The red maple up past the McKinley Elementary School playground on Emerson Street, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is etched on the backdrop of my mind like a permanent screen saver. A symmetrical outline, the tree turned crimson every October for exactly one month.
As a kindergartener looking up the street from my Grandma’s side yard, the tree represented perfection to me. The first time I noticed it was probably when I was pushed in my stroller up the street and someone, my mother or grandmother, gave me a red leaf from the ground.
Later, Grandma ironed one under wax paper for me to keep.
When my mother worked at Checker Motors and I entered McKinley school in the morning kindergarten, I stayed with my grandparents during the days. I used to gather leaves from under the tree by myself. Each leaf, shaped like a small hand, matched my own as I picked it up and placed it in my palm.
When I looked up into the leaves, the light sparkled, dappling my view of the world around me.
Red trees stir me with their deviation from the norm, their place in the firmament of “all things counter, original, spare, strange” (Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins) Like the passion of tender new peony shoots against a backdrop of green bushes, the red tree blazes against greenery, blue sky, or dreary human-drawn landscape.
On a related note, I am wondering if I am obsessed with trees. I’ve written about the palo verde, the elm, the plum, and more. If I didn’t have this paper trail of evidence leading me to the source of my obsession, I couldn’t have told you that this is one of my writing topics. I recognize my obsession with writing about family and my childhood, but I didn’t see the trees until I looked back.
In her seminal book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg suggests:
Writers end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be leased.
She insists that obsessions have power. “Harness that power,” she urges.
What are your writing obsessions? If you look back at what you have written, can you identify an obsession you didn’t realize you had?