My story is about a run-in with a tree.
Now it seems like a lot of people have had life-changing encounters with trees, from Adam and Eve and Jack and the Beanstalk, to the Buddha himself. But mine always felt too stupid to tell. But it changed my life and Helen and Amy asked for it, so here it is.
I was maybe 20, and in this rotten, rotten mood that had been going on for five or six years. I felt out of place all the time. I was a poor kid in a rich kids’ college in Atlanta, a non-believer from a family of religious fanatics. And I hated it that nobody saw me for who I was. In college, they thought because I swam on the swim team, maybe I was an athlete. Or because I played for the dance group, maybe I was a pianist. Or maybe, and this was certainly the dominant view at home, because I kept staying out late and cutting class and leaving on weekends without permission, maybe I was a juvenile delinquent and a slut.
Anyway, on the day of the incident, I was on another unlicensed vacation, visiting my secret hunky dark-haired boyfriend who had been named homecoming something-or-other at his college in Indiana. We were walking through this forest called Brown County State Park, known for Fall Foliage and Caramel Apples. And I was feeling grumpier than usual, so grumpy, in fact, that the sexy boyfriend had gone ahead, on down the path.
And I was hanging back and kicking the leaves and talking to myself. Saying over and over what I’ve been saying for years. “How come nobody ever asks me for enough. How come nobody ever calls me up and says, “Marsha, would you come over here and write a musical? or Marsha, would you write a play, we want you to write a play.” I was walking through the forest on a beautiful day with a sexy guy absolutely furious. Terrified that I would live my whole life and nobody would ever ask me for what I could really do.
And then, I don’t know why, something happened. I looked up. I looked up from my lifelong complaint and …there was this tree. One spectacular tree, wild red and flaming orange, a real fall fandango of a tree. It was totally incomprehensibly heartstoppingly beautiful. And I couldn’t move. I stopped, I looked up and actually saw the tree standing there. I saw that it had undergone this astonishing transformation… and the same instant, I realized that NOBODY MADE THAT TREE DO THAT. Nobody asked it to, forced it to, or offered to pay it to, or even told it not to. No. That tree had become that beautiful simply because it was in its nature to do so.
And I understood. Very quietly. If I was a writer, and I knew I was, then I shouldn’t wait for somebody to ask me to write, or tell me to write. I should just write. I should work at it, try to get good at it. I should just go ahead and become what it was in my nature to be.
And the rest of the walk, and the rest of my life were different from then on. I went back to school and stopped trying half-heartedly to do the things I thought I was supposed to do, and proceeded just to respond to things that were interesting. I gave up on English and studied philosophy. I hung out at the observatory and went to the opera. I spent a lot of time at Stone Mountain, the largest exposed piece of solid granite in the world. I liked to go there when it got fogged in, because there was this yellow line that was painted on the mountain to lead you down from the top during a white out. I liked following the path that just seemed to appear out of the fog. And I began writing. I began to think of myself not as some lost girl, but as a writer in hiding.
As a consequence, I left college unable to actually do anything. I assumed that the things that came to me were the things I was supposed to say yes to. I worked in a mental hospital, I taught fifth grade, I worked for the arts commission, I taught film, and finally I arrived at the moment when I sat down to write my first play. And people liked that play, about a girl who’d gotten out of prison, of all things, and before long, I had actually realized both of my childhood dreams, which were, I am embarrassed to tell you, to win the Pulitzer Prize and hear a song of mine in an elevator.
And all along, the tree – the sight of that tree that day in the forest – has stayed with me, like a problem assigned by a Zen master, like a phrase I chant without knowing what it means, like a still meditative pool I stare into. And I have been as challenged by the image as I have been instructed by it. I have wondered if I got it right that first day? Was the real message about change, not nature? About the absolute certainty that things will change? Beautiful now, not so beautiful later, beautiful again after that, dead at some point
Did a tree even have a nature that determined all its actions? Did I have a nature? Was there such a thing as nature? Was there a tree? What did it mean?
On some level, I have been standing in front of that tree ever since I first saw it. At this point in my study of it, I don’t think the tree actually meant anything. It was just there. But that is profound enough. Like I am just here. Like we are all just here. Doing whatever seems ours to do, for whatever reason, whether it makes sense or not. Because we certainly can’t through life guided by what makes sense. I mean, who would have thought the my single biggest obstacle would be removed by the sight of a stupid tree.