Searching for the Right Tree in a Giving Forest

In her early thirties, my friend Annette made her first trip out of the United States. She moved to Paris, and her dream was to sing jazz. She arrived in Paris with only a few hundred dollars in her wallet, a few words of French and a hotel reservation that had been cancelled after her flight was delayed. While she was switching trains at Metro Châtelet on her way into the city from Orly, she heard a guitarist playing in one of the tunnels. She put down her suitcases and started singing Summertime, filling the major commuter train hub with her voice. For the next fifteen years, she would sing, sing and sing, not only in Paris, but across Europe and even behind the Iron Curtain. Paris would become her home.

Annette told me the story over rosé during our recent visit. It was probably the hundredth time that I had heard that story since she and I met eighteen years ago, but I still listened to the story as if it was my first time. It is a story of a woman who did not fear to take risk and chase her dream. It gives me inspiration and hope. It lifts me up when my days drag me down, and it makes me want to push my limits when I already feel upbeat. At the very least, it makes me feel cool to be associated with not only a dreamer and a risk-taker, but also someone who has done it. I don’t know if I would ever have the gut to quit my job, pack up my life, move to a new country and learn a new language, not even in my twenties when I might have less to lose.

“Why don’t you tell your stories? Write a book or something,” I suggested to her. She is a mesmerizing storyteller in her own right, both in words and through music. The story about her first day in Paris would be just a tiny chapter in her book.

“I want to do that. I want to talk to young people,” she responded.

“What do you want to tell them?” I started to interview her.

“Just do it,” she said. “I have done it, and you can do it, too.”

“What have the young people said so far?” I continued with my questioning.

“They were not interested,” her answer did not hide her disappointment.

We looked at each other in silence and sipped our rosé.

I continue to reflect upon our exchange after the visit. How could I find Annette’s story to be a source of inspiration over the last eighteen years without it losing its captivating power and meaning while the young people could not relate or want to hear about it? Annette wants to share this and many of her stories – stories about risk taking, survival, resilience, hope, creativity, and more. These stories are free gifts, and yet some people do not want them. Is it that hard to give?

The question reminds me of The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, a book about an apple tree that gives everything it has to a boy throughout the boy’s life. First, the tree gives the boy its leaves and a place to play. Then, it gives the boy, now a teenager, its fruits to sell for money. Then, it gives the boy, now a young man, its branches to build a house.
It continues to give and give, and at the end where there is nothing left but a stump, the tree gives the boy, now an old man, a place to sit and rest.

When I first started writing about leadership through the lens of children’s stories, a friend suggested, “You have to write about The Giving Tree.”

“What about it?” I asked.

“It’s a classic. It is about giving. It’s such a leadership story,” she said.

I accepted her suggestion with hesitation. While I thought that The Giving Tree was a beautifully-written, thought-provoking book, I had trouble with it. When I read it as a young person, I felt immense guilt for not giving enough. Between my young mind and the influence of the adults around me, the book became a moral standard and set a high expectation of unconditional giving, an unrealistically high bar for a young mind to aspire to. I could never became the tree, and I didn’t like that feeling. When I read the book again as I got older, my mind just rejected the idea of unconditional giving and thought it was unhealthy. Yes, I tried to be the tree, and now I felt abused. So, I decided to give The Giving Tree a rest on the bookshelf and didn’t think about it for a long time.

My conversation with Annette made me take the book out of the shelf. If many regard The Giving Tree as a classic and even as a standard for giving, can the book shed light on Annette’s conundrum?

And the apple fell on my head. Both the book and Annette give me a new way to think about giving.

Here is my new description of The Giving Tree. It is a beautifully-written, thought-provoking book about a lucky apple tree and a lucky boy. The apple tree has a lot to give, and the boy has a lot of needs. They happen to find each other in the big forest, and the apple tree gets to give the boy what he needs. Imagine if the giving tree were an orange tree, and the boy wanted apples to eat. The orange tree could give whatever it wanted, but the boy would not appreciate the gift. The book would be very short.

Giving requires a giver, a recipient, and the gift. The gift can be an object, like a present or a cake on a birthday. Or it can be a story, an inspiration, support, love or leadership. If the giver, the recipient and the gift don’t aligned, then there is no giving. Or if there is, it will be forced, and there will be no appreciation. How many times have you wished someone had given you cash for the holiday rather than an ugly sweater? How many times have you noticed that your choice of a leader differs from whom others choose?

For me and Annette, I think that we are just two lucky people who stumbled upon each other almost twenty years ago. She has stories to tell, and I need inspiration and find it in her stories. For those young people who were not interested in Annette’s stories, maybe what they are looking for is not in her stories, however good the stories are. But there may be many other young people who need to hear Annette’s stories, but she and they have not found each other yet.

I would like to think that we all are both a giving tree and a boy in a big forest of many giving trees and many boys. We all have something to give, and we all need something. There are times that we are lucky and can get what we need and can give to those who need us. There are also times that we feel stuck, that we are not getting what we need or are not giving to others. When those times happen, maybe it is not that the forest is void of giving trees or that we have no capacity to give in our heart, but it is just that the matchmaking of giving itself does take work and some luck. We need to stay hopeful.

For those of you in the forest looking for inspiration, you might find it in Annette’s stories and music. She might tell you about her first day in Paris, her experience as the first African American woman to be a lifeguard at Kentucky State, and more. Look out for my good friend Annette Lowman