I remember the first time I saw a magnolia tree.
I was 12 years old, and my family of six (at the time) was all packed up in our Chrysler Town and Country mini van, headed 14 hours south to Little Rock, Arkansas, so I could compete in the American Taekwondo Association World Championships. (I’ve mentioned in this space before that I’m a former overachiever.)
Strangely enough, this is one of my last memories as a kid – I mean, a true kid.
Before braces. Before my hair started to get frizzy. Before the awkwardness of growing breasts and hips and thighs. Before boys had their friends ask if you’d go out with them. Mostly untainted.
I loved Taekwondo as a kid. But I didn’t necessarily love the idea of outsmarting my opponents, trying to score points against them in sparring matches. The fighting was actually my least favorite part. What I loved most was the forms. Learning all the steps, the punches, the challenging kicks, and making them look as pretty as possible. I loved kicking above my head and leaving it up there, strong and steady. I loved using all my body strength to create one move, taking milliseconds to recharge, and doing it again.
So essentially, I loved the performance. I loved showing people I was strong, steady, a rock under pressure with all eyes on me. I had confidence here in the ring. Kid confidence. Confidence before metal wires were semi-permanently attached to my teeth. Confidence that I was an athlete – before breasts and hips and thighs could slow me down. Confidence I would get the biggest trophy. Confidence that Sonic, which I ate for the first time that trip, had the best food in the world, and magnolia trees were the most beautiful things I had ever seen, circling the drive of the Embassy Suites that June, with waxy leaves and flowers that bloom as big as your head.
And even through the excitement of the tournament – putting on my crisp, starched, white uniform, tying my blue belt in a square knot, Mom putting my hair in two french braids… I still remember the magnolia trees so clearly. I remember gasping at their beauty, asking my parents what kind of trees those were and as northern people, not being able to name them. But I had already decided they were my favorite.
The Nashville spring rain came down in thick sheets as I walked to work earlier this week. So I looked down at my feet, careful not to step in the inches deep puddles. Classic Monday, I thought. Gloomy. Dreary. I’m tired. So tired, in fact, my boss sent me home a bit early because I looked it.
But the rain had stopped after work. And I walked to my car, thoughts whirling, hoping the first graders actually understood their math homework. But then I looked up, and I saw it. The magnolias are blooming, I said quietly to myself. And then I smiled, because I had been cursing the rain all afternoon, never looking to see those majestic white flowers popping up. And for some reason, I thought about Arkansas. About that kid confidence. How I thought President Bill Clinton Ave was the funniest name for a street I’d ever heard.
I used to drink in my surroundings like they were something intoxicating. Now some days it’s an effort just to look up. But I think if we remember to look around, we can always find some sort of magic, like the blooming magnolia trees, and we can always access little bits of that kid confidence. After all, things like that are only lost when we forget to look for them.