Birch Trees : Magazine : A Public Space

Birch Trees

Memoir Taylor Plimpton

A few years back, my wife introduced me to the distinct pleasure of stepping on crisp, fallen leaves. Actually, she was not yet my wife, but this was one of the things that made me sure I wanted to marry her—seeing Lizzy hop daintily from leaf to leaf with delight, seeking out the most satisfying crunch. Occasionally knowing a good thing when I see it, I have taken up this habit myself.



After we got married, we got a dog, as newlyweds sometimes do. She was a rescue pup, and her name was Brooklyn—she was named that down in South Carolina before we adopted her and brought her north. Still, we worried: could we really live in Brooklyn and have that be our dog’s name, too? In the end, we decided not to mess with fate. Besides, I find it appropriate, somehow, that my happy little girl-dog is named after the land of seen-it-all-already eyes. To be sure, she exhibits some hipster-appropriate characteristics as well—she’s scruffy, she smells a bit, and she can even be aloof, slinking down from the couch to go lie on the cool kitchen floor and mope. But for the most part, she bounds up stairs two at a time. She digs in the sand at the beach with elan. She snorts when you give her a good pat. She wags her tail with unbridled affection at almost everyone she sees.

I do wish I shared her enthusiasm, her way of experiencing the world. Brooklyn exemplifies what Zen Buddhist teachings sometimes refer to as Beginner’s Mind—a state of open not-knowing, in which all things are possible, and everything is worthy of exploration. Just walking her down the city streets, you can see this mind at work—sniffing at this, sniffing at that, what’s this, what’s that, oh, look!

Through her eyes, everything is seen as if for the first time. Consider how, for Brooklyn, each new snowfall is exactly that: new. The sky suddenly falling, cold white touching her black nose and vanishing. What does she know about it, about the science of what is happening? She just trots around happily, experiencing it all freshly, and later, when the snow becomes deep enough, she plunges into it headfirst, her butt sticking up, and then wriggles her way out, muzzle all covered in white. Explanations sometimes miss the point of it. Brooklyn knows what snow is: snow is for plunging into. Or, as Bash¯o puts it:

Look, children,

Hailstones!

Let’s rush out!



The whole thing makes me think of my dad. His eyes had a gleam. Whatever adventures life offered up, he threw himself headlong into them. Once, he was doing some narration for a documentary, and in the city that day there was a wild snowstorm. Understandably, no one showed up at the studio—no one, that is, except for him. My father had ridden his bicycle through the storm and arrived completely covered in snow. He had a big ridiculous winter hat on, his nose was bright red from the cold, and on his face was this big, boyish, irrepressible grin. You might not have expected it from his stuffy accent and Old-World airs, his severe features and grandfatherly white hair. But he knew what you do in a snowstorm: you go out into it.



The other day, a freak November Nor’easter dumped a good five or six inches where I currently live, in a Hudson Valley village called Pleasantville. Brooklyn was ecstatic —she loves nothing more than bounding after snowballs and pouncing on the place where they vanish—and my son, Ollie was ecstatic, too. We have a son now—he’s three—and we spent the day after the storm playing outside. We threw snowballs at each other. We built a snow fort that turned into a snow tunnel that Ollie Fox later took great pleasure in destroying. And then, as dusk fell and a half-moon emerged from behind the clouds and turned the whole universe silver, we threw snowballs at the moon.



My mother, Freddy, used to tell me about the root of the word enthusiasm: en theos, in god—or rather, to have god within you. It is perhaps not surprising that she knew the root of that word, not only because her father was a wordsmith (the author of Words to Rhyme With and Almanac of Words at Play, among others). She had nine different dictionaries she enjoyed referring to while whooping your butt at Spill and Spell. And it wasn’t just dictionaries that lined her bookshelves, but reference books and field guides on anything and everything you could imagine: A Guide to the Behavior of Common Birds; National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Fossils; The Larousse Guide to Shells of the World. These field guides, especially the birding ones, were not just there for appearance’s sake. They were well used and loved, the pages dog eared and marked up with big circles and stars accompanying the species and specimens she herself had been lucky enough to encounter. To hear my mom tell it, there were all sorts of creatures that prowled her backyard or flitted about her trees that had no business being anywhere near her Long Island home: songbirds encountered only in the American Southwest, rare woodpeckers found only in the swamps of Louisiana. She even claimed she’d seen a mountain lion once, skirting the edges of her lawn at dusk.

Or consider her collection of binoculars. She probably had seven pairs, because whatever miracle she witnessed—the bright flash of an oriole’s orange breast, a fox’s bushy tail peaking out from the reeds—she wanted to be sure that whoever else was there with her would get to see it, too. Often, that person was me.

But I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to see her. It was the same with my dad when he was alive: I wanted nothing to do with any of it. There was one night I remember, though, sitting with my mom at dinner maybe a year or so before she died. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, spinach salad. Halfway through the meal, something made me look up at her. It was as if I was asking myself a question I’d never even considered before: Who is this woman? Who is this strange, breathing constant of my life? Who is she? She saw me looking at her strangely with that curious smile and smiled back at me, and said, “What? Why are you looking at me like that?” I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “No reason,” but the reason was that I’d spent so much of my recent history with my mom not looking at her, looking down at my plate, or away. What had she done to deserve such aversion, such constant judgment? Plenty, I guess, but for whatever reason, I looked at her that night and saw—what? I don’t even know how to describe it. Maybe I just saw a woman who was not anything I’d labeled her as, but just this beautiful, tender woman, not too long for this world, and still so much of life—of her own life—a mystery to her.

