When I was a child, a neighbor taught me about life. She pointed to a high branch where a few leaflets danced madly in the sun.
“These little ones are young and strong and healthy. When they’re old and brown,” she said, “they’ll fall away, nice and easy. That’s life.”
I just stared, uncomprehending. “Is it always that way?” I asked, and she nodded.
But it wasn’t. Later I found that same bough ripped to shreds in the gutter after a storm, leaves still green drowned in a pool of runoff.
I couldn’t look away. It was disturbing—and beautiful. It is an image that has stayed with me all my life. I understand now that she was trying to teach me about death, but instead, those leaves became my metaphor for fumbling and green adolescence. As kids, we could see forever from the top of that tree. So we pressed our luck, pushed our limits. We leaned into the sun without worrying if we’d get burned; we waved in the breeze without caring if we’d be blown off. We weren’t thinking about the gutter, or what a long way down it was. Not then, not yet.
The kids I teach aren’t thinking of the long way down. They’re the ones who travel without seatbelts, who buy, sell and trade lovers and secrets with ruthless efficiency. They smoke, they curse, they drink, they strut. They are unabashed.
One day after school, I ask one of them, “Are you ever afraid?”
She just stares, uncomprehending. “Of what?” she says.
In my fifteen-minute commute I ruminate about my children, my mortgage, the rising cost of healthcare.
Of what, indeed.
Still, I believe there is something magnificent in the reckless abandon of the young. As grown-ups, we don’t hate their recklessness for its own sake—we hate it because it reminds us of what we’ve lost. With age come wisdom and experience—and prudence. The audacity (cynics will call it ‘ignorance’) with which we approached life as children seems exhausted by the time we are old enough to actually do something with it. So we get older, we shake heads and wag fingers and talk about the day when they’ll “know better.”
I find myself wanting that part of me back, the part that doesn’t know better. I try not to think about the gutter. I try not to worry about the long way down. But fearlessness only functions when we don’t realize we possess it. From the moment I saw the branch torn off in its greening, I began to understand the world, its complexities, its cruelties. I understand now that there are things crueler than death—but I would never tell them that. They wouldn’t believe me.
Every year I curl into myself and cling to the tree a little more. I watch them, verdant and trembling, daring the wind in the highest branches. And sometimes—just sometimes—I envy their greenness.
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