Navigating Change

The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is credited with the popular phrase, “There is nothing permanent except change.” Like a river, life flows ever onwards, and while we may step from the riverbank into the river, the waters flowing over our feet will never be the same waters that flowed even one moment before. Even still, there is no battle fought more fervently than the battle against change.

My husband had just turned fifty when we married. Me being me, I thought it was reasonable that he adapt to my way of doing certain things, which ostensibly meant he would need to change a few of his (less desirable) ways of doing things. He was quick to educate me that he was too old to change. “I’m 50 years old and I’m not changing,” was his go-to phrase. Before I wrote this paragraph I asked him if he had changed since we got married, “Of course I have.” When I reminded him of his ‘I”m too old to change’ statement, he laughed and admitted change is inevitable.

Even people that hate to change have experienced change. It happens slowly over time, as with my husband; it happens suddenly without warning forcing us into a new reality, such with COVID.

Nothing is as unsettling as when our own personal ‘change agent’ seems out of whack and positioned to run amok in ways we can’t even foresee. And as it stands now, I think everyone’s change agent is alive and well with no intention of changing. So I’ve been asking myself lately how to move forward in such a changed world that seems to care little for normalization.

Gardening has been enlightening for me in the same way running was in my not so distant past. I’m convinced that it is not so much the activity as it is the quiet solitude that lends itself to reflection. Some of my life’s most complex problems have been resolved while running or gardening. But in this example, it is the activity that is enlightening.

Learning to run was hard. My lungs wanted to explode and my legs disowned me. Gradually, even effortlessly in hindsight, I could run a mile, then five miles, and eventually I’d run five or six hours at a time. It was a slow change that happened over many years because I wanted it more than anything. But there is another, more acute transformation the garden would tell.

Last year the hundred year old tree fell in the native garden next door and took down several smaller trees along with it. Once the debri was cleared, the garden was so different. I was quite upset by this sudden change. It left a gaping, naked hole that was only made worse because it opened a new view directly into my house. After several days of cutting and grinding the tree trunks, the garden caretaker decided to leave the largest tree trunk as it fell. We were shocked. Who would want such a large, dead tree in the front of a beautiful garden?

The caretaker wisely assured us that it would become integrated to the garden in no time. The children would enjoy playing on it she mused, critters will have a new home, and the areas surrounding the felled tree would get more sun and develop in ways we don’t yet see.

Change is inevitable. Even if we do nothing to encourage change, it happens without consent. I prefer the structured, disciplined, change-over-time approach myself. One that is born from desire, love, or at least determination. But it’s helpful to note that the dead tree in the garden next door is beginning to look quite natural, even mystical. The kids play on it. I can see them from the house and hear their sweet laughter. There’s a rare magnolia that has taken root in the newly opened space that now sees a healthy dose of full sun.

It’s as if the garden has embraced this new configuration with open arms. It accepted the abrupt change with a love, desire, or at least a determination to become something even better. Change is part of the journey.

Several years ago Nordstrom’s co-president Erik Nordstrom commented on the company’s new growth initiatives, “Sometimes to change, you have to let go of what’s been successful for a long time.” Therein lies the key barrier to change: it’s hard. Hard to let go of the familiar, the comfortable, or what’s been successful in the past. The sun is shining in places we never meant to be exposed, perhaps only made worse because it opened a new view directly into ourselves.

Every change will be different and no two events can be approached exactly the same. The waters flowing over our feet will never be the same waters that flowed even one moment before. But how we embrace change seems to be what makes us who we are. It’s part of the journey.

The fallen tree is barely visible in today’s garden.