As a little girl, I would climb the crabapple tree in my back yard, high where I could see past the roof of our ranch house, to a hint of what was beyond my childhood world. I’d grab the trunk and shimmy up to safety. It was in that tree that I blended into the gold and green leaves waving in the sunlight, where shadows shaped their beauty on me. My youth fresh and dreams bright, I dared to hope past the today and what I could see.
Safety never lasted long. I’d get hungry or the sun would surrender to night and I’d be forced to concede my youth. Fear loomed inside in bedrooms and bathrooms, in hallways and the kitchen, where it caught me on callused hands and scraped shame against my childhood hopes. No matter how many times I climbed that tree, or how high, night always came. I grew older and the scent of my father lingered on my clothes and in dormant memories. Over time as I endured years of sexual abuse I traded climbing and safety for survival. I swapped dreams for defensiveness and clung tight to the despair I thought I’d earned.
It’s easy to forget safety when being unsafe is so much easier to find and becomes more familiar. As an adult I sought out numerous unhealthy relationships. I believed I could force people into what I wanted if only I tried a little harder, said something another way or another, tried again and again. It was my fault when relationships splintered or ended dramatically, I told myself. But unsafe can never be made safe.
Recently, I landed in a torrent of unhealthy relationships. I worked hard. I sacrificed myself, all I needed and wanted, who I am and who I want to be. Then, one by one they shattered into the fractured mess they’d been all along. I was left alone with the pieces of my past jumbled around me.
Slowly, slowly I began to rebuild. Gradually I gained the courage to reach out, this time cautiously, carefully. I knew unsafe and unhealthy, felt its glare hot against my vulnerabilities and walked away. It was safety that caught me surprise. Like riding a bike or a favorite childhood food, I knew it instantly once I felt it again. I knew safety’s warmth on my face, its prick of bark against my dreams, the feeling of being alive. I knew the swelling in my chest, the slow breathing in and breathing out, the brightness of possibility. I sat deep into its freedom.
I found a few safe people and tentatively began to trust again. I found myself comfortable and secure in a WINGS group. I gave myself permission to say no and leave situations where I sensed something unhealthy. Safety had been there all along, just past the fortress I’d built. It was waiting patiently willing to step into my confusion and hurt, promised to be stronger than my fragile moments.
Today, my daughter wants to climb a tree. It’s a crabapple tree maybe like the one I climbed as a child. I prop a chair against the trunk, help her small 3-year-old legs and arms navigate the branches. I coach her where to pull, when to push, where to place her hands and when to rest. I watch her face light up as she climbs just past my reach, sees beauty from a new angle.
Before long she is ready to climb down. She looks down and is scared, so I climb up the chair, into the crook toward the base of the trunk, reach up and reassure her. I am her anchor now. I am her safety, both up here and on the ground. I hold her tight against me and hope I feel as steady as she needs me to be. “You’re safe,” I say. “I have you.”
We slowly work our way down the tree, to the chair, land softly on the ground.
She smiles up at me. “Do again ‘morrow, mama?”
Where are your safe places? Who are your safe people? How do you recognize safety?