I don’t know how tall the tree next to the driveway really was, but it seemed like a giant to me. I was five, and the streets of small-town California were my whole world. I had already watched my father fall out of this same tree, but it didn’t stop me from loving it, from climbing up the little two-by-fours nailed to the trunk and stepping onto the branches and going higher and higher until it felt like I was all alone on the top of the world.
Or, mostly alone, at least. My brother was usually with me, just a branch or two below. Being two years older meant he was bigger and more cautious. He told me not to go up too high, not to step out so far. Naturally, I didn’t listen. Do little sisters ever listen? Not the stubborn, independent kind. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure that’s what brought on the dare. Me venturing out too far, ignoring his warnings, no doubt bragging that I wasn’t afraid. If you’re so unafraid, he said, why don’t you crawl across the carport, over the roof, and down the porch rails on the other side?
I dare you.
It probably seemed like a safe dare, so outlandish that he could prove his point without fear of any danger. Let’s just say he learned two things about me that day (and maybe that was when I discovered them myself): 1. I truly wasn’t afraid (not of things in the real world, at least) and 2. I would always take a dare.
I held my breath on hands and knees the whole way across that fiberglass carport roof. I scrambed nimbly and much more sure of myself over the sloping shingles of the house roof. I was assailed by a moment of doubt at the thought of swinging my legs over the edge to climb down the porch, but the thought of that dare pushed me to action.
I was just climbing onto the porch rails when my mother came out the front door. Now that I am a mother, I am truly sorry for the heart attack I gave her. Everyone was amazed. Shocked. Angry. Terrified. But amazed. I was pretty impressed with myself, to be honest.
I’ve been daring myself to do terrifying things ever since.
I still remember when I discovered the little stand of silk trees behind our neighbors’ houses. They were a whole land of imagination all by themselves. We were really living in military issued housing, a tile-floored ranch on a little housing development plopped in the middle of some fields on an Oklahoma Army base. But across that quiet street and behind that row of boring yards was a magical world.
The branches swooped low and waved their fronds of fern-like leaves. The blossoms were pink puffs of softness, perfect for decoration or for gathering to be woven into magical garments. The long seed-pods hung down in clusters to be gathered for stews or to be stowed as provisions for all sorts of adventures. Even now when I think of the endless private world of wonder that is childhood, of long afternoons outside, of skinned knees and twigs in my hair, of sun and shade and the smell of honesuckle, those silk trees are the picture I see.
There I learned to create worlds and to be rich while owning nothing at all. I played in those worlds alone and I also brought friends in to play along, only to discover that nothing seemed the same through someone else’s eyes. So there it was that I came to the sad conclusion (childish, but then, I was a child) that I should always only hug my magical worlds close and keep them safe from prying eyes.
For the record, this is the only time I can ever remember my mother holding a gun, but if those red pants and that pointed hood don’t say “doesn’t fit in this all too real world” I don’t know what does.
Later the tree was in our back yard. For as much as it was my favorite place to be, for as many hours as I spent in its branches, I couldn’t now describe even a single branch to you. I know it was off to the side, up against the neighbor’s fence. I know that the bottom branches were low enough that I could reach up and, holding on tight, walk my feet up the trunk until my whole 13-year-old self could scramble up into the tree and disappear among the leaves. I know that somewhere up above the roofline was the perfect forking branch where I could settle in, leaning back against the trunk and reaching up to the perfect little branch above where I kept the box.
I’m not sure when I thought to start keeping the box in the tree, but I do know once I put it there, it stayed there for a long time. It was only an old cardboard shoe box, but inside I could keep a few treasures, things I thought were beautiful and should be stowed in a secret hideout in a tree. A rock. A pinecone. A few faded flowers. And a book. Always a book that I could pull out and read, sitting on my branch, hidden from the world that contained middle school and poufy bangs and acid washed jeans.
I could just be me, in a tree, where things were green and other lands were just a page-turn away.
How did that book get wet? my mother asked. Did you leave it outside?
I just nodded, not wanting to explain that I hadn’t really considered the ineffectiveness of a cardboard box as protection against the Oregon rains. But the book dried out. And I loved it all the more because it had had its own treetop adventure.
It turns out a book can take you away from your adolescent self and drop you in someone else’s life and also be a wrinkly-paged reminder that rains will change you but never stop you from being who you are inside.
Not long after, I sat up in that tree while a gentle rain fell down and felt that life was a pretty beautiful thing after all.
It was an awkward time. You would have hidden in a tree, too.
The Indiana tree was miles down the road, tucked away in a park only a few a locals ever visited. When I just had to get away, to be out of the dorm life of college friends and the pressures of trying to be someone grown up and headed somewhere, I sped down the country road to the empty park and stared at the lonely little trees and breathed.
Breathing really only works when you’re looking at trees.
Then I would drive back, get on with life, be social again and enjoy the thrills of becoming.
As college neared its end, the panic began to grow. The visits to the out-of-the-way park became more frequent. The breathing became more determined.
One day in a burst of desperation I got out of the car and strode over to the nearest little tree. With great difficulty, I pulled myself onto the bottom branch. I scraped my leg. My shoulder ached. I climbed one branch higher and had to stop. I wasn’t sure the poor tree could handle my weight. I stood there, clinging to the trunk, feeling huge and awkward, and it hit me.
I was a grown-up.
Without trying or achieving or performing any sort of ritual, I just was what I was. An adult. Too big to climb little trees.
A wave of sadness came over me. I couldn’t be as light and care-free as I once was. I was all grown up now, weighed down to the earth, confined to the realities of my real-world age and size.
And then I relaxed. The breathing got easier. Because just living had gotten me here to this place, so just living would get me through it.
I got back in my car and went back to my living.
A few short weeks later I sat in a different car looking at that same tree when the man who would become my husband gave me my first kiss. The tree waved in the wind, just being a tree, not trying to be anything else.
All felt right with the world.
I wanted to go on and on. There are probably half a dozen more significant trees in my life. But time is short and memories are hard work. Thanks to Lil Blue Boo for the idea. It gave me an excuse to think about trees, which is another way of saying, it made me happy. More of life should be spent on things like remembering trees. Especially since, as you can see, I have no pictures of those places. This is my snapshot, probably as poorly lit and unevenly colored as all old snapshots are, but what’s the use of memories if not to be slanted in just the way you want them?