There is a tree beside the church I grew up attending. It grows in the quiet space between buildings.
Up in that tree was where I first found I could be invisible.
Not just hidden in a small dark place, but out in the open, vulnerable and exposed, free and unseen.
At the age of eight, I hadn’t experienced a lot of that in my life. I didn’t know what to think of it. I didn’t trust it, so I tried a few experiments. I made faces. I waved. I dropped leaves, sticks, balls of moss upon people as they passed. I dangled my legs and arms from the lowest branches, nearly brushing the tops of heads with my toes as my legs swung from side to side. When none of that worked, I cried. Fat, noisy, ugly tears that left my eyes swollen and my face red.
Nobody looked up. Nobody saw. Even when crowds moved through, conversing and laughing and arguing, nobody ever thought to look up as they passed under my tree. I could have touched them, they were so close. It was strange to me. Like watching a world where I did not exist. I remember when I first started thinking that way. While in this place, the world existed without me.
I remember thinking about how peaceful it was inside those leaves. A bubble universe, where I floated, merely an observer of a world I would never touch. I didn’t need to balance relationships, juggle confusing social situations, or face decisions with no good options. The world was a less confusing place when I didn’t exist in it.
I discovered that people were easier to love from that angle. When I watched them, knowing I had never existed, I felt a kinship with them that I couldn’t manage through the uncomfortable glances and knowing smiles they often wore when I interrupted their world.
It became my safe place. The place I went to forgive people. It was the place from which I could consider that of God in others. I was surprised to learn that people were beautiful. It was where I also considered – for the first time – that of God in myself. I was beautiful too.
It’s where I found God.
Unknown by the world I didn’t exist in. In my own bubble universe. Alone. Maybe that’s not how we’re supposed to do it. But that’s where we began – God and me.
I wanted to find God. I would climb up into my tree and rest in the knowledge that God was there. God lived there. I spent hours looking at God, thinking about God, considering God. It changed me. Because what I saw amazed me.
After that, the moments of my life assembled themselves around my place in this tree. They became a part of the branches and the leaves that died each fall and were reborn each spring. Over the hours and days and seasons and years, I talked to God from inside the safety of my tree. No one could see us. This was our place.
I remember laughing as I explored; everywhere there were treasures. I would stare into the eyes of a spider and feel I knew it more deeply than the people walking beneath me might ever know each other. My toes and fingers came to know and understand the nicks of bark and subtle nubs in the branches, pathways through the leaves. I moved through them, God’s delight surrounded me.
I remember fear. A frantic bike ride after a strange man followed me home from the bus stop. I scrambled up the trunk into the tallest branches – the kind that bowed and swayed under my weight. I pulled myself higher and higher until my handholds began to groan and crack. I was seen by a God who trembled for me, who trembled with me.
I remember winter days spent on the lower branches, contemplating how my life had changed so fast. Comforted to know that the world didn’t look all that different. God felt quiet on those days. Like the tops of the roots burrowing into the ground far below.
I remember bad days. The tree was an escape. An escape from thought. From guilt. From pain. God felt immobile then. When I begged for help, I could feel the trunk against my cheek, soft with moss. It held me, but I wanted so much more than to be held. I wanted things to be different. I wanted healing. It was hard to climb back down those days. The world was peaceful without me. Without the stares that always assumed more than they knew.
I remember the first time I saw someone die. There had been a terrible accident. When I got to my tree, it had been raining and the moss on the tree was slick. I couldn’t climb. Couldn’t disappear. I slipped off the first branch three times, bruising my cheek and ribs before kneeling in the mud at the base of the tree, where I cried.
That was the day I asked for help.
I remember returning the next day and climbing into the highest branches. Thinking about the looks I had been given. When people had seen me, they didn’t stare, and they didn’t glance away. There had been understanding in their eyes. Did I want that? To be known? I didn’t think I could trust people.
I remember saying goodbye. I wouldn’t be back for a while. I clung to the trunk after sliding down. Feet standing in the world, arms wrapped around what had grown to symbolize so much more to me. I whispered, “Please come with me. Please. Please don’t send me away alone.”
Many times now, I have returned. The times I ran laughing into the branches, jumping and scrambling, shouting in joy like a child. The times I have approached broken, slowly, silently with tears as I stared up into the canopy. Not ready to climb yet. The times I have run back in anger, shouting even before I rounded the corner to see it for the first time in so long. The times I simply embraced the trunk, yearning to be one again.
I remember time passing as I drank strong coffee, read a book, and leaned against the trunk. Content to stay on the ground. People noticed me as they walked by. I existed. That was OK, I would remind myself, hand resting on a root beside me.
Thinking about this place today, I know it was the place I first found God, the place I first found I could be visible. I think I will always go back.