Revised November 13, 2012
I have a question for you. When you draw tree does it have a knot hole?
I’ll give you a second to think about it.
When I was a girl we had a tree in our front yard that was dotted with knot holes. I remember watching little black ants crawl in and out them all day long, sipping on the sticky sap, caviar for the colony. Every time I drew a tree as a child I drew that tree. I colored the leaves and the grass Crayola green, and right on the front of the tree trunk I pinned a knot hole.
Sometimes, I drew the ants, and sometimes, I didn’t. When I was 17, someone told me that the knot holes we draw in trees as children can represent the holes in our lives — secrets we’ve buried; losses we’ve endured; things we’ve had taken or shame we’ve carried. During my college years, I served as class chaplain. This invariably meant that people I didn’t know would seek me out to tell me stories about the holes in their trees.
Some of the stories were crushing and usually fell into one of two categories. Young women who’d been sexually assaulted in childhood or young men who’d grown up without fathers.
I remember one friend telling me his mother had been so promiscuous, he didn’t know who his father was. He hid this hole of shame from the world. But, every Christmas I receive a photo greeting card from him. His wife and children grow lovelier every year. He was so determined to invent a fabulous life. He kissed the past goodbye and filled that terrible knot hole with love.
The summer before I graduated college, a couple with whom I’d been good friends permanently redefined their on-again, off-again relationship. She told me one night that he had finally told her between violent sobs about the hole in his tree. That’s what he called it. And, it was so big it swallowed up their sweet relationship.
A decade later, I heard that guy was an enormously talented drag queen performing in bars in. The day I learned this was the same day I learned he died of AIDS. He was too beautiful, too wonderful to die like that.
The first time someone asked me about the hole in my tree I told them it was just the nook inside the shade where the ants lived. I stood under it so many times in the dusk of summer. In the morning, the dew washed my dirty feet. It was my Banyan, my Brooklyn, my Terabithia. A canopy of shelter from the ungodly spokes radiating from the world around me. I loved that tree and I even loved the hole, because it was part of me.
What is the hole in your tree?
No matter what it is, we can eat this gnarly hollow spoon by spoon. And, we can offer up Thanksgiving for it. Because, I believe the holes in our trees create the space that inhabits all our grit and compassion.