Monday, 26 Jul 2021

I Climbed the Date Palm

Auden Friedman

I am singing Bob Dylan from a treetop. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” This is not normal behavior for me. I have always been a singer, and I used to be a tree climber, but not often in conjunction, and the latter, not in the last 8 or so years. In preschool, according to my mother’s account, I once climbed the large oak in front of the small school, and, finding myself frighteningly high above the pavement in the deep green overstory, refused to descend. I was eventually coaxed down the creaky ladder of branches and touched the ground shakily, no doubt weeping and swearing off any more bark clinging. Any promises I may have made through a haze of tears were quickly broken, likely the next day, or even sooner, when I arrived home.

To my scrawny, tough-soled 5 year old self, home was synonymous with my leafy areas of conquest. The red bottlebrush tree in the front yard: a public podium for my precocious ability. The bark was reddish and marbled, and I loved the way it peeled in long, satisfying sheets. It also was particularly rough, and it avenged my bark mutilation habit by peeling the skin of my inner thighs as I shimmied up in shorts. In the backyard was a lemon tree. It was a less satisfying climb, as I could only see inside the property from its highest point, and it was often covered with ants. I despised the ants wholeheartedly for disrupting my climb, though I probably disrupted their lives more severely by squashing them by the hundreds and occasionally making them my afternoon snack. The crown jewel of the house was the date palm. It was a bit thicker than a telephone pole and about as tall, with no landmarks till the toupee top. A dizzying pillar. It technically wasn’t in our property, but it leaned enticingly on the side fence. The neighbor whose yard it belonged to was an older man, not up to the ascent, so I wouldn’t feel bad about stealing the glory of the climb. Here is where we leave the already hazy realm of memory and enter the tenuous arena of legend. According to my cousins, who are almost three years younger than me, I climbed that date palm. I definitely dreamed about it, perhaps had nightmares about it. Actually climbing it would be more than impressive. It would be so impressive, in fact, that it must be impossible. Regardless, the date palm remains an intimidating tower in my childhood, one that shook confidence and inspired daring.

Where does this legend belong in the context of social isolation, empty streets and friendless outings? What relationship does COVID-19 have to my prodigious toddler talent? To me, it has meant nothing less than a full return to form. In current conditions, my dormant skill has been brought back out onto the streets. When each outing is an ordeal – mask, hand sanitizer, distancing, parental advisory – each encounter on those outings takes on a sheepishly intimate feel. The stranger walking by is now the one stranger you will see on this block, and only one of a few dozen you will see today. If you talk to them, that may make them the only person you talk to today outside of your family. This can make for shyness, or unusual show-outness. Also, there is a freak-flag-flying moment. When you go out, you carry the weight of responsibility to keep your circle small. You contain your comrades in contamination and the culture you have built with them in relative quarantine. Since leaving the house now feels like you’re bringing your house with you, people are letting their interior design spill out onto the sidewalk. It is an exposé of hobbies put to rest by work, now dusted off and oiled up. More juggling in the park than ever before. Loud breathing, sweaty yoga on a towel. Picnics, something people do mostly in movies where cars still had fins, is now the most popular daytime activity. Copious amounts of bright clothing, even for Berkeley, the tie-dye capitol. Facial coverings an excuse to show off sports team logo patterned masks and paisley sarongs. Or, climbing a tree to concerned glances from passing moms.

For me, it has meant reclaiming staples of younger days, some distant memory, some recently passed. I am skateboarding for the first time since middle school, ripping long, wobbly curves around families doing mock-graduations at the college campus. I am writing more than I have — I’ve noticed while reverse reading my journals — since I bathed in melodramatic self-flagellation and aimless despair poetry when I was 16. I reread the Harry Potter series in a little over a month, the beautiful weather be damned. The trees, once again, call my name from heaven’s lower cellar. I harken to their call, Come see! Of course I have the time: I’m only walking.

Never a popular kid, growing up I alternately cursed solitude and sought it out. But I have become more socially anchored in high school. I base myself more and more around others. The threads that had been weaving into a strong tie to a few lovely friends have abruptly stretched now that we are not supposed to go out much, and definitely not hug, wrestle or cook together. I cannot deny that I miss the abundance and intensity of human contact when human contact was not banned. But a part of me savors the solitude, the silent reflection and my familiar, private distractions. A few days ago I was sitting in an oak, looking at terrific leaning palms in the distance, monochromatic truffula trees. I was daydreaming about the date palm, the memory, or implanted fantasy, of the climb that now drifts around the periphery of my childhood. Trees glitter around me with renewed character. It is a lonely call. Still, they are inviting, inviting me up, every step and scrape a reminiscence as I move towards the wind above me.


Auden Friedman was born in Oakland, California. He grew up in and currently lives in neighboring Berkeley. He is a budding writer who enjoys playing guitar and camping