When I was in high school, I had a biology teacher describe a Ginkgo tree one day in class. She said the plant was one of the oldest on Earth and was native to Asia. What really captivated me, though, was the description of the leaves. The tree produces fan-like, waxy leaves that turn a beautiful golden hue in the fall. More than that, the leaves fall to the ground all at once in a sort of farewell, death-defying symphony.
I really grabbed onto that idea: They fall all at once.
In high school, I was dealing with a deep, dark secret that was tearing me apart. I wanted to take it out in every way that wasn’t good for me, so I quit talking to everyone that mattered all at once. I didn’t talk to my friends, my family, my teachers, anybody, really. I just plugged my headphones in and checked out from the world.
Words couldn’t do anything justice, especially the pain I was feeling from a childhood wrong. So music took over. Funnily enough I never listened to the lyrics and their meanings; instead I took in the beats and emotions of a song. I could stew in it and slip and slide deeper into my own dark hole.
Everywhere I went for a six-month period, I was plugged in. Headphones in and iPod on shuffle, I would listen to dark melodies. I didn’t think anyone could understand or that anyone would hear me. I felt like I was somehow the one who committed a wrong, that I was guilty and to be blamed for everything that was swimming in my head.
Words were confusing, but music was soothing. And eventually, so were Ginkgoes.
For whatever reason, on that day in biology class, I was listening with precision. With no headphones in that day – although I’d gotten in trouble more than a few times for wearing them in class – I heard the word Ginkgo and was riveted. There was something weird in the language, something beautiful in the name.
My parents’ house was positioned in a quiet, too-sleepy neighborhood. Walking down the street with the idea of a Ginkgo leaf in my head, I was surprised to count eight Ginkgoes towering over the sidewalks and lining the streets.
Something about the tree stuck with me more than music, more than words, and, at the time, more than people.
Nearly a year later, I was in college and trying to find my way around on a campus full of unfamiliar faces. It was darker than ever in the storm inside my head, and I needed something, anything, to grab on to.
I had a daily ritual in which I would walk around the perimeter of the small campus and inevitably end up in a small gazebo. Nearby was a Ginkgo tree that I finally noticed on one November evening. I couldn’t hold it all in anymore, but I couldn’t find the words to express to let it all out. I felt trapped and more alone than ever. I felt like nothing mattered.
In the moments that I sat there, the golden tree shed nearly all of its leaves thanks to a gust of particularly strong wind. The golden fans pirouetted through mid-air; somersaulting in diagonal patterns on their way to the ground, the leaves created a silent symphony.
And I wasn’t the only one watching. I hadn’t noticed a girl sharing the gazebo with me. She pointed to the tree and said, “That’s a male Ginkgo tree.”
That was all I needed. We talked music, biology, family, everything. I didn’t have an all-or-nothing moment in which I gave away all my secrets, but I realized that sometimes you have to remember that you are a part of something bigger to move forward.
Some call it faith; I call it life’s music. You’re a part of the audience, and you’re in charge of whether or not you chose to listen, whether or not you choose to participate in the standing ovation. On that day, I decided to listen and respond.
I would have never made a friend if I hadn’t sat at the feet of the golden tree that was producing a performance right in front of me. There can’t be a symphony without a listener or an audience. There can’t be brightness without first taking a step out of darkness. And when I finally found the ability to say something to a fellow human being, I was moving in the right direction, out of the dark, and towards the light.