Two years ago, I planted four small evergreen trees beside our house and in our backyard. Leyland Cypresses are known for growing fast, so I could already imagine them tall, making our house look prettier and giving us some privacy in the back. But when I didn’t notice any change in them a year later, I got a little grumpy.
My mom, who is a seasoned gardener, happened to be visiting so she took a look at the trees and the ends of their fronds. She thought they were doing just fine, and she reminded me of a well-known expression in the horticultural world: the first year they sleep, the next year they creep, and the third year they leap.
Of course! The saying made perfect sense. I felt a little ashamed that I hadn’t been more sympathetic toward these young trees that I had adopted, but hadn’t really given much love to.
When a plant has been sitting in a nursery in a five-gallon pot with its friends for a long time, why wouldn’t it need time to adjust to a new home? For the newcomer, everything is different: the type of soil it is expected to latch onto, the amount of light it is given, the micro-climate in its new area, and the other creatures and plants that surround it.
All I was thinking of was my end goal. The trees I imagined would soar up to the second floor of our house, tall and elegant like Tuscan pines. They would shield our space from foot traffic on the street and tower over the backyard like a sentinel.
Not only did I not have the patience necessary to allow these plants to thrive in their own time, but I also didn’t see how they were teaching me a parallel lesson about what was going on in my own life.
Because when we moved into this place in Tenleytown, Washington, D.C. almost three years ago, everything was new to us too. We had never met any of our neighbors, and our children had never poked their heads into the schools they would attend, never met any of the kids who went there. We had to start from zero with doctors, DMVs, and dishwasher repairmen.
I certainly didn’t expect my kids to instantly adjust and thrive upon arrival. In fact, having moved so much in their growing years due to my husband’s medical training, I felt bad about transplanting them again (this would be Sofia’s fourth elementary school).
Like a tree getting used to the earth it’s been shoved into, a child must dedicate a lot of energy to basic things like figuring out where the drinking fountain is and how the cafeteria works. But I don’t think anyone can thrive until they also know important things like who can they trust, who are their friends, and what are their strengths and passions.
But the sleep-creep-leap parallel never struck me more than this year, our third year in D.C. Our daughter, the one who as a small child didn’t want to leave my lap during birthday parties, who clung to me like a staticky skirt at preschool drop-off time, was blossoming. She had settled into a small group of friends, she had waited and watched and then tried out for the school play, and she seemed confident and happy.
Like a tree who is transplanted, she needed a year to adjust and a year to learn and test boundaries, before she was really ready to grow. Which made me wonder how sleep, creep, leap could be applied to all sorts of situations, and how it could help me be more empathetic and patient with myself and other people.
For example, if I were taking on a new job, I would be wise to give myself time to get acquainted with my boss, the work culture and its history, and my colleagues before I expect great accomplishments from myself. If I were a supervisor, hopefully I would give the same leeway to a new tree, by allowing her time, but also making the conditions rich for thriving: orienting her, encouraging her, giving her the tools and tips she needs to do her job well.
Knowing sleep-creep-leap encouraged me to give grace in all kinds of situations, even small ones like going to parties. For example, when we arrive at a party where we know no one, we should allow ourselves to quietly observe and make small talk, before we try to make real connections. If we (or our children) are learning how to do something new, like playing the piano or making pottery, we should know that it will take a while of sleeping and painfully slow creeping before our fingers dance across the keys or we make a bowl that can hold a ladleful of soup.
The wisdom of trees even applied to our settling into this house. Even though I was anxious to start working on our house, things were so busy with my blog business and getting settled into a new city, that we had to wait (or sleep). Which was a good thing, because everyone knows that you are supposed to live in a house for a year before you make any changes, so you get to know its microclimate: what works and what doesn’t in all seasons of the year.
The second year, we crept into renovating. Thank God, because we had a lot to learn. After a few small projects were under our belt, we were ready to make big strides in the third year. By that time, I had the confidence and experience to know what I wanted and to be assertive about it.
Just last week I looked out of our dining room window at one of our lowly Leyland Cypresses that we had planted in the backyard. Unlike the ones on the side of our house, which now did look like shaggy, lanky teenagers, this one didn’t look like it had grown at all. I sighed, chalking up the lack of vigor to too much clay in the soil or not enough light.
But when I went out to the yard and took a few fronds in my hands, I realized that this tree had in fact adapted beautifully. The last six inches of each branch was lighter green than the rest. This new growth was impossible to see from afar, but when I took the time to look closely, I could see it clearly.
I hadn’t even noticed this tree’s changing, because it had been creeping. And there was another lesson for me. Whether it’s a child learning to read or getting your house turned around after a holiday visit, progress can be glacially slow. So slow that you don’t even notice there is any, and you begin to lose heart (and patience). But if you keep on going — watering, fertilizing, whispering encouragement — there will be change. And probably a leap.
All of a sudden an afternoon will free up, and you’ll get everything put away, the laundry folded, and the vet appointment done, and then you find yourself dreaming about the next party. Or, after many afternoons of pushing through homework, whining and tearing, and rewards that didn’t even work, one day your son will shout out a whole sentence that he’s read on a billboard. I know, because it’s happened to me.