Seeing me see her opened up something, and she went on to reveal things about herself she’d never told me before—about the constant exhaustion of pretending to be comfortable in social situations. I saw this with her and Dad both, the way they tensed their ankles in moments of awkwardness, terrified that a joke or story they had just told might not land. She told me, too, how when she was young, just a girl, really, it seemed like everyone she got close to committed suicide. After the fourth suicide in her life (her first husband’s brother, who had fallen in love with her), she checked herself into a hospital.



A few months after we got Brooklyn, we were at the dog park, and a bigger dog made a beeline for her, bit her on the neck, and pinned her down. It was a quick thing and there was no blood, but it scared me, and it scared Brooklyn, too. The rest of the time there, she was timid and skittish, which was just so unlike her—and it made me think about how it happens, how a dog begins to lose their invincible happiness: a bigger dog bites you.

Brooklyn was bullied on other occasions after that day, too. And you can see it in her now, how it’s taken a toll. My sweet little girl-dog, sometimes I hardly recognize her, she’s snarling and lunging at other dogs and I’m yanking her back with the leash, and the whole thing makes me so sad. It makes me feel like I have failed her.



How do I not fail my son? The instinct is to want to shelter him, to protect his innocence, his simple excitement and wonder—but how can you possibly guard someone from becoming too guarded?

There are these photos of Lizzy as a little girl—Ollie’s age, maybe younger, one or two or three, and she’s got this wonderful, little-stinker look in her eye: you just know she’s out to make trouble. This sparkle, it’s not gone, she still has it, it’s who she really is—it’s who I really love—but it’s hard to see sometimes. And it’s not really her fault. It’s the world’s fault, and it is mine. Life takes something from us. Except it’s not missing, not really; and it’s the job of someone who loves you to see it.

But there’s something wrong with my eyes. I don’t see her right. Sometimes I don’t even try. The way I wouldn’t look up at my mom, I do this with Lizzy, too—at dinner, my eyes are cast down to my plate. Even when I do look up, I don’t see her, not really. It’s like I’ve created a painting in my mind of who she is and I just see that version, my tired, old image of her. The picture I’m comfortable with. Maybe this is the way it is with everything—I haven’t been brave enough to look.

I may not be very good at seeing her, but thankfully, Lizzy’s not very good at hiding herself away. She does her best, I guess, to guard her tender heart—but then there she is, watering the houseplants when it’s raining outside so they won’t feel left out, or scratching Brooklyn beneath the collar because she knows that’s a spot that gets neglected, or using reverse-psychology to make Ollie eat his peas—and then there’s just no missing her. Then I have no choice.



Without even really meaning to, I walk around with a bit of a scowl on my face sometimes, and for no good reason, either. (To be fair, there are times I walk around with a happy bounce to my step, also for no good reason.) Either way, in spite of my appreciation of Beginner’s Mind, I’m not so sure that I myself really have it. My eyes don’t see things clearly; they are clouded over. I see what I expect to see, and for the most part, I am comfortable with that. I live a safe life—guarded, familiar, unexposed. I do not throw myself into things. I am afraid.

The point is not to not be afraid, though, I don’t think. My dog gets scared, too. Loud trucks, kids on scooters, plastic bags blowing in the wind. She jumps back and skitters off, and sometimes emits the cutest little growl. But she is not afraid to be afraid. She is not afraid to be happy—she wags her tail with such delight. She is not afraid to be sad—to lie in her dog bed with her chin on her paws and that faraway longing in her eyes. She is not afraid to experience life, whatever it offers, to plunge headlong into it, as if into a great bank of snow.



A few years ago, I realized that in the middle of summer, birch trees shed their bark. Great strips fall to the pavement and quickly crisp, allowing an unexpected season for the joy of hearing that satisfying crunch beneath your shoes. I only noticed this phenomenon when I moved to Brooklyn where, for whatever reason, every other tree seems a birch—stretching themselves out over the neighborhood, flexing and shimmering in the fine summer air. It is this flexing, I assume, that results in the peeling and dropping away of their former skin—as if the thick muscle of the trunks had expanded and burst at its seams. I never put it together till now that this shedding creates the distinctive look of a birch: the camouflage design not just a matter of color, but of layer, some patches of older skin remaining, the new, lighter, greener patches of fresh wood beneath.

Anyway, these strips of birch bark fall to the pavement, where they dry and curl up into themselves almost like cigar papers—and if you step on them at the height of their crispness they give off an even better crunch than autumn leaves. I was so excited to share my discovery with Lizzy, and with Ollie, too—“Look!”

But for whatever reason, they just weren’t all that into it.

No. 28

No. 28

Author

Taylor Plimpton teaches at Catapult and in the Writer’s Foundry MFA program at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. He is the author of Notes from the Night: A Life After Dark (Broadway) and at work on a memoir, from which the essay in this issue is excerpted.

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