Sara Whitestone, The Ginkgo Grove
Of all my States of Mind, Virginia is the hardest to unmix—to cipher down thousands of memories and moments into just a few words, to distill from so many impurities just a few potent truths. What do I write about Virginia, where I have lived for the last twenty-five years and learned and lost and laughed and loved?
So many times over the years I drove alone to Blandy Experimental Farm, the University of Virginia’s research arboretum that is nestled up against the fertile banks of the Shenandoah River. Then I’d walk a trail or sit on a bench and scribble half-formed thoughts into my journal. Often, I’d rest in the shade of a large grove of ginkgo trees.
It was under the branches of these trees that, one by one, I would leave my crushed dreams as offerings, mixing them with the winter’s decay of ginkgo leaves. But it was also here in this grove that these dreams sprang up again—renewed with spring’s green grass and nurtured into hope by autumn’s soft, butter-colored light.
I walk in that grove again today, noticing how the height of the trees has marked both their age and mine. But this time, I am curiously at peace. I have no more dreams to crush, and so, none I need leave as offerings. Those I had thought were buried are now alive, and I’m experiencing them in ways I never before could have imagined.
Today, as I measure my growth with that of the ginkgo grove, the state of mind that rises up into the pure, oxidated breath of the trees is one of thankfulness.
Although the ginkgoes at Blandy Farm were planted from seed in 1929, their slow growth of only one foot per year put their young adulthood at the same time as mine. And now, all these years later, as we—together—are reaching our maturity, the trees remind me of who I was and of all I have become. As I sit on a bench in their shade, the ginkgo grove tells me that we have grown side by side and little by little into the strength and wisdom of our age.
When I first moved to Virginia, I was twenty-seven, and my marriage was already in crisis. Because of this, my dreams of writing, of teaching, of traveling, of playing music—and through all these, of living my full, creative self—were dying. And yet during this time when I was young, it was my children who spurred me on, inspiring me with their tiny hands and earnest voices, as they eagerly reached for, and spoke into being, their own true selves. Day by day, their growth and change was so fast, and their passions so infectious, that my continual response to their vibrancy was one of gratitude.
Those years ago when I was young and struggling, I couldn’t yet measure my own changes, and I didn’t yet know how to be thankful for what seemed to be my stark life. It was as if I were a tree whose growth rings were only narrow bands, each ring constricting the next, stunted with years of drought. But with these words I am writing here, my maturing self is making a record of my thankfulness so that I will not forget.
And as I write, I wonder: does God ever get tired of hearing words of thanks?
I wake each morning in my small condo and whisper my gratitude as I open my eyes to the window-views of North Mountain as it rises above the Shenandoah Valley. And I’m thankful that, even though I live alone, I don’t often feel alone.
Just last week, I hiked up that same mountain with my friend Gelynne, who is, all at once, steady and genuine and questioning and real. And then there’s my friend Pam, who, in kindness and love the summer after my divorce, invited my children and me to Virginia Beach for a week to vacation with her family. Pam has always given to us, freely and without judgment. And I’m thankful for my friend Rick, who has been like a brother to me—driving miles to rescue me if my car breaks down or to just talk with me over lunch at a cafe. Then there is Sandy, who is older and wiser than I, but her faith and positivity keep her in her prime as if she were my contemporary. And like the trees, I also measure myself by her—viewing the years Sandy has lived ahead of me as those I will soon enjoy.
How can I feel alone in these Virginia valleys and mountains, where not only friendship flourishes but where beauty abounds? When I admire beauty—I mean, really engage in it—I can’t help but be overwhelmed by thankfulness for it. Just the simple interplay of light and cloud and shadow and sun can bring tears to my eyes—because each aesthetic moment is the stillness of grace.
Does God, in his stillness, ever get tired of hearing my constant words of thanks?
I whisper gratitude when, each time I choose to simplify, calm replaces chaos with a quiet restoration of mind and soul and body. Just as I have been shedding internal baggage, I have also shed material things. And this clutterless simplicity has given me more time to think about, and then to write about, what is important.
There is this, too: when I’m thankful, I can't be greedy. What often at first seems complicated can always be simplified as I measure my needs by those of my ginkgo grove. These healthy trees find their contentment through growing where they have been planted—in the fullness of roots and water and air and sky. And they are completely untouched by emptiness or by unslaked desire.
I sometimes forget my own fullness in my searches for more. Close to my condo, there’s an A-frame cabin on a hill overlooking Lake Laura with a covet-invoking view of North Mountain. I tell myself I want this house. My adult children could each have their own room when they come to visit me. And there’ll be grandchildren someday, right? And wouldn’t that deck be so amazing with a hot tub? And couldn’t I write so much better after soaking in that tub while I admire that view?
