One of many moves took me to Oakland, California. I’d spent the previous nine years living thirty kilometers from the nearest town. Sometimes that felt achingly lonely. I decided my next chapter would be walking distance to everything.
I found a small, one-bedroom apartment in a neighbourhood that bordered Lake Merritt. I was in my element. The lake was five minutes away. Work was a ten-minute walk. Shops, farmers’ market, and a library were ten minutes in the opposite direction.
On one of my walks I stumbled into the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt. Each path, each stone was carefully placed. Trees were bent by design instead of wind. Every branch on the carefully pruned trees was trained to keep its shape small, confined to the gardener’s vision.
The effect was delicate, harmonious, outwardly beautiful. I looked at a dozen or so, then burst into tears and fled the garden. That evening I wrote to a friend:
The docents handed me a laminated guide, and I wandered around, politely checking the guide from time to time. But with every tree I became more disturbed. Beautiful trees, all twisted and bent, had been forced to make themselves small for the pleasure of others. I don’t know why I reacted so strongly, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there and left in tears. Perhaps I felt too personally the trauma of being bent and shaped to someone else’s will instead of being allowed to grow freely. I have always admired bonsai before, marveled at the care that goes into pruning and shaping and tending. But today I hated it.
I’d just come out of a relationship that had defined my life in ways that didn’t fit my nature. I still felt clipped and small. I wanted to break into the bonsai garden at night and steal away the tiny, decades-old trees, plant them in some wild meadow or along a wind-swept shore, somewhere where they could be the trees they were meant to be.
That was years ago. I can admire the artistry of bonsai again, though I am not a fan of it. I can also appreciate all that I experienced and learned in a relationship that took me along unexpected paths. I value those places in me that grew and expanded because I was forced to explore new parts of me.
Still, for me bonsai is a metaphor for the way we clip each other’s spirits when we insist on imposing our own vision. We do it as spouses, parents, friends, teachers, bosses, politicians, retailers, and advertisers.
I see the beauty in bonsai, the hours of care and attention, the creativity that goes into the shaping. But I prefer the wild sprawl of a natural setting, where each species of flora and fauna can pursue its own, unique search for the light and nutrients it needs to thrive, to be wholly and completely itself.