What was your favorite book when you were a little kid?
It seems to me that the books that speak to us in childhood are treasures, keys that unlock something in our lives we need for the day and from which we can draw later. Last night, I was walking through a bookstore and found a huge display for my mother’s favorite childhood book, “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”. Written by Betty Smith three years before my mother was born, the book mirrored some parts of her life and gave her hope of improving her own circumstances. In the book, Francie uses a love of reading and imagination to transcend a difficult daily reality and takes hope in a resolute little tree growing in a grate on her city block. It was determined to grow and thrive, and did so, as did Francie and my Mom.
It got me thinking about my favorite book when I was a little girl, “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In it, the main character, Mary, is sent to live in a grand manor house in England, after the death of her parents and her caretakers in India. Spoiled, scarred, sour, and angry, she is told she must remain in only two rooms. The kindness of a maid leads Mary outside to explore and discover friends, usefulness, and a key to a walled garden, which they tend together and whose flourishing growth mirrors the restoration of the three young people who care for it.
That book had every element I loved as a child: underdogs, misty English manor house, romance, and a tidy, happy ending. As I look at it today, I see with more shadows how the garden mirrors every human life. At times guarded, locked, and seemingly dead, there is actually so much going on under the surface which we would not believe. Once tended with kindness, we can come back to life and live in full color, and we can become a place for others to grow, too.
On road trips when the kids were small, I would sometimes ask them to imagine that every car we passed was filled with stories. Every driver, every passenger, even every pet had their own experience of our same day and the highway we were sharing, but they brought with it all of their own stuff. They each had a family, friends, a job, and a life we could never guess at, but here, our lives intersected with theirs for just a few seconds.
(I was such a fun Mom, you have no idea!)
Recently when we visited Philadelphia, my daughter and I played a game in a big public courtyard in which we tried to guess at the lives of strangers walking by. It was a much snarkier version of the game we played when the kids were small, and it was seldom flattering to our poor targets, but it had some garden-wall climbing element to it just the same.
We were trying to see past the surface, to look a little deeper, and it felt foreign to us. It is rare to really see even the people in our daily lives at the pace we are traveling. And at the end of the day, I am more and more convinced that people primarily want to be seen. I know I do.
A person is a complex, often secret, mixture of gnarled and messy experiences, hopes and dreams. We often suffer and struggle alone behind the walls, and leave ourselves untended. Every day, people walk past dropped keys and they seldom climb a wall. I wonder what would happen if the gates were cracked open just a little, and our paths intersected just a bit more than they do now. It seems to me that something beautiful might come of it if they did.