The Healing Tree

I lost myself in the pandemic and found myself again in nature.

by Kiran Yeh

Dmitry Fisenko, Unsplash

One spring day in May 2021, I looked out the window and saw the sun peeking out from the clouds. I realized that I had spent the last 445 days mostly alone. I had to leave my room.

After a long day of school Zoom meetings, I felt drained. Every day was like the next. I rarely changed out of my pajamas, except for the runs and walks I forced myself to take a few times a week.

More and more, I did my homework in bed instead of working at my desk, and my once productive life slowly ebbed away. I fell into a state of sadness that I was unable to shake.

Every two weeks I’d meet a friend, and that left me happier, but also depleted because I was not accustomed to making regular conversation. I spent time with my parents during mealtimes and walks, and while I felt more connected to them, we also argued more than we had before lockdown.

Confusion Outside and Within

I ceased regularly watching or reading the news after June 2020, but the horror still seeped in. I was afraid of Covid and of the people committing hate crimes against Asians. When I watched the video of George Floyd being murdered by Derek Chauvin on May 25, I grew angry and mournful. An explosion in Beirut on August 4 killed more than 200 people, and wildfires spread across the West Coast. It seemed like the whole world was in flames, and nothing could extinguish the chaos.

When 2020 finally came to a close, I was hopeful for a better new year. But six days into 2021, Donald Trump instigated an insurrection at the United States Capitol. I grew frightened of our incumbent leader, who used his tyrannical power to influence thousands of Americans into attacking the democratic process. I wondered how my fellow citizens could justify that violence.

My inner world was in turmoil, too. Entering my first year of high school in the fall of 2020, I was prepared to constantly evolve, but I had gained no new experiences and had little memory of what life was before. This “new normal” of remote learning and confinement to my room already felt like it had lasted my whole life.

Human beings change and grow in response to other people’s opinions and personalities. I had no idea who I was because I was sitting alone in my own mind. I began to lose myself.

So on that May day, I decided to shake off my despair by taking myself out on a date. I chose the Brooklyn Botanic Garden because it had been my second home when I was a toddler.

Seeing Others

I forced myself out the door. As I walked, I created narratives for the strangers I saw. I realized that we are all sitting inside our own minds, and that jolted me into observing. Tiny petals danced down from flowering trees as sparrows chirped.

I loved the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as a small child, and this was my first time there alone. The green oasis that I had explored daily with my babysitter or mom now seemed less exciting and more pacifying.

I put my Spotify on shuffle and entered the Japanese garden. Its graceful viewing pavilion overlooked a little pond where fluorescent orange and yellow koi fish swirled in the green water. The koi popped up and made a circle with their mouths, tilting their bodies backwards ever so slightly. I remembered that as a child, I thought they were yawning.

A red Shinto shrine stood in the water near rocks where turtles dozed. Green bushes of all shades, shapes, and sizes lined the edge of the water. Behind the bushes, a tapered path took visitors along the pond, and behind that, tall, slender trees lined the walkway.

Embracing my sadness helped me repair a broken part of myself.

I passed by a large fountain, and the bottom was full of pennies. When I was younger, I thought it was strange to throw money into the water. Now, I hoped that each person who had thrown a coin into the water got their wish. The fountain was lightly coated with dirt, but it was a beautiful thing, a pool full of dreams.

I walked through the rose garden, smelling the perfume. Roses of different colors—crimson, fuschia, blush, rouge, lemon, cream, and pearly white—stood in three long rows on their green stems. Through the bushes, I glimpsed an elderly couple holding hands and thought it would be nice to grow old with someone.

I stared at the lily pads with blooming flowers and sniffed the thick smell of the rainforest greenhouse. This place was where I spent most of my childhood, but I had never understood the extent of its beauty until now.

After about an hour, my legs got tired but I kept walking, smiling underneath my mask. Then I came upon the largest mass of leaves, 20 feet high and cascading to the ground. The layers of leaves were so thick they hid the trunk: It looked like a massive green waterfall.

The clouds had darkened the sky, and the dramatic landscape was hauntingly beautiful. I had never been interested in trees, but this was the grandest tree I had ever seen. The sign in front read “Weeping Beech.”

Connecting What Was Apart

I seldom yearned to go anywhere those days, but I felt like I belonged inside the tree. I hopped over the rope I was forbidden to cross and pushed through the waterfall into a haven. The floor was blanketed with wood chips and twigs. The trunk of the tree rose a foot high, and above that, branches stuck out every which way, their leaves forming a dome around me. I sat under this oversized umbrella of foliage that guarded me from my rain of insecurities.

Debussy’s “Clare de Luneplayed in my ears, and I was overwhelmed by sadness. Tears dropped onto my lap as the memories of the past year engulfed me.

It was the strangest sensation to be crying and happy at the same time. Sadness is supposed to be a negative feeling, but under the tree, I found ease even as I cried. Embracing my sadness helped me repair a broken part of myself. My sadness and happiness coexisted as I connected to the younger me who had run around this garden.

When I left the weeping beech, I felt lighter, as if the leaves had absorbed my thoughts. I left some of my loneliness in the tree. 

I couldn’t be physically close to people because of the pandemic, but I could connect to nature and the other people seeking solace in the garden. I am a part of the pennies and the penny-throwers and fish that make circles with their mouths and the elderly couple embracing in the roses, as we are all a part of each other.

A few years ago, I read The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur. One of the poems that stuck with me went, “the irony of loneliness is we all feel it at the same time—together.” Most people felt detached from the outside world over the past year, but we were never as alone as we thought we were.

Discussion Questions

1. In one instant Kiran realizes that she has spent 445 days mostly alone. How has this “new normal” of being remote and away from her friends affected her everyday experiences?

2. While in the Botanical Garden, Kiran experiences nostalgia and a sense of calmness she has not felt in a while. After sitting under the Weeping Beech tree, she cries and also feels happy. How was this moment helpful for Kiran? What are the things that Kiran has had to carry this past year that she was able to let go of? 

3. After reflecting at the Botanical Garden, Kiran starts to rethink her idea of loneliness and community. How does she remain connected to her friends and others even if she can’t physically see them? What does connecting to others look like for Kiran now?

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