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Food for Thought

I look out of my window and see one of the more glorious signs of spring: my magnolia tree in full bud, just ready to bloom. It has been close to 30 years since we planted the magnolia. We planted it in a poorly thought-out location, as it is visible from only one window (what was once a bedroom and is now a study), and the soil was poor in that part of the yard, so it took many years to become established and flourish. Within the past three or four years, though, the magnolia has progressed from a pathetic little bush that produced only a half dozen blooms into a magnificent pink tree that outshines the pictures in the seed catalog.
All it needed was time – and patience – and letting Nature take its course. In my mind, that magnolia tree has become a sort of metaphor for the creative process.
At about the time we planted that pathetic little sapling, one of our sons was struggling to learn the skill that would become his life’s work. He had a definite talent for the work but complained that he was too slow. His employer and mentor reminded him that the finished product was the most important consideration. It had to be of the highest quality.
“Concentrate on the process,” he said, “do it right – the speed will come.”
No matter what skill you strive to perfect – building a house, writing a poem or baking bread – you need to practice. And, as you practice, you not only refine your skills but you improve your efficiency, you gain accuracy, self-confidence … and speed. Possibly the best thing about those improvements is the self-assurance. Once you’ve crossed the line from novice and student to veteran and master, you have a new sense of accomplishment that leads to what I can only call the thrill.
This thrill might be likened to a swimmer standing on the high diving board. There’s always a certain amount of apprehension about undertaking any new project. Even though the project may be a familiar one, there are always unknowns that may change the outcome from the expected to disaster. While that first-ever dive may have been a lump-in-the-throat fright, years of practice and refinement have turned it into something else. It has become yet another opportunity to execute a perfect dive – or to add even more refinements to a long-familiar performance. The rush of adrenalin comes, not from fear and apprehension, but from the joy of knowing you’re experienced and able to do this right – and that great surge of satisfaction is a reward you can reap time and time again. That is your bonus for sticking with it.
We can’t, of course, be experts at everything we attempt – no matter how hard we try and how diligently we practice. In some cases, we simply are not equipped for certain skills. A physically uncoordinated person such as myself is never going to achieve much beyond the mediocre when it comes to athletics. That includes dancing, roller-skating and rope-jumping as well as athletic games – with the possible exception of Hop-Scotch, which for some reason I was once pretty good at. Declining endurance and arthritis robbed me of even that small triumph. That’s been pretty well compensated for by other talents, such as my love of language, a goodly amount of creativity and an active imagination. I’ve learned to stay far away from the things I’m no good at – facing impossible challenges on a daily basis is too depressing. Nobody enjoys deliberately jumping into what they know will be disaster.
I don’t expect to find apples ripening on my magnolia tree in September. I don’t expect the lovely blossoms to last more than a week at best, considering the windy days and rain showers that tear at the petals during their brief life. I don’t expect the tree to be particularly attractive during the rest of the year once the blooms are done with. There’s nothing particularly lovely about the foliage, no attractive leaf colors, little shade to shelter us from the summer sun, no gorgeous berries, no special attraction for birds or butterflies to visit. There’s just, for one short week every spring, a glorious tree that seems to consist of delicate pink foliage – a sure sign of spring and an optimistic reminder that time and patience pay off in the end.