We are the Aspen

female pelvis in aspen leaves

Nature post-fire is a desolate thing, frightening in its gray, barren starkness. We see the desaturated land with its twisted carcasses of a forest that once was and are reminded of the hellish blaze that caused it. The remains seem the very opposite of life and the idea that any nature could take root feels inconceivable. But one tree can be depended upon to quietly take root regardless of the devastation. The aspen, known for its quivering, mystical leaves, is invariably the first tree to return after a fire. A majestically tall and narrow tree with creamy bark and serrated heart-shaped leaves, the aspen has become the most prolific tree in North America and is a prominent symbol for endurance and resilience. 

I think that women are like the aspen. Their resilience is both the most consistent trait I’ve witnessed, and seems to be the most underrated. As women we are continuously facing fires that try us, from small, persistently troublesome brushfires to raging infernos that threaten to overtake our soul. Honestly, sometimes it feels like they do. But it is what we accomplish post-fire that is so outstanding—we keep going. That ability to survive and carry on after the storm, sometimes for ourselves, but often for the sake of our families and for simply what needs to get done, is extraordinary. 

I myself have faced fires that have shaken my sense of stability and safety: I’ve had a NICU preemie hospitalized for months, driving me to actually scream and throw shoes at the wall in helpless rage (and I swear, I’m usually a calm person!). I’ve dealt with melanoma and the fear of waiting for a cancer to be staged, wondering if my youngest child would ever even know or remember me. I’ve had my five-year-old daughter try to console me, sobbing, in a clinic hallway after a routine ultrasound showed no heartbeat and I realized I was going to miscarry. What is amazing, and amazingly sad, is how not unique these experiences are among women. I know plenty with similar or worse hardships than mine—more miscarriages, longer NICU stays. Infertility, loss of loved ones, unexpected and endless caregiving. Tragedies that can make our insides feel like they’re being burned to the ground.

Moreover, there are so many less dramatic but still frustrating burdens we face day-to-day—“brush fires'', you could call them. Take, for instance, having to turn down a dream job because there are only full-time positions available and you either can’t find, can’t face or can’t afford full-time childcare. Or trying to earn respect from colleagues by forcing yourself to be more aggressive than you think you should be or are comfortable with, simply because you are female. Or feeling as though, day after day, you have to put family first, because you love your family and they need you, but knowing, in doing so, that you are losing out on both time and opportunities to realize your own goals. Do note that these are not hypothetical situations, either. In just the past month I’ve experienced or I’ve chatted with friends who have experienced each of these scenarios. I could’ve listed like 40. We stay up too late, get up too early (after sometimes being woken up three times in between!) and get spread too thin, and sometimes we stumble under those waves of guilt or worry or stress. 

Then guess what happens? You got it. We pick up the pieces and we keep going with our normal, daily routine. We finish making dinner and keep up with the calendar and continue to survive. We maintain our friendly smile at work, reach our deadlines and continue to push. An unseen fire may have come and turned our insides to a crisp, but somehow we dig deep, reach out our roots and against all odds, push through that seemingly barren ground and survive. Then like the aspen, we grow.

But I must let you in on a little secret about the success of the aspen: an individual tree doesn’t do it on its own. These trees live in colonies where their roots are interconnected with one another; a colony of hundreds of trees can even be considered a single organism. This allows them to not only communicate with each other, but in times of adversity they can strengthen, protect and actually heal one another. So if we indeed are the aspen, we too must connect, strengthen and heal each other in times of adversity. Then through the ashes we can rise together, and thrive.

These were my thoughts as I painted Female Pelvis in Aspen Leaves.