I've been thinking about trees and growth, watching this one young maple tree in our yard start to flourish. It was shaded by huge white pines until last spring, when we had some trees cut down to increase the amount of sun on the gardens. After the pines were down, we discovered this skinny little maple, growing at an angle, only 1.5 inches in diameter but 10 feet tall. It had been stretching, stretching, stretching for the light. Now, this year, it's so much bigger, standing straight, growing side branches with glee. The rings in its tree trunk will mark the change, for sure.

This March, Anne and I celebrated the twentieth anniversary since we began dating. Well, I say "dating," but what happened was that we somehow, over about a month, became a couple. There were no actual dates. I was 23, she was 25, and we both were working for MASSPIRG, an environmental, consumer protection, and good government nonprofit. We'd been working together for about a year, and one day, hanging out after work, we finally stopped being so shy, and kissed. The rest was history--if by history you mean awkwardness, covert glances, and trembling attempts at honesty... Seriously, that first month was hard.

We figured out a few things, then a few things more, and kept figuring things out every year. If I were to look at the tree trunk of our relationship, some rings would be close together -- tough conditions, straining for light -- and other years would show lots of growth, with rings spaced far apart.

But as I write this, I see that the analogy is flawed. Those tough years were times of immense growth -- painful, creaky, resisted -- but growth nonetheless. Maybe the better analogy is one of change -- with narrow rings symbolizing tough conditions, hard-won growth, and wide rings marking the leaps and bounds accomplished after the hard times.

The struggle and the growth go together, we've found...

When we were a bit younger, in our thirties, it was more unusual among our friends to have been in such a long-term relationship, and when people would react with surprise, I'd explain: "It's like we've been in three distinct relationships -- our early twenties, just getting to know each other. Our late twenties, when we finally delved deep into our individual baggage. And then, our thirties, where we've learned how to be honest and vulnerable, and how to support each other's growth and change."

Speaking for myself, I've changed a lot. At 23, I couldn't stand to talk about money issues, afraid of conflict, afraid of debt. I was really, really good at squelching feelings, and then acting them out in seemingly unrelated ways. I had a ton of passion but few good outlets besides my job, so I played a lot of pool and darts. I drove a small black sportscar and smoked cigarettes and wore combat boots... Today, I manage our household finances, am able to easily deal with my feelings, and have work and hobbies that I love. I'm healthy and comfortable in my own skin.

And I'm finally getting to a place where I'm less embarrassed to look back on those earlier rings, the patterns that are laid bare. Growing up is tough, and I'm finding now that I somehow have more compassion for that younger me. I see that, really, my essence didn't change. I just got better at expressing it.

I owe that largely to Anne. Of course, had we not met, or had we not made it, I would have grown up somehow. But her near-limitless ability to focus on my essence, rather than on whatever I happened to be doing or saying in a particular moment, helped me focus on it too.

Before my theoretically minded friends roll their eyes at the notion of 'essence', let me clarify: of course we are complicated, we act in disparate ways in a variety of situations, we evolve and we change and we are anything but unified. But I still think that there is something in us -- a spirit, an essence, an energy -- that persists and motivates us, that drives us. My intense desire for the world to be more just is part of my essense, for example, and it has manifested in both positive (activism) and self-destructive (cynicism) ways. The actions are different, but the drive is the same.

I've also been thinking about rings because we finally got me a replacement wedding band. I'd lost so much weight that my ring no longer fit, but getting a new one didn't seem a priority. I don't wear much jewelry, I work a lot with my hands, and Anne and I don't need a ring to prove we are married. But this winter, reflecting on our twentieth anniversary, I started thinking that it would be nice to get a new ring, to mark the time, to mark the changes. So we got a little silver band, hand-hammered by a local jeweler -- it's the stories and the intentions that we invest in jewelry, not the jewelry itself, that gives it meaning. (My friend Susan Falls writes about this brilliantly in her book on diamonds.)

I've been toying with the name "Tournesol" for our little homestead, not only because sunflowers are just amazing, but because, years ago, when I was struggling with the changes I was making in my life, in our life, I hit upon a mantra during meditation: "Turn toward the light." Turn toward the things that feed you, turn toward the energy; do not focus on the negative, let go of the fear. The sunflower does just that, its face following the sun each day.

The new ring on my finger reminds me not just of my commitment to living my life with Anne, but of all the rings of our relationship, all the hard-won growth we've experienced. I hope that Anne and I get to spend many more decades together, and that our growth rings become ever wider, evidence that we turned toward the sun at every opportunity.