May 2023, by: Robin J. Engel

When I was 17 (no, this is not a Frank Sinatra song), I used to get high sometimes. Now, don’t get nervous. Yes, it was illegal back then, which was almost 50 years ago, so if you do the math, you can guess my age. Also, I’m sure there is a statute of limitations, so this confession is way past 7 years old. Everyone got high. I rarely ever bought the stuff, but if someone had it and offered it, well, who was I to turn down a gift. I only bought it 2 or 3 times so I could return the favor and give it away. 

The reason I mention getting high is because it helped me have a powerful epiphany. You might be thinking, as I sometimes do, that when you’re high, is anything you think really real? How many times have you come up with ideas when you’re high, and if you’ve written them down, like I often do, when you read them the next day you think, “what the heck is this dribble?” It really seemed so profound when you had the idea. However, this epiphany when I was 17 was something that would serve me my entire life. 

New York in autumn is quite possibly the most gorgeous place on earth. I live in Arizona in the desert now, which has its own beauty, but there’s a lot of brown. Some green, lots of brown, but sweeping blue skies. Most of the color is above, except when the wildflowers go crazy due to excessive rains. Then, the ground is filled with blankets of yellow and purple and orange. So out here, it’s either the sky or the ground. 

In New York, regardless of where you are – rural, suburban, or urban – we are blessed with massive hard wood, mostly deciduous trees. Thus, autumn looks like a fairy land. Photos do not do it justice. Well, they do, but until you’re surrounded by the splashes of colors, you cannot fully know it. They are not primary colors, they are shades and hues of colors. The nomenclature of autumn leaves is fun for the palate / palette. Crimson, gold, russet, ginger, amber, bronze.

 It is my favorite time of year. It is the liminal space between summer and winter. Autumn is the time when the chlorophyll ( the chemical that makes leaves green, that is responsible for the absorption of light to provide energy for photosynthesis) takes a hiatus. The entire tree goes into hibernation, but in order to get there, the tree must first have a burst of energy, a showy flare of color that was hidden beneath the surface while the tree was being the pragmatic adult, taking care of business. Now, in the fall / autumn, the tree has a rumspringa, like the Amish children who are allowed to go wild when they turn 16. Dare I say, the tree is showing its true colors. It can finally abandon the mundane tasks of generating food and dance with the flickering shadows of light.

When I was 17, walking through the wooded glen near my home, in the suburbs of New York, I had plenty of insecurities, hidden feelings that I thought nobody else had, and a myriad of thoughts that I felt it would be best not to share. I wish I could tell you what some of them were, and most of them had nothing to do with sex. I remember the feelings mostly. Was I interesting? Was I smart? Was I pretty? Was I weird (well, yes, but now I think that’s cool)? Did people like me? Was I too intellectual? Did people even understand what I was saying? And on and on. 

I was in that weird, liminal space between adulthood and childhood. Of course, every teenager thinks they’ve got it all figured out already, even though they have very little life experience and know almost nothing. There is usually a bravado that exists in the mind of a teenager that allows them to burst forth like the colored leaves of autumn. Adolescents are often showy, and do things just because they can. They challenge adults, pushing back the old guard, bursting with energy, declaring that they are here now, and it is their turn to shine. 

 But… deep inside there is an acknowledgement that they haven’t got a clue. They are fraught with insecurities and unanswered questions, as was I. They are unsettled and in a place of discovery. 

That’s when the epiphany hit me. I was walking along with my friends, stoned (on pot),  amongst the colors of autumn, feeling the joie de vivre, when it occurred to me. Nobody was inside my head. Noone was inside my body. My thoughts were mine alone, unless I chose to share them. My feelings belonged to me. There was a clear distinction between everyone else and me. I didn’t have to worry anymore. I could be me without the judgment of others. For some, this might have been a feeling of disconnectedness, but for me, I was liberated. As a result, I have rarely been shy or intimidated by people, rarely afraid of life, because I know that I am safe inside myself. 

After my epiphany, I would spend many years settling into myself. I would have many flares of color, bursts of excitement, or aha moments. But once the moment recedes, once the deep understanding fades, the knowingness integrates into my being, into my vast bank of knowledge. I can access it when needed, but it will never be as profound or as deeply understood as it was in that moment of epiphany. (There is no re-creating the first kiss.) But it doesn’t need to be. These moments have become a part of me. I have become like those trees – rooted in my being, my limbs always reaching out for more ideas, more knowledge, my leaves exploding in a celebration of color sometimes, and my trunk, sturdy and balanced, sometimes leaning too much in one direction, but strong. It has been a good way to live my life – like the mighty oak tree.

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