One of our favorite children’s books of all time is “The Giving Tree.” My girls like reading the book because, when Breathe was an infant, I colored in all the black and white pictures. For some reason, this fact seems to matter–they bring it up at least twice whenever we read the book. I’m rather certain that all sorts of papers and even some treaties have already documented the book’s qualities but I can’t help but wonder if “hope” has yet been cited as one of the book’s timeless messages. Over the eight years we have been reading it, it’s offered me tenderness and laughter and insight into giving but tonight, when I’ve been in need of comfort, “The Giving Tree” comes to mind and, with it, an injection of hope and solace.

In the story, you’ll remember, the boy goes to the tree every time he is sad or lonely or in need. The inevitable conversation this sparks is on the nature of true friendship, and it’s a worthwhile conversation, but tonight I’m struck by the idea that, out of all the tree gave the boy, one of the most important was a sense of comfort. The tree, in essence, was the boy’s hiding place. He went there when he was lost, when the whole world stopped making sense, when the rain became a fearful downpour from which he needed to run instead of a refreshing reason to dance. It was his friend, it was his escape.

Most of my characters have such an outlet. Anna had Ash. The four orphans in unpublished “Pirates Cove” had a secret hideout in the middle of the woods. Abrielle, in “Me”, had art. Nick, in “Dreams of a Dancer”, had the sea while Nicole ran to dance. Landon had horses. And me… I have the characters, of course. And, oh how strong is the comfort they offer. Still… I can lose all my agonies out in the lives of fictional characters but, when I lay the pen down, the truth is I’m still staring at reality and the tears are both silent and invisible.

Yesterday, I had a doctor’s appointment at 1. I finally saw the doctor at 5. I’m awful at math, granted, but that’s a four hour wait. In a tiny exam room with no windows and no one to talk to. Solitude is a dangerous thing. By the time the doctor showed up, I was apprehensive, nervous and absolutely exhausted. When she asked if I had been writing, I unexpectedly broke down in tears. I don’t know this doctor on a personal level but she remembered I write–and she knew what I write about. I have no idea why she asked me a non-health related question. But, at the time, it felt like someone was trying to get to know me. It felt like someone cared. And it reminded me that that’s what a hiding place really is–that’s where the greatest amount of comfort comes from: the belief that we are in the presence of someone to whom listening is not a burden but rather a genuine reflection of their desire to understand… us. I’m quit sure that wasn’t actually my doctor’s intent. I’m sure it was just a “how are you today” type question—the kind that’s meant to be almost rhetorical. But it struck a nerve because it was exactly what I most needed.

Sometimes being strong is scary. Sometimes the world is colored gray no matter how optimistic I try to be. Sometimes medical tests yield troubling, rather than reassuring, answers. Sometimes they bring just more questions than you had to start out with. And sometimes daily routines exhaust rather than intrigue. I mastered the art of silent tears as a child. I mastered the art of smiling in the face of challenges. I learned how to view setbacks as detours rather than dead ends and, most of the time, an can swerve around them in order to avoid any collisions that might be traumatizing. I learned that, as long as my girls are happy and safe, there really isn’t much that can top everything, both as a child and as an adult, I’ve already survived: this lesson has produced a “it’s all okay” attitude in the face of obstacles. But then, sometimes, all the noise shakes me up and leaves me longing for more than a fictional world, longing for the comfort a warm embrace or heartfelt conversation could bring. I submerge myself in a garden hot tub with coconut and strawberry bath salts, light a few candles and extinguish the light; I pick up my pen and lose myself in writing a chapter or a blog post; and then at lay down, holding a soft blanket and try to soak in its gentleness. Mostly, it works. But every once in awhile I remember that human connection is the best hiding place because only fellow humans can understand our words, only human beings can share fear and joy, sorrow and triumph.

Joy shared is joy doubled, sorrow shared is sorrow halved. Only humans can see tears and help wipe them away. God created Eve for a purpose… Adam needed a human companion–even though he walked with God Almighty himself. Of course, as the book illustrates, we should not see friends as gift cards, or as counselors, but they exist for more than fun and games too. “The Giving Tree” reminded me tonight that tears don’t have to be invisible, that sharing isn’t selfish and that hope exists in every face we see: we just have to be willing to listen AND to share… We have to be willing to accept the gift… We can’t be in so much of a hurry to prove we’re strong or to get the promotion or to find a husband or to lose the weight that we allow the overwhelming stress to bury us. I’m sure I can indeed handle it myself. I’m sure indeed things will be better soon. I’m sure that, if I just work hard enough, I can do whatever I want to be and then achieve that all elusive American Dream. I’m sure I am capable of complete self-reliance. That strong tree in the yard, the one that looks invincible, will die too. Or get snapped in two by a single bolt of lightning. We are really as strong as how many hands we hold, by how many cherished friendships we protect with meaningful conversations, fun and weaknesses revealed. The hope is in realizing we don’t have to be strong all the time. The hope is in accepting the fact that sometimes we need to cry, to give ourselves permission to let all of life’s worst boulders knock soul racking sobs from us. It is honest. It is real. It is allowed.

I used to pretend that some of the particularly strong characters in my books–Landon, Clayton, Sully–came to talk to me and hug me when I laid alone shaking in a bed full of horrific memories. I was unable to fall asleep without their images, and their imaginary–but warm–hugs. They told me it was okay, assured me I wasn’t dying, offered me a safe place to cry. Even today, favorite characters often lull me to sleep. They are a hiding place. They are a saving grace. They matter–deeply. But, as wonderful as they are, as crucial as they are, they are sometimes limited. Sometimes what I most need is an attentive ear that doesn’t mind my rambling about a plot, or as I sing for an hour, or about how well the magical safari in the backyard went, or about frightening test results or about the baby I miss or the childhood memory that’s interfering with sleep tonight. And sometimes all I need is permission to cry rather than smile, a verbal reminder that all emotions are equal and accepted and won’t change the way I’m thought of. In the end, all the gifts the tree offered the boy became unimportant — except the gift of companionship, of acceptance and of love because these things offed the boy hope that life was still worthwhile and that the pain could be overcome, that there is a reason to get up tomorrow. Therein lies the magic of friendship and of “The Giving Tree.”