. As it quickly comes to a close, this is exactly what we needed. The steady mountain that holds us stands in stark contrast to the emotional rollercoaster of the world and national events that continue to unfold, but also to those we’ve been experiencing in our own home. Quarantine has been a mix of ups and downs for our family, and we found ourselves in a hard season again right before we left town. It’s weighing heavy on my heart.
It’s hard to say what brings these moments about. One minute everyone is feeling great and getting along, laughing and joking, and, well…acting as a family. The next feels like we are peering up at the distant sky from a dark place without a ladder. It’s been hard to predict what will unearth a wound or hurt that someone is processing at any given time, and the experience has me turning to books and seeking out experts to try to understand.
It seems the hard seasons that tend to blindside us are not only very common in blended families but will likely continue for many years to come. One book describes it like this: “We’re making progress, but we keep falling into a hole.” I could not have said it better.
The experts I’ve turned to caution that finding peace and gelling as a blended family could take anywhere between five and twelve years. I was naïve to think we would have a fairytale coming together. We lived together as a family for nearly four years without very many hiccups, so it came as a bit of a shock when we suddenly began ‘falling into holes’ after our wedding.
The timing is normal, according to the experts whose advice I’ve explored. The permanence of my presence that our marriage has brought to my step kids’ lives basically equates a large shovel. It’s only after the marriage that step kids will tend to challenge boundaries, even when you already have a rich history together. Holes, holes, holes. It’s been tough.
I finish my noisy exhale and become present again with my feet planted on the mountain. I remember what our host shared with us this morning about this forest. Twelve years ago, thousands of acres burned to the ground where I stand. It was once a mature pine forest, and the charred stumps of many of those old, wise trees are still visible, peering out above the Aspen tree line.
I try to imagine where I’m standing engulfed in flames, and the devastation and hopelessness the residents of this area must have felt as their homes and beloved surroundings burned to the ground. Many of them still pack up their trowels and pine seedlings each day and do their best to give back to the mountains they continue to call home.
I turn to keep climbing the trail as another light breeze sends the green and golden leaves above my head into a shimmy. This is the magic of what the fire has brought to the forest. Before it burned to the ground, no Aspen had previously existed in the area and were a delightful surprise to the residents of these hills when the trunks began to emerge from the soil.
Nature is miraculous like that. When a forest burns, the ashes left behind provide helpful nutrients for the soil, flames remove and thin out old vegetation to make space for new plants, and the heat even helps new seeds to germinate. God uses this extreme and often painful phenomenon to clear space for the next wave of creation. I ponder that maybe the same is true for divorce. Maybe blended families are God’s way of bringing new life and love to people who might otherwise be left feeling burned.
I think about the devastation and hopelessness that divorce must have brought upon my step kids’ biological parents. Undoubtedly, neither parent could imagine at the time that the very thing that dismantled what they’d hoped would be timeless, was actually making space for the beauty that lives in each of their lives now. Like the Aspen, new love took forms that were surprising and unexpected, but proved to be beautiful as it filled in the remaining spaces.
Taking a switchback on the trail, I am gifted a view of how far I’ve come. I can see the new growth of the seeds the residents have planted to maintain what they knew before, and also the beauty of the way the Aspen mingles with the burned pines. I can see how all of the new growth and old burns work together to create a beautiful, new forest on this old, enriched earth.
Every once in a while, my step kids discover that something they didn’t know they would miss has burned, and we fall into a hole. The earth we are building on is enriched and beautiful, yes. But that will not prevent them from stumbling upon new aspects of their lives that will no longer grow in the ways they envisioned or hoped. We will continue to come across moments of sadness and hurt. I can see now, with the steady eye of the Aspen on my heart, that this will not stop, but that it doesn’t have to.
From this vantage point, I can see how the old that has burned and the new that has grown work so well together to create something beautiful. I vow to fill my pockets with seedlings, so that the next time we fall into a hole we will have something to plant there and nourish. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed with the knowing that we are going to be okay.
Maybe it feels like your life is on fire right now, or maybe you’ve found yourself in an unexpected hole. I want to assure you that you are not alone. I want you to know that you are going to be alright. Just hang in there (maybe even plant a seed or two), and trust that what’s coming will be more beautiful than you can imagine. Take a deep breath. It will be more beautiful; it’s the nature of things.