Living as a new leaf (spring 2021)

Though spring happens every year, its return feels particularly meaningful in 2021—in part due to how long it took to arrive, here in Minnesota.

After those fifteen years spent in southwest Washington, where the seasons cycle through various shades of green, this spring I became convinced by mid-March that the pervasive gray would never end. And then came April with more of the same (evidence: April 18). To look out my window today and see bright green leaves on every branch is nothing short of a thrill. (Seriously, we had no lawn to mow until last weekend.)

Add to this the recent news that studies show our vaccines are truly working. Friends, neighbors and strangers, whose noses and mouths we’ve seen rarely, briefly or only on Zoom, are unmasking, their faces blooming with smiles, fatigue and every other emotion we’ve experienced these past many months.

I see myself anew too, the lower half of my face now more often left bare in public. How have I changed, both on the surface and deeper within?

May 13 brought Ascension Day, which celebrates the moment Jesus was taken up to heaven as his disciples watched (Acts 1). I imagine those remaining men standing like sunflowers, faces following Jesus as he rose and disappeared from sight. Only instead of lowering their gazes, they got stuck staring skyward.

Fortunately, two men in white appeared and asked why they continued looking upward. This prodded the disciples to move along, to begin the work of taking Jesus’ message, his love, to their neighbors, to the people they knew and even to the people they did not know or care about. It was time.

As spring holds me in its thrall, as the slow return to regular or closer-to-regular life begins, I wonder where I might be similarly on hold. What, right now, am I holding on to or watching for, rapt?

The present moment feels heavy and light all at once. It seems like a switch has flipped, and it’s a bit bright. We’ve had dinner parties. We’ve had houseguests. We’ve been to a graduation party. I had a friend over. We went to my son’s band concert. My brother and I drank coffee in a shop. My son and I attended a block party. We sang in church, masked. All of us, in what used to be everyday situations, tiptoeing—and, in some cases, running—back toward each other, vulnerable, relieved, brave, hesitant. Do we shake hands? Do we hug? Do we stand close or keep our distance?

I popped into the grocery store recently for bread and bananas, and a sign told me that if I was fully vaccinated, I could shop unmasked. The store’s criteria had no bearing on my choice: I already had my mask on, oddly relieved to reclaim the privacy of my face, my breath, myself, in a public setting, realizing that the strange ritual of masking has become natural; the formerly normal way of being has become strange. (Was it really just thirteen months ago that I masked up for the first time?) I realized that as much as I wanted to fling the past year behind me, stomp on the feelings of sacrifice, worry and loss, and turn my gaze to the future, to what-comes-next, I am tender, like my neighborhood’s new leaves.

In Japan, young leaves are called wakaba, and the springs I spent there taught me to admire foliage in new ways, taking note of the optimistic yellowish greenness of spring leaves, the way they filter the sunlight, their transience that soon solidifies into the more leathery texture of summer.

The idea of wakaba has been adapted to the Japanese world of driving. It’s what new drivers are callednot so different from how we refer to newbies as “green.” But in Japan, when these wakaba take to the road, their cars are outfitted with the wakaba mark, alerting those around them to their status.

When I lived in Japan, I wrangled for months with my supervisors about leasing a car, as buses were few and far between in my rural outpost. When at last they relented and I went to pick up my car, I found they had slapped wakaba marks on its hood and its hatchback. (My then-boyfriend suggested putting another on the undercarriage, just in case. Haha.)

Having been a licensed driver for ten years at that point, I was no wakaba, thank you very much, and I was a careful driver. I felt insulted that they wanted to add these warning stickers to alert those around me.

But the truth was, I was adapting to driving on the left-hand side of the road, my driver’s seat being on the right side of the car, stick shift in my left hand. I would be a wakaba to all of that. In the interest of keeping the peace, I accepted (ignored) the presence of those magnets and began enjoying my new freedom.

Now in Minnesota, as I soak up the brilliant spring greens, the scents of warming soil and breathing trees, the birdsongs in the air, as I ease into gatherings with my loved ones and with strangers, I feel again like some sort of wakaba, bright green to this world that used to be a bit gray, a bit same old-same old. There is so much more to learn.

As I visit with others, I hear that I’m not alone feeling socially awkward, newly (in some ways) wise, relationally unsure, physically and emotionally changed, for better and worse, and I wonder if we all are now, regardless of perspective, in various ways, wakaba.

Tender. Full of potential.

Not unlike the spring leaves, soaking in the sunshine, nourishing the trees.

Not unlike new drivers of our old lives.

Not unlike the disciples, shaken by the loss of their leader but also turned loose to answer his call.

Seeing myself as a wakaba, the question I find myself asking now is “how?” How do I take what I’ve learned about the world and others and myself this past year into everyday life? How do I hold onto the gains? How do I shed the fears, and release and honor the losses? How do I discern and answer my own calling and make the rest of this life count?

Social scientist Brené Brown coined the line “Stay awkward, brave and kind.” I have been hanging onto it lately, because it permits the awkwardness I certainly feel, empowers me to go forth anyway, and reminds me to be my best self — kind — no matter the situation.

I am finding that being awkward, brave and kind is part of seeing situations in new ways. In Acts 1, the disciples were prodded to reframe their situation from one of loss to one of possibility. In my life, I feel nudged to transition from regarding things as challenges to seeing them as opportunities.

Even something as mundane as those new leaf symbols on my Japanese minicar can lead to a new perspective. Back then, what I initially saw as warning labels to those around me turned out to provide benefits I did not anticipate: Other drivers seemed not as much to be watching out for me but to be looking out for me. They always gave me the right of way.

That is, they gave me extra space and time … to notice things … to decipher situations … to make the best decision for everyone around me, and for myself.

Isn’t that what all of us need in spring 2021?


Moving home

Resuming a Minnesota life after 19 years in Washington

A memoir of Japan

Sometimes you have to run far, far away to find your way home.

6 thoughts on “Living as a new leaf (spring 2021)

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