There used to be a large dead tree on Old Russelville Pike that I passed by often. Most of its limbs had long since fallen or rotted away and its old trunk was bound with a thick covering of vines that obscured any hint of the wood beneath. It resembled a tree far less than a misshapen lump of tangled green leaves with the occasional flower. I thought it was somewhat interesting, but certainly not remarkable. But when winter came, I truly saw it and realized it was no mere tree.
Most plants had retreated into hibernation for the colder months. The sky was more gray than blue. Color seemed leached from the world, drawn away on the winter wind. Though the pines and cedars offered up sparse splashes of green, they, too, were subdued. Ever green, but not the lush, rich green of Spring or Summer, seemingly abundant with life. Instead, it was the muted color of the cold and barely even green at all without the too hidden sun shining directly on them. Joy seemed distant, unattainable.
I drove down the road, as I had so many times before. I was lost in the murmurs of my thoughts and wished for the overcast sky to clear. I wished for just a moment of sun. I wished for anything to brighten the day and my mood. Then I neared the old tree. The tree I passed so often before. I was accustomed to the mostly formless jumble of vines in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. But when Winter came, it was all stripped away and I saw the tree. I saw her.
Without the leaves of all the vines that hid her true shape, I clearly saw her two limbs stretched out in a complicated but graceful pose, her head held back in concentration. The sleeping vines clothed her feminine trunk with delicate, woody threads tailored just for her and more exquisite than the finest silk. The leaves from the same vines, though brown and dry, were scattered at her base like rose petals cast by admirers.
I was captivated by her poise and named her the Graceful Dancer. The slightest breeze lent a gentle choreography to her subtle movements. She often seemed just about to burst into life, ready to spin across the road in a rush of passionate dance. She was a dancer at once motionless, and yet constantly moving. Such was her beauty in Winter than when snow came, it clung only to the vines and draped her in a white gown of sparking flakes far more intricate than any designer ever dreamed.
Of course, when spring arrived again, she retreated into the anonymity of green leaves. As everything around her came to life and once again filled the world with color, she hid and slept. I wondered if anyone saw her as I did. I even wondered if I actually saw her or if I simply dreamed of her in Winter.
After Spring passed and Summer wore on, I couldn’t help but notice that what I insisted was the Graceful Dancer seemed just a dead, withered tree fit only to serve as something for the vines to climb on as they clamored higher. I stopped telling my wife and others about her. I stopped believing in her.
Fall came and painted its colors. The vines on the old tree stayed green longer than the trees, but eventually turned as well. They browned before dropping and the tree looked dead. I thought I must have imagined everything from the year before. This lifeless hunk of rotting wood couldn’t possibly have inspired the thoughts I had.
But when Winter came, she emerged again. As everything died and slept around her, she stretched her arms and danced.
I still pass by that spot quite often, but the tree is sadly long gone. I still remember her though. I remember her in Winter, when all else seemed dead, and she breathed life. I remember how plain she seemed in the promise of Spring and the excess of Summer. I remember how I had to look closely to see the beauty she possessed.
I’ve met a few people like that Graceful Dancer. They are unassuming and you wouldn’t normally notice them. They fade into the background while others celebrate. In the warmth of good times, you may not even realize they are there because all around them drown them out with flashy attractiveness and bold dress.
But when the times are not warm and good, when life seems cold, and when everyone you thought was beautiful runs and hides out of fear of the cold and the dark Winter that envelopes you, they emerge. Without the pompous preening and endless self-aggrandizement of the “beautiful people,” you begin to see true beauty. You begin to see just how brightly the graceful dancers really shine.
There are many who will stand with you in the Spring, Summer, and even the sometimes painful changes of Fall, but when Winter comes, they retreat and abandon you to the cold they refuse to admit exists. But also when Winter comes, you will discover the truly beautiful few (or one) who cast off the excess and simply stand before you as they are, unashamed of what others might call plainness, and what you finally see as grace. You may not notice them in Spring, Summer, or Fall, but when Winter comes, they stand with you in the cold, reach out their hands, and beckon you to dance.