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Hope and connection: La Jollan plans to make a tradition of inviting messages on her ‘wishing trees’

Over the past year and a half, Molly Bowman-Styles has hung cards on trees outside her La Jolla home, asking for messages.
Over the past year and a half, Molly Bowman-Styles has hung cards on trees outside her La Jolla home, asking passersby to write messages of hope, joy and more.
(Molly Bowman-Styles)

Molly Bowman-Styles began hanging blank cards from the trees outside her home last year for people to write messages of hope and joy as a response to the pandemic. But now she plans to keep doing it ‘as long as I can.’

After collecting hundreds of wishes the past year and a half on the trees outside her home, a La Jolla resident is sending her “wishing trees” into hibernation. But she’s already planning their third iteration in 2022.

Molly Bowman-Styles began her wishing trees in May 2020 as a response to the first weeks of isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. She hung blank cards from the trees outside her home on Nautilus Street between La Jolla Boulevard and Neptune Place, asking those who passed under them to offer wishes and hope.

“One morning I woke up and I thought, ‘This is awful,” she said of the pandemic and the concurrent, unrelated illnesses of her father and dog. “I just felt so disconnected and out of sorts.”

Bowman-Styles said she looked for a way to “feel connected to other people but at the same time help them to express how they’re feeling through all this, because I know I’m not alone.”

She looked through her windows at her trees and had the idea to hang colorful index cards in leftover envelopes from the branches, with markers and paper clips to enable passersby to write on the cards and rehang them.

“I wrote on the envelopes, ‘Make a wish for our world’ and ‘Share a message of hope,’” Bowman-Styles said. And many people did.

“I was excited, because in the morning I’d wake up and I had more cards and I read each and every one of them,” Bowman-Styles said.

In the first few weeks the cards were hung, Bowman-Styles lost both her father and dog. “I cannot tell you how [the trees] helped me so much with my grief, because I really needed to go out and read those messages of hope and joy and people talking about how important it is that we stay together and how blessed they were,” she said.

She took the cards down in October 2020 as the rainy season began, but hung fresh ones in May this year, when many people were being vaccinated against COVID and “there was hope in the air.”

Writers on this year's cards answered the questions, "What brings you joy?" and "What are you thankful for?"
Writers on this year’s cards hung by Molly Bowman-Styles answered the questions, “What brings you joy?” and “What are you thankful for?”
(Molly Bowman-Styles)

Bowman-Styles changed her messages for the second installment of the wishing trees, asking, “What are you thankful for?” and “What brings you joy?”

“This is such a moment in time,” she said. “I just really want to capture this time, because hopefully we’ll never have another time like this. But it is so interesting. It’s very powerful.”

This year, she said, people “were actually waiting for me to do it again. They asked me, ‘How come you haven’t hung up your cards?’”

Bowman-Styles said the messages on the cards “have helped me and I know they bring other people joy.” She said she often sees passersby illuminating the trees at night with cellphones so they can read the cards.

“They just enter a different world, and some people stand there forever because they’re trying to read as many as they can,” Bowman-Styles said. “Some people take pictures in front of them. You hear little kids writing out their message.”

There even are different languages over the two installments, she said.

Bowman-Styles said one of her favorite cards, written by a child during the divisive 2020 presidential election, read, “I love everybody.”

“This little experiment has told me that people are good, people are grateful and they really do care about … their community,” Bowman-Styles said.

“They want their voices to be included in more of a mosaic with other voices, and that’s what these cards do.”

Bowman-Styles has taken the cards down amid the recent rains but is planning to hang more in the spring. She saved all the cards from the first two iterations — about 600 — in a box under her bed and said she will consider how to preserve and share them in the long term.

She’s also thinking about next year’s prompts for potential card writers. “I don’t know what they’ll be, but whatever and wherever we are as a community will inspire [them],” she said.

“As long as I can, I will do this, because it really is so special.” ◆