Growing Pains

Growing Pains

Photograph by Jesse Lizotte / Trunk Archive


Words by willow defebaugh

Each spring, the Earth makes rebirth look easy; all we see on the surface is her becoming, never betraying the unseen effort it requires.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Anaïs Nin

Spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it, new life. Viridescent leaves are unwinding outside my window, while pink cherry blossoms bloom across the neighborhood. You can see it on strangers’ faces, too; renewal reverberating in the air. This was what I planned to write to you about this week—the joys of witnessing the Earth in rebirth. The thing about the season of rebirth, though, is that it also carries a deep discomfort: the pains of reawakening.


That goes for us as well. As adrienne maree brown pointed out in “We Are Earth,” her essay on emergent strategy from our new issue, nature repeats its patterns on scales both big and small. We are not exempt from these fractals: “There are patterns of the world that repeat at scale—look at ferns, crowns of broccoli, look at the way water moves through deltas and the way blood moves through our bodies, look at our brains with their synapses like galaxies.”


The sprouts we see clawing their way up from the soil, stalks unfurling, petals peeling open in the spring—we mirror their processes, their pangs and progress. After months of winter stagnancy and stillness, we too are coming alive again. And it is not an easy process: plants take cues from the atmosphere (temperature changes, increased sunlight) which tell them it’s time to grow. They must persevere against false starts and erratic weather, not to mention threats to their ecosystems, all of which is exacerbated by climate change. Rebirth is not without risk.


I often wonder whether rebirth is one thing taking another form or something new entirely. Flowers seem to straddle this same line; while we often speak of them “coming back,” they are not the same flowers that return. In the case of annuals, it’s not even the same plant; the organism’s entire lifecycle is one year, only “returning” in the spring if its flowers were able to reproduce and leave some seeds behind. Perennials, meanwhile, have evolved to survive for longer periods of time; they conserve some of their cells in bulbs, waiting until it’s time to bloom again. Even when they do, can we say these new flowers are the same?


Humans are not so different. We are changed by the winters of our lives, and we are born again each spring. Some of our cells may be the same—others, brand new. Cyclical living offers us the ability to assess which parts we are leaving in the darkness of the dirt, and which parts are rising now to meet the increasing daylight. I often find that this is where the discomfort comes in; in our eagerness to open, we forget that we also require the right amount of rain, supple soil, and most importantly, patience. We forget that growth takes time.


Meanwhile, the Earth makes it look easy; all we see on the surface is her becoming, never betraying the unseen effort it requires. I empathize with her on this; many people are kind to tell me that I am navigating my transition with grace, when inside it feels like anything but. At every turn, I have roiled at my own growth. There have been times I have wanted to return to the safety of the soil, and others where I have wished I could flower fully formed. I have been holding on to parts of me and letting go of others. In all of it, I have come to recognize Nature’s tender hand.


While our blooms may look different, I suspect that you are finding yourself somewhere similar in this season of liminality, feeling the sun’s caress on the new skin you are still growing into, your petals still unfurling. As you do, I invite you to take a moment this spring morning to assess all the work you have done to get here: all the risks you have taken, the winters you never thought you would survive. None of it is small—for as we change, so does our world, after all. 

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