I went to the willows today. And found God. I slipped the long, leafy tendrils in between my fingers. I’d set out for a short hike, hoping to take my mind off my worries before picking up my son, when a field of tall yellow wildflowers yielded to a cluster of willow trees on the bank of a wide pond. A nearby heron sunned itself in the still waters.
“Can you hold my sadness?” I whispered to the willow tree, wanting nothing more than to feel the heron’s stillness in the core of my being. My hands stroked the leaves, up and down, up and down, up and down, as my lament poured out over everything I had hoped I would be—as a mom, a daughter, a friend, and a writer—and everything I am not. My shortcomings this summer streamed down my cheeks as the willow and the heron listened, undisturbed.
I prayed like that, quite freely, for some time, unaware of anything other than the willow branches in my hand and the choirs of cicadas that occasionally rose up to join in my petitions. Standing there, on what was fast becoming holy ground, I took to humming: Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem.
As my tears and all those self-judgements subsided, I began to sing rather unabashedly. The sacred was right there with me and I knew it. Like Jacob in the Old Testament, I wanted to mark the spot. How was it that the source of all life had found me, here, aching as I was to be more? And granted me such deep abiding peace?
Walking back to my car, I snapped picture after picture of the heron and the wildflowers, the pond and the willows, remembering how the willows had also been a sanctuary many years before. Convinced that I might not ever be a mom, I’d gone to the willows by my alma mater. Hoping to take my mind off my grief, I started working on my manuscript when a little boy with brown eyes healed me.
I was sitting on a large boulder in the shade of an ancient willow when he wandered over. His blue and yellow windbreaker was tied around his waist. “What’s your name?” he asked quizzically. “Karen. What’s yours?”
“Noah.” He leaned forward, bracing the rock with his hands and kicking up a leg in hope of scaling the side. “Where do you live?”
“I live in Chicago. Where do you live?”
“I live in Evanston.”
His dad called out, “Noah, look at this, a cicada!” Noah ran over. “Oh, don’t squish it,” his mom said. “Too late,” his dad said. Noah lifted up his foot, turned it slightly, and then examined the remains on the dark pavement. He shook his head and circled back to me.
“How did you get up there?” he asked, walking around the boulder with his right hand trailing behind. “I climbed it,” I explained. “Just like you were trying to do.”
“What’s that next to you?”
“A plum.” Noah smiled. His eyes widened.
“Come on, Noah,” his mom called. “She’s working. We need to let her work.” She took him by both hands and led him away. They walked on together, the three of them, my eyes glued to the back of Noah. Then his dad stopped. “Noah,” he asked, “Did you say goodbye to Karen?” Noah turned his head back toward me. “Goodbye, Karen.”
For reasons I cannot explain, but I have yet to forget, I understood that the longings of my heart would not be forgotten, that a little boy was in my future. My son would find me, and I would find him. I didn’t know how or when or where. Any more than I knew who he’d be. But none of that seemed to matter. What mattered was that I knew this truth in all of me.
For months, I’d been praying for the audacity to hope, to believe in the possibility of a family of my own, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And Noah (and God) delivered. Awed by the almighty, once again, I turned my gaze toward the lake and watched as the willow branches danced across the water. Like Jacob in the Old Testament, I wanted to cry out: Surely God was in this place.
I try to hold onto these encounters with the divine, especially when my days are long and my nights with my son are hard. Those encounters remind me that any moment can be holy. And any place, holy ground. We just have to stop and pay attention. By a pond or in a pew, under the willow trees or at the grocery store, the sacred is here, now, present in our lives, inviting us into the more of who we are.