Over the past few weeks, the maple down the street has changed from dingy, faded summer’s-end green to splendorous burnt orange and crimson, like blood and fire against the azure autumn sky. Every year it sparks in me a memory, or maybe something deeper than a memory; an image emblazoned in the archives of my past, filed away but far from forgotten.
There was a massive maple tree just like this one on the winding avenue that led up the hill to the house where I grew up. Every year it would ignite with the same impossible colors before yielding its leaves to the unrelenting autumn winds. I biked past it hundreds of times as a kid, returning from some friend’s house or some adventure deep in the woods, then drove past it hundreds more as a teenager, coming back from some keg-strewn bonfire in some gravel pit outside the city limits, racing to get home before curfew.
It isn’t just the image that has lingered with me, though, but all of the longing and turmoil spilling over at every moment in those days. I used to wear an old canvas army surplus jacket in the fall, full of rips and bloodstains and cigarette burns – each one hard-earned. I walked its threads like tightropes, dancing while they frayed beneath my feet. We were all so close to the edge back then and we wanted to be – to see just how close we could come, how much we could feel, how much beauty and pain and inspiration and heartbreak we could take.
I always felt those things the most in the fall, when somehow the world dying all around made me feel like I was being reborn.
But those flames have turned to embers now, glowing faintly beneath the years and layers of habit and routine. I’m not sure it’s possible to ever feel anything as intensely as we do when we’re young – or if we do, maybe it’s us who can’t last. After all, we’ve already said goodbye to some friends who tried to walk that edge for too long.
Last time I was back in the old neighborhood, I saw that they had chopped that old maple down, removing the last landmark by which I had tried to navigate my way back to the wild heart that used to beat in my chest. I sat at the stop sign blinking slowly, trying to make it reappear, until the honking of the cars behind me tore me from my reverie. For a split second, I swear I could see its jagged outline in the rear view mirror as I drove away.
This autumn is warmer and later than it should be, with the leaves in my neighborhood just starting to change and clinging tenaciously to the trees. All except the maple down the block, that is. It hasn’t been willing to wait for the colder weather to set itself aflame. It glows and burns like a personal protest against the slow death of winter it knows will come far too soon.
Though I know it, too, I just can’t seem to burn like that anymore. But I’ve still got those embers glowing somewhere inside of me, and I’ve still got a chance…