“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is now.” – Chinese Proverb
The other day when I had slipped briefly down the rabbit hole of “shoulda woulda coulda,” a friend shared the above saying with me. I had never heard it before, so it stopped me in my mental tracks. In an instant it replaced my feelings of frustration and wistfulness caused by a plague of useless what-ifs with a much-needed element of optimism.
You have some unplanted 20-year-old trees in your life, too, right?
My own “giant Sequoia” is the unpurchased Tribeca apartment we decided was way too expensive for “what it was.” That 750 square feet in a prime lower Manhattan neighborhood could have changed the course of our real estate journey. It quadrupled (no, I’m not exaggerating) in value in the two years that we rented it.
Instead we waited and cautiously made our first home purchase in the safer and more practical Boston suburbs. Our adorable, tiny cottage was perfect for our new family. Perfect, that is, until we had to resell it and discovered that the “park” across the street was going to be developed as multi-family rentals. We were lucky to squeak out of Massachusetts with our original investment intact.
Ah well. If we’d had a million dollars to buy our current home, we may not have wound up in our “quirky,” 100-year-old fixer-upper. Yet, our financially questionable and apparently ill-fated real estate delay has yielded at least one profound gift. Had we had not already owned a garage that was converted into what is now my yoga studio, I may never have had the guts to start this little business that is my passion. While we may not have a magnificent, awe-inspiring towering Sequoia of a home, we love it. It has been a wonderful place to nurture and watch both our family and my professional self grow up.
Another “tree” I sometimes mourn as planted too late is my yoga practice. I would be lying if I told you I never wondered what my practice would be like if I’d first unrolled a mat at a more “appropriate” age. You know, if I hadn’t waited until I was 35, but had started practicing I was a young, strong and somewhat bendy 20- or even 25-year-old like my younger students.
As nice as it sounds to have started practicing before I even knew there was a clock to race, it’s also silly. First of all, when I was 20, I was much more concerned about my social life than my “inner life.” Second, if I’m brutally honest, I was never even a little bit bendy so youth wouldn’t have helped on that front. Finally, if I’d already tried yoga “in my younger years,” I wonder if I would have sought it out again when I really needed something to help me navigate through a period of darkness back into the light. I suspect my 35-year-old, fairly lost self needed something brand new to shock my system and wake me up again.
A moment of reflection leads me to conclude that, while not wiser in the traditional sense, in both of these cases the second best time to plant was probably the more fruitful of the two choices. And if I’m wrong, I’ll never know, will I?
After all, it’s impossible to look back at the various forks in your road and know where that other path would have taken you. In fact some forks may not have felt like forks at all. For example, unlike the apartment I definitely chose not to buy, there was never a moment when I decided NOT to start practicing yoga. Yoga never crossed my mind as an alternative when my new husband offered to teach me how to roller blade all over lower Manhattan. (For the record, that particularly “tree” never made it past the sapling stage.)
Which is all to say, whatever you’re thinking about, whatever you’ve noticed, whatever is calling to your heart, you only have this moment. Plant the tree! You can plant it hopefully and optimistically because little trees grow. You might only get a sapling from some of your seeds, but I don’t regret any of the hours I spent skating (poorly) with my husband. Some of your new seeds, however, will become tall, strong, beautiful features in the landscape of your life for decades to come.
But these future trees will remain as make believe as the towering “shoulda-woulda-coulda” Sequoias of your past if you don’t plant them.