But then I think of the floors to vacuum, the toilets to scrub, the chlorine to buy, all the maintenance—both inside and outside—not to mention a large mortgage to pay. And the simplicity of the ginkgo trees reminds me that (after all) my children don’t come to Virginia enough to warrant a house that size. And what would I, as a single woman, do with all that unused, A-frame space, anyway?
Each time I turn from searching to simplicity, I also return to gratitude—gratitude that my tiny condo has a mortgage of only $300 a month and matching low maintenance needs. And I re-recognize that my choice of a small dwelling rewards me with time and with money to fulfill big dreams—for travel, for adventure, and for the writing of it all.
With gratitude, I become content—content with the small pleasures of sitting on my deck (that has, after all, its own beautiful North Mountain view) with my hot-brewed cup of tea as I savor the smell of wood smoke rising from my chimney; content with eating waffles while I write at a coffee shop down in the valley—the words on my page smudged with the farm-fresh fruit and butter that smothers my breakfast; content right here, in this moment at Blandy Farm, as I mark my growth under the multicolored muse of my ginkgo grove.
This contentment then moves my mind toward my children—whose dreams long ago carried them away from the Virginia farmland where they were raised—a daughter who is playing music as a violinist in Chicago and a son who is playing with words as an editor in New York City. I am content, because no matter what they choose for their futures, I am confident that they were well-nurtured in Virginia and that the roots of their true selves run deep.
I keep asking if God ever gets tired of hearing words of gratitude because every day I cannot help but whisper my thanks for these children I was given and for the further gift it was to raise them. In a rented farmhouse in the middle of Virginia horse country, my children learned the care of animals and the cultivation of gardens and the freedom of wide open spaces. They walked out our front door and down dirt lanes to visit equally with farm owners and farm workers. And my children and I would take to the open roads on camping trips, exploring national parks while also confronting our nation’s history—a history both noble and ugly. And through it all, we were repelled by the evil and compelled by the good.
And I whisper thanks that we can continue our adventures together, as I fly to Chicago or drive to New York, and as we meet in other locales for ski or beach vacations.
I have now moved from the bench in the ginkgo grove to lounge in the soft grass below. But as a result of my thoughts, I sit up straight—surprised. I’m surprised because, as I have looked back, I see that in those years I thought I was stunted, I was slowly being prepared to live this dream-like reality of the present.
Instead of the narrow constriction I once envisioned, I see how wide and open my rings of growth really were. Between and throughout the education of my own children, I was also rising up—from a rural public elementary school teacher, to a nonprofit educational director, to an instructor at a small suburban college, to a tenured faculty member at a large urban university. In all these years and levels of experience, I have become a proficient, efficient teacher, satisfied with the positive changes I affect in my students. And as I teach these students to write, I am also thankful that my schedule allows me my own creativity.
If God ever tires of hearing my words of gratitude, he doesn’t say so. But I’m pretty sure he smiles at my joy. I feel that joy each time I ski down the whitened slopes of the small resort close to my condo. And I laugh as I whisper my thanks—for my health, for my aliveness, for my physicality, for my mentality. I laugh because I have learned that the opposite of victimhood is not empowerment, it is thankfulness. And when I exercise my gratitude muscles, the fever of resentment that fumes when blaming others is cooled and cured by the invigorating blue of Virginia’s winter skies.
I can’t be angry and thankful at the same time. And why would I want to be angry—when it is the lightness of thankfulness that diminishes the past with its pain, so much so that the music inside me transposes into outward melody. And right now, sitting cross-legged on the soft grass of the ginkgo grove, I alternate between penning these words of thanks on paper and plucking out music of thanks on my travel guitar.
Just as I am sure God doesn’t need to hear my repeated phrases, which are graced with notes of gratitude, I am also sure I still need to voice my thanks. Because all those years ago, when I was a young mother with my marriage in crisis—when I couldn’t yet see my wide rings of growth—I still felt compelled to sit among these ginkgo trees while I journaled what then seemed impossible hopes.
And it is here, twenty-five years later, that I often come to write a chapter of my novel or to work out the state of my mind for an essay. And it is here, today, that I not only mark my growth by the height of the trees but also by the number of my creative publications and by the fulfillment of so many of my dreams.
But in all this, I am not prideful. Because the trees, in their measured simplicity, remind me that the opposite of pride is not humility.
It is thankfulness.