This story is on my mind, and has been all day long.

When I was about ten years old, a teacher gave each student in my class a sapling, and told us to plant it. Instability was my family’s last name — we were never in any one place for very long — so I was afraid of planting the tree in our yard. Instead, my great grandparents told me to plant it in their front yard. From the very beginning, I loved that tree. And I cared about that tree. So when the storm came, and threatened to drown my tender sapling, my heart broke. To save it, W.A, my great grandfather, went outside in the rain and tied a stick to the sapling, for support. I’m sure he never had any idea how grateful I was to him for that. But I was. Every time we returned down home, I grew excited about seeing “my tree.” I couldn’t wait to see how much it had grown each time. I remember thinking that it would be grown up by the time I was grown.

I haven’t been to Mama Nora and W.A’s house since I was a pre-teenager. They have both died. I’m not even sure anymore who lives in that house. But what I do know is that, in all these years, my tree has seen dozens–hundreds, even–of storms. Lightning has coursed through the heavens and struck at it. Rain has withered it. Snow has frozen it. Yet, still it stands. Yet, still, birds now make nests in its mature branches. Maybe squirrels race around its trunk. In the summertime, its leaves are a beautiful green and in Fall, they change to red and orange and yellow. It brings shade on hot days to those who now live there. It isn’t an old tree (naturally, as that would then make me ancient!), but it is a strong tree.

I’ve been in real need of hope lately. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a hug. And sometimes the dark freaks me out to the point where I keep my bathroom light on. Anyway, my usual optimism had taken a hit. But, today, I thought of my tree. You see, hope doesn’t exist in that story because the tree withstood the rain. Hope exists in the story because today that tree is strong and beautiful. When people see it, they don’t think of what it has weathered; they just admire what it is.

Leaves change. Every season, they change colors and then fall off so that new leaves take their place. But, whether it be a vibrant green, orange or brown, leaves are beautiful. You can hold one and see its veins; the fingerprints of leaves. Every tree is different because of its location, because of its climate and because if the number of leaves on its branches. But no matter how different they are, trees all grow. Age affects them all. In a way, I’m like my tree too.

My sister and pretty much everyone I’ve ever met has given me grief because I have never taken even a sip of alcohol. The other day, I was offered a sample of three different wines. I refused and, when asked why, explained that I don’t ever drink–never had even a sip. The follow-up question: “How old are you? I mean, how–how did you do that? Did you not go to high school?” While it makes me feel like an alien–not drinking, ever, is one leaf of many that makes me…me.

I stick my head in freezers because it numbs my headaches and the air on my face feels good. Another leaf.

In order to be happy, I must be surrounded by children and a pen. I talk to imaginary characters, and I climb into kid-sized tunnels and slides, even if I’m in danger of getting stuck. Another leaf.

People call me strange because many of my leaves don’t look like others’. My storms have been different too, and have molded different strengths and weaknesses. A few of the storms in my life have threatened to topple me over, just like the rain threatened to drown my sapling. But, in the end, neither it nor I drown. Instead, I tie myself to God and to the reminder that, no matter how different my leaves look, I’m really not that different than anyone else. Me and a stranger could stand in W.A’s yard, staring at the same set of four trees that are in it, and I would be the only one capable of knowing which tree is mine. They all look the same. Even though they’re not. We can acknowledge our differences — you can laugh at me because I don’t know what beer tastes like and I can laugh at you because you yell at the television during a football game — but, when the storms come, we stand back to back to block it together.

Hope doesn’t knock us over the heads– it’s subtle and we have to look for it. But when we stop to really think about what we’ve accomplished, about the worthiness of our decisions every day, we come to see that we matter–not just as a collective group but, also, as individuals. And it’s in that realization that we find the strength to shake the rain off, and see the beauty in a young sapling.