Jenn Hoos Rothberg -

Dec 20, 2022

Measuring Our Lives in Tree Rings

Jenn Hoos Rothberg walking with her children in a park.

On a recent walk around our neighborhood, my kids and I noticed a newly cut stump where a London planetree used to stand. I could not help but feel a sense of sadness in its absence. As though to document its existence, we gathered around and counted the number of rings on the trunk to calculate the number of years it had been on our block.

On the way home, I was in awe of the beauty that came with being imprinted by the passage of time. Like trees, we, too, are etched with traces of information about our history and journey. Throughout the year, our “tree trunk” diligently records evidence of our growth with each new ring, ever so slightly marking the events that took place in our lives. These marks appear in the depth of our laugh lines, the folds of our skin, and sometimes, they are invisible to the eye but so deeply felt that they are impossible to miss.

For trees, the color and width of the ring bands can tell us whether they have experienced favorable or stressful conditions, whether there has been excessive rainfall or a drought, and whether a forest fire may have left behind scars. It’s in moments of reflection, when we take a step back to look at a cross-section of our own “trunks,” that we can see a concentric pattern of rings emerge, giving us clues about the conditions and magnitude of emotions we attach to formative experiences over our lifetime.

Woodcut prints by Bryan Nash Gill

As I looked back at 2022, I have been reflecting on the events that catalyzed my growth and left indelible marks on my most recent ring: ones that I look back on with immediate tenderness like when my daughter held on to me tightly at school drop-offs and pleaded for us to stay together just a bit longer, and ones that, in the words of Pema Chödrön, felt like “a kind of testing and also a kind of healing.” Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, I like to think of them as gifts, because each happening and its after-effects have allowed me to expand my capacity to love fiercely, to lead with courage, and to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and unknowns.

One gift that my dear friend Lennon Flowers, co-founder & Executive Director of The Dinner Party and co-founder of The People’s Supper, has given me over the years is the openness to seeing grief when it enters our lives, inviting it in (skeptically or wholeheartedly), and sitting together awhile. And in that sadness and vulnerability, to quietly ask myself and the people I love: “What needs healing here?” If the holiday season brings up any of these feelings for you, I want you to know that you are not alone.

I treasure the communal spaces that Lennon creates for people to come together to navigate loss, rupture, and healing around potluck dinner tables. I hope you will go Through the Prism with Lennon to learn more about her passion, and if your heart is yearning for the type of comfort that only community support can provide, you can pull up a chair to an open Dinner Party table to share a meal with people who are navigating their grief journey, get matched with a “grief peer,” or practice ways to be there for others in the aftermath of loss.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist, author, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, wrote about the alliance and reciprocity among trees to nurture their well-being: “The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together.”

If we apply this insight to the emotional, social, and political turmoil we find ourselves in today, a unit of change that can bring about social cohesion – the glue that keeps us together – is the relationships we have with one another. At the most foundational level, we’re bound together by our innate desire for connection, belonging, and in turn, our collective thriving.

I recently asked a friend in a space of yearning, “What does it feel like to belong?” He thought for a minute and then responded with great clarity: “It’s when I feel like there’s no place I’d rather be.”

In the year ahead, as we work to fill our lives with more connection, community, and a sense of belonging – and as we find ways to embrace more people into our circle of human concern – I want to leave you with this poem by Andrea Gibson:

“One of the quickest paths
to an open heart
is to recognize how
much courage it takes
to live a life. Any life.  

To choose to see  
that courage in others.  
And to choose  
to see it in ourselves.” 

Whether you need to add an extra leaf to your dining room table this holiday season or plan to raise a glass to friends and family over Zoom, I hope your days swell with joy, open hearts, and meaningful relationships. May your next tree ring be filled with many moments shared with others where you instinctively know that there's no place you'd rather be.

Jenn Hoos Rothberg leads Einhorn Collaborative. Learn more about our work and more about Jenn. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jenn’s blog posts.