Over the past five years, I spent many hours walking around the perimeter of a small city park that is quite beautiful, in a city not especially known for its natural beauty. This park covers a city block, one square mile, and is home to hundreds of carefully planted trees, mostly oak and elm with a few tall pine trees at the edge, making it look like an urban forest.
I have happy childhood memories of taking swimming and tennis lesson here, attending festivals and picnics here, and cutting through the park on the way to the YMCA, which shares the northeast corner. As an adult, however, I largely appreciated the park from the outside looking in, keeping my walks to the pavement surrounding the park. But one day last summer, I followed inspiration into the park. Standing in the middle of the trees and grass, I saw something that I had never noticed before. People come here alone; they come here to be alone. I marveled that a place that attracts so many solo visitors would be so appropriately named…Island Park.
I have always thought of this pretty, tree-covered park as a happy place. Yet I have come to recognize it as well as a lonely, melancholy place—a welcoming space inviting its visitors to leave their loneliness and their melancholia, if only for a moment, in the park.
I went there a lot last summer to think and to breathe. And I went there to walk, not my usual rapid power walking, but calm, thoughtful steps. I brought my hopes, my worries, and my sorrows. But the park never seemed to mind. In return for my meager offerings, it always made a miraculous and unequal exchange, generously depositing a piece of itself in me.
On the north edge of the park sits a bronze and granite statue called Angel of Hope. It’s a memorial to families who have lost children. For whatever reason, this became my favorite place in the park. I’d sit there quietly on one of the iron benches in front of the statue, looking at the bricks in the pavements with names of the children who had died, all strangers to me. There was something comforting and sweet—even sacred—about this spot. I went there to think, to not think, and sometimes to just listen. And I loved the families who, in creating this little oasis of hope, made it safe for all visitors to release our own sorrows and heartache.
I came to think of this angel as my angel, and I always felt better after visiting her. On one of my last walks through the park, I watched two teenage boys walking on the grass, and assumed they were using the park as a shortcut. Then they surprised me and sat on one of the benches in front of my angel. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. They recognized the bittersweet magic of that special spot. When I passed by the angel again, the two boys still sat there talking quietly. I smiled knowing that my angel was now their angel too—and that none of us was ever really alone.
In November, I moved to a city with no shortage of natural beauty or parks. But on a solo walk last Friday afternoon around a suburban lake, I found myself missing the tree-covered park, my solo companions, and our angel of hope. As I wound my way around the narrow lake, enjoying the freedom of walking outside after a very long winter, I knew that the park I loved—that had taught me so much—was still with me. With that comforting thought, I appreciated my new surroundings and this slice of beauty, which someone had thoughtfully created in the middle of suburban concrete and noise. Something new accompanied me on my walk on Friday: optimism, joy, and peace. And I thanked my angel and the healing power of that island park.