Trees have a lot to teach us about using and conserving energy, says Leah Perreault. Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Barefoot and Preaching: Learning how to spend and save energy

  • November 22, 2018

Energy is one of the great miracles of life. As the trees lose their leaves and preserve energy for the spring, I have been thinking about how I spend my energy, and what human dormancy looks like. 

The food we eat and the air we breathe is necessary just to exist. We need extra energy to move and grow and shovel snow. Lately, I have been marvelling at the energy it takes to learn.

I recently arrived home from four days at an international conference with thousands of delegates. The printed program of events was more than an inch thick. For four days, I scrolled through sessions on the digital app, making impossible choices between three or four fascinating options. I raced the thousand steps from one side of the conference centre to another multiple times a day.  I attended as many as seven different sessions, listening to countless witnesses, to their corners of the world of spirituality and/or religion. It was beautiful … and exhausting.

At the end of each day, my feet and back ached with gratitude for the movement and the relief of rest. My mind, unaccustomed to 10 to 15 hours of nearly continuous input, raced to keep up with the connections, possibilities and conversations. Climbing into bed, I didn’t expect my brain and heart to be more tired than my legs. Learning requires a surprising amount of energy.

As I sat on the plane on the way home, grateful for the empty chair beside me, I realized that I have been coming out of a certain dormancy of grief. Basic survival took most of my energy for the first year of grief, especially since I was pregnant. So many of the leaves that had been growing in the season had turned yellow and red and purple before they lost their vibrancy and fell away, adding to the losses of death. 

Trees form tiny buds in the fall as the leaves fall away, barely noticeable as they descend into winter dormancy, conserving energy to survive the winter. And in the spring, when the night hours gradually recede and the moisture levels and temperatures increase, the buds expand until the new leaves burst out. They resemble the former leaves, but are never the same.

This season of my life looks more like the days before grief. I am going to work, coming home to my partner and my beautiful little people. I am making space for friendship and music and writing. The joy and fatigue of the conference helped me to make sense of a larger reality: the learning curve in the rest of my life right now is pretty steep.

I am working at a new job. Every day requires me to ask questions for ordinary tasks, where I need to be attentive to the relationships that will be essential to shared work, where I make more mistakes than I am able to do things efficiently. 

When I come home, my kids seem to have grown up overnight. Each child has new capacities and struggles and I am still learning how to parent four of them at once. Our marriage has found rest after loss, and I am learning (again) how to relax into the relief of being safe and loved.

I tend to spend all of my energy all the time, leaving nothing in reserves, and pushing to the limits of my capacity. At the conference, my hands held the first copy of my newest book, My Heart of Flesh. It was a physical reminder of many of the things that grief and loss have been teaching me. And it was a reminder of all the energy that is spent learning. Of course I am tired.

As winter approaches, I am noticing the tiny buds on the trees and the wisdom of storing up energy through rest. Learning slowly stores up buds that will open in time. No amount of pushing will accelerate the process. But running on empty will kill the tree before the spring.

On the last evening and then day of the conference, I slowed and stopped pushing. I felt the saturation point and paid attention. I went to bed early, chose fewer sessions, made space for conversation that helped to thread some of the learning together. The trees know something that I am still learning. 

Every day, for as long as is necessary, I need to go lay down in the leaves.

(Perreault works in Catholic health care in Saskatoon, and writes and speaks about faith. Her website is

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