January 21, 2021


This is the story about how I built the confidence and courage to give a gift of my tree art and heart to a stranger. The outcome was more than I could have imagined. It begins with a kitten I've never met. Sounds weird, I know, but stay with me here....

I'm a bona fide "dog person." I love pit bulls, rotties, and all big and small dogs—I'm not the least bit frightened. But if a cat purrs around my legs with her tail in full sashay, I'm frozen in fear. I like cats when they're not called, or acting like, "cats." That is, I like kittens: the young, bouncy, silly, fluffballs that won't claw my eyes out or rip my face off for one ill-timed stroke of their fur. Their “Pet me, but NOT LIKE THAT!!!” strikes are what horror films are made of. The purring “Yes, yes, yes” whiplash to “NOOOOO!” with claws and teeth that once got me as a kid still haunt me today. I'm also allergic. Suffice-it-to-say, I'm not a cat person, but I AM a NALA PERSON!


Nala was a kitten and is now—you guessed it—a full-fledged cat. And I'm truly, madly, deeply in love with her. If you don't know who NALA is, and you likely don't, this short video by THE DODO is a sweet encapsulation of Nala's love story with the human who saved her. Bottom line: adorable, tattooed, large, Scottish guy named Dean travels the world on his bicycle. In Bosnia, at the Montenegro border, a tiny, starving kitten approaches him. He names her Nala (yes, from the Lion King) and the rest puts every other Disney classic to shame. No offense, Dis, but this is real life soulmate stuff. Fer sher Nala and Dean slurp spaghetti noodles together while being serenaded with Belle Notte in real life. I digress.


The around-the-world bicycle adventures Dean posts daily go viral on his IG @1bike1world. The stories are filled with joy, fear, camping in rain and snowstorms, passport losses, border crossing nightmares, new friends, bicycle breakdowns, Nala's sick and we all panic drama, and the list goes on. Somehow, during my obsession, I land on the Instagram page of an amazing artist and cartoonist named Kelly Ulrich who is also following the story and she's cartoon-documenting their adventures every day! Dean posts on IG and Kelly transforms their experiences into clever, poignant and hilarious comic strips that captures the spirit and iridescence of their world. Her ability to capture Dean's mannerisms and Scottish dialect along with Nala's ever-budding personality is truly remarkable. I notice that her work is reaching into my soul and beginning to fill the void "Calvin & Hobbes" left when Bill Watterson retired. (What a horrible day that was way back when newspapers existed. I sobbed.)


I'm so into the Dean and Nala story that I draw a Nala Tree with a micro-story to match their world as I am experiencing it through Dean and, now, Kelly. I want to send it to Kelly as a gift, but I fall into the slippery slope of The Imposter Syndrome. I'm too scared to send it. It's not good enough. Who do I think I am? It's stupid. I'm stupid. I'm no artist. She's the artist. She'll think I'm a stalker. She'll send me a cease-and-desist. The judge will grant her the restraining order. And the worst scenario of all -- she gets it and I never hear from her. Ever. Ever. Ever. I am an instant failure and will have to close up shop and burn my trees in effigy.

It takes me A FULL YEAR to gather the courage to send it. ONE FREAKING YEAR, but, finally, I send it. It arrives. The tracking number says it has arrived. OMG. HIDE UNDER THE BED!

I hear a *ding* on my Instagram Trees Have Feelings account. I have a message. It's from Kelly. She has received the gift of Nala the Tree. She is delighted, surprised, and loves my trees and their feelings. She praises my art. We message back-and-forth about our love of trees. We share stories, book and movie recommendations, and our mutual love of Calvin & Hobbes. She doesn't mention a restraining order. Turns out, she lives only an hour away from me, and we talk of getting together once our borders open. She makes me promise to watch my Octopus Teacher, I tell her I'm afraid I'll cry, she says I will. She then welcomes me into her world by sharing Nala the Tree with her tens of thousands of followers (that she has built from the ground up). I immediately get happy *dings* of new followers and the most amazing messages from her fans. I'm jumping up and down. Someone who's work I have revered and whose talent felt intimidating is actually just like me: she's a woman, an artist and a storyteller. We have things to teach each other, stories to share, trees to hug, and cats (yes, cats) to love. Her community is welcoming and generous.

It took me a year to build the courage to leap and blindly send Kelly my Nala Tree. I have learned the most invaluable lesson: When sending any gift of love, appreciation and kindness, the universe delivers in the most amazing ways.

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