Free to be anything? You might be surprised by your answer. I sure was.
3 Parts to the Story
My friend, Melissa, asked this intriguing question one evening at a gathering of friends. Whenever she and her husband, Ken, throw their doors open, my husband and I join the party. The conversation spins up a notch when Melissa invites her guests to invest some energy beyond the small talk. She posed this question to a group of four couples who had gathered to eat and laugh in her kitchen:
“What would you be, if you were free to be anything you wanted?”
Each of us eight answered with unpredictable and somewhat surprising dreams. My answer popped into my head and bounced out of my mouth before I could edit and filter it:
“When I am old, I will live alone in the woods. I will know the names of every tree and the songs of each bird I meet. My hair will flow long and silver-grey upon my shoulders. My name will be Willow.”
Everyone’s eyes widened, then slid sideways toward my husband, Scott. He said, with half a smile, “Where am I in this story?”
Okay, so it wasn’t very nice to erase him from my old age. But his absence in the picture made me wonder what was at the heart of my imaginary scenario. Was there a bigger story lurking in the shadows of my answer? Upon examination, I discovered 3 parts to my rough sketch of who I’d be if truly free.
Part 1: A Fairy Tale
First, living alone in the woods is my fantasy of freedom from the challenges of human relationships. I am an introvert. Social interactions sap my energy. Sustained focus on the faces and feelings of those I most love requires an output of energy that asks for rest and space—sooner rather than later.
Also, I grow calm and strong whenever my feet sink into the earth’s mossy soil and I can listen and look for God in His creation. Plus, learning the names of the trees and the calls of the birds has been my passion lately.
However, pure peace in isolation is just a fairy tale. Even though a hidden forest path enchants me, I realize any magical setting in a sunny wood could become a nightmare when the sun went down. The big bad wolf of loneliness would surely come knocking at the door of my little haven in the woods. Indeed, I love my husband and my people and I know I need them close.
Part 2: Observing the Woman in the Willow
But, the image of an old woman with silver-grey hair comes from an actual place:
Mrs. Zook lived close to the home I grew up in. As a child, I only glimpsed her across the parking lot that connected our houses. Her austere dresses and tightly contained hair—always up in a traditional Mennonite bun—created the impression of a stiff old woman. However, the graceful weeping willow tree that shrouded her lawn drew me with its mystery. I remember the day I dropped my bike to creep in for a closer look. Skirting the outer edge of the unfenced yard, I parted a few of the willow’s draping green branches.
Old Mrs. Zook stood beneath the tree in a cottony nightgown, brushing her freshly washed, silver-grey hair. It flowed long and lovely as the willow branches under which she hovered.
Unaware of my stare, Mrs. Zook seemed free from care in the cool shade on a hot day. That picture of the woman in the willow, one of grace and ageless beauty, enchanted my ten-year-old soul and touches me still.
Part 3: Going with the Flow
The third part of my free-to-be story is that Old Age is creeping up on me. She will, God-willing, knock on my door in a few years. Beyond my desire to live a simple and contemplative life, is the wonder of what I will become. Already, I sense my tendency to stiffen and settle, to give way to a negative outlook. Instead, I’d rather keep stretching, stay flexible, and learn to go with the flow of life.
Will my body and spirit succumb to the stifling effects of gravity and pain? Or will I find the strength to keep growing and bending with the wind? I don’t want my heart to close, becoming pinned like a tight hair bun. On the contrary, I hope to stay open like a willow, sharing grace and beauty in the place God plants me. I pray my trajectory of 56 years has not taken me too far afield of the accepting, compassionate old woman I wish to become.
So, those questions and hopes combined with the memory of Mrs. Zook elicited that unedited answer to my friend’s question. And they became the springboard for my next creative project:
I wrote a novel called The Woman in the Willow.
Finding Freedom in Fiction
With The Woman in the Willow, I was free to try on my character, to create a drama exploring her choices. I wrote my novel, in part, to search for the sage in me, the woman who ages with wisdom. My fiction asks,
Can an old woman flower and flow, despite her heart’s instinct to tighten and close?
It’s the story of Catherine Hathaway, a woman struggling to forget her traumatic past by hiding away in her homemade haven. When a precocious and lonely child challenges her isolation, she refuses to open her gate or her heart to the neglected girl. The resulting tumult stirs unsettling memories and threatens to sweep the woman away in a flood of grief and loss. What part will the willow tree play in transforming Catherine into the woman she wants to become?
Stay tuned to find out. My book will launch into the world on September 1st, 2020!
Perhaps your answer to the question, ‘What would you be, if you were free to be anything you wanted?’ contains an important part of your story.
In it are fragments of your dreams, shadows of your past, and seeds of what you want to become. In between is who you are now. Make that imaginary sketch to test the final portrait you will paint. Let the vision and the dream write the story of your becoming, like the woman in the willow has for me.
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