A graceful weeping willow tree stood in the center of the backyard of my childhood home. Hidden behind the curtain of its slender leaves, I built my own private fantasy world. The willow served as an enchanted castle where I, a powerful queen, ruled my subjects. Other days, the low hanging branches became a jungle where my friends and I would embark on dangerous adventures in an untamed wilderness.
On less imaginative days, the tree's trunk served as second base for a hastily organized neighborhood game of softball. The gentle breezes stirred by its leaves kept us cool on the steamiest summer days.
Childhood knows its own private agonies and ecstasies, which may escape parental radar. One afternoon disaster struck. A hurricane wreaked havoc in the city. Rain came down in sheets, and the wind whipped through the streets like a runaway train. Telephone lines and electrical wires were downed. In our homes, we lit candles against the dark. When the storm finally subsided, debris was everywhere. Most of the damage would, in time, be repaired. No human life was lost. School was canceled, which under normal circumstances would have been ample reason for celebration. But these were not normal circumstances. The storm had killed the weeping willow in my backyard.
The large gash in its side meant certain death. When three men in overalls parked their truck in our driveway, I knew there was no hope. I watched from my bedroom as the sounds of power saws broke the silence. Before long, branches were strewn over the grass, their slender leaves still green and alive. All that remained was a large stump; the shade was gone. Castles, jungles, home base--all vanished in a cloud of saw dust and noise.
Growing up also means separation, learning to recognize oneself as individual and distinct. In the process, we often lose the child's consciousness that tells us we are part of a greater whole. We live in a world that divides people into us and them, that makes us immune to the hurt of others. We need to notice and nurture those experiences that impress upon our children the interconnectedness of life, that encourage their empathy. We need to foster their instinctive awareness that a movement in one place sends ripples far away.
That may seem like an enormous task, but it involves simple acts: planting a garden; recycling glass, aluminum, and paper. It means involving children in bringing old toys and clothes to a shelter or donating them to a social service agency. When you are food shopping, ask your youngsters to choose a few cans for a local food bank. Join a neighborhood group to clean up a park or get rid of graffiti. When you drive by an animal that has been run over by a car, acknowledge the loss; consider saying a prayer. Each of these acts teaches children to revere all life and that what they do makes a difference. It confirms their original vision of life's oneness.
It has been four decades since the day the willow became firewood, then ashes, then a memory. The world of childhood gave way to the more practical and sensible world of adulthood. One tree is cut down, another is planted. The house where the weeping willow once stood is owned by another family that knows nothing of its history. As adults, we have far greater losses to mourn. Yet from simple places, like the shade of a willow tree, a child's faith is born. It is our privilege to help that faith take root and grow.