Skirting the Issues: Dappled Sunlight


As I’ve written before, I’m woefully sentimental. One of the things I’m greatly attached to is a pastel drawing by an artist named Karen Hoyt—as you can see from the cover of my 2013 memoir, Getting to Ellen, the drawing appears above the title line.

To explain, the girls in the drawing are my daughters when they were about six and four. They often wrote words or drew images in chalk on the driveway of our nearly 100-year-old-house in Cedar Rapids. Here, they’re caught writing out “W-E-L-C,” the beginning of “Welcome Home Daddy.”

The drawing also portrays a summer day. You know this because there are spots of what appears to be sunlight shining down onto the driveway. Anyone closely viewing the drawing will discern that somewhere nearby is a tall, leaf-filled tree through which sunlight is filtering as it pops in and fades out.

If you’ve read my book, you know that I call those sunspots “dappled sunlight,” and they become an important metaphor for my personal story of self-discovery. You’d also learn that sometimes I joined my daughters in their driveway chalk activities, which lent to memories that I now savor.

The “dappled sunlight drawing” has loomed large in my life ever since my ex-wife surprised me with it on Christmas Day, 1998. For a long time, the framed drawing hung over the fireplace of our family home. When I moved out to become me, a woman named Ellen (Ellie to her friends), I let my ex- wife keep the drawing for the memories of happier days that it offered. When my ex-wife relocated out of state, I took back the drawing and it now hangs directly above the space where I’m composing this piece.

The tree in the drawing, which you know exists but cannot see, was a stately 50’ tall shagbark hickory. It stood proudly right next to the concrete driveway-turned-chalk-canvas pictured in the drawing and was ever-present whenever I left home for work, or as my daughters and I longed for, returned at the end of a busy day.

There are two things to know about shagbark hickories. First, come late summer, you’d be smart to not park a vehicle under one because the hickory nuts they produce are large and heavy and capable of denting even the strongest car roof or hood. Second, and most importantly, the rutted and thick surface of a shagbark hickory peels slightly upward, in layers. It’s a magnificent sight—layered bark jutting out and up, defying gravity along the length of the tree. Seeing that lends to the thought that life itself is layered, too—with the good and the bad, with what we gain and what we lose, and with hopes of what might be. Fractured sometimes by what inevitably must be.

There’s a reason I’m sharing all of this: as many know, several weeks ago Cedar Rapids experienced a horrific wind-and-rain storm called a derecho. By some guesses, winds approached 100 m.p.h., and some have called the storm an “inland hurricane.”

The derecho slammed into my beloved hometown of 130,000 on a Monday in early August at around noon. In little more than an hour, it damaged or destroyed 1000 structures and decimated 65 percent of the city’s tree cover. Among the trees killed was the shagbark hickory in the dappled sunlight drawing. The tree was snapped in half, its majestic mane of leaf cover toppled onto the ground.

When I saw a photo of the broken tree, a part of me died. This journey I’ve taken in becoming a different person, a woman, has resulted in many people and things lost. The death of this tree constituted yet one more loss.

It’s perhaps because of those losses that I’ve become so sentimental, holding many things dear. It’s not easy on my heart or psyche, and certainly, it comes with a price. Heck, there’s even a real financial cost: I’m paying monthly for a storage unit filled with things from my past, including bins of my daughters’ toys, clothes, and books—yes, I’m keeping them for my daughters to pass on to their kids.

The storage unit isn’t cheap but then again, the things it contains are priceless. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. The rational—and Buddhist—part of me reminds that it does no good to have attachments to things.

After all, they’re just “things.” Yet, those things are linked to precious life moments and the people I loved. On many days, I yearn to get those moments and people back, if for just an afternoon or even an hour.

Of course, that’s not possible.

Just like drops of sunlight pop onto a driveway, moments and people pop into our lives. We would all be good to cherish them while they’re here, while we have them, before they fade away.

Ellen (Ellie) Krug, the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change, speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit where you can also sign-up for her monthly e-newsletter, The Ripple. She welcomes your comments at [email protected].

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