I am utterly fascinated by tree houses. I don’t want to exaggerate, but if I could fit into one with my family of six, and it had WiFi, I’d start packing tonight.
I relentlessly lobbied my father to build one when I was a youngster. Unfortunately, my first four homes weren’t tree-house friendly.
I was born in St. Louis, but left before I was 6 months old. No tree house for me.
As a toddler I lived on two different Army bases in Germany with trees barely strong enough to hold a Toblerone bar. No tree house for you, Jason, but here’s a chocolate addiction.
From age 5 to 8 my family lived in a small suburban home in Chicago. Our home on Cherry Avenue probably offered the best opportunity for a tree house, except that it lacked one of the key components to make it all work: a tree.
I was ready to sue for emancipation.
Finally, in 1979 we moved to the home that my mother still lives in today. With six acres of mostly wooden property, it couldn't have been more ideal for my tree-house visions. My father no longer needed persuading and I didn't need an elevator, television or other elaborate features. It just needed to feature my name on the deed.
We picked a tree within eyesight of the house, but far enough away that to a boy it felt like a different ZIP code. It was close enough that I could hear my mother yell from the back deck, but far enough that on the days I was having too much fun, I could pretend that I hadn't heard her.
There were a lot of days like that.
The tree house was a simple construction of plywood and beams. It had no roof, no built-in benches and no high-tech communication system. But it was precisely what I needed to discover that I owned something valuable, and no bully or doubter could ever steal it from me.
I had an imagination!
When I recall my childhood, I still marvel at how my imagination made that tree house so much more than a cluster of lumber 15 feet off the ground. On some days it was an enemy spaceship on "Star Trek." I liked that it swayed back and forth when I stood in the far corner and rocked my hips and legs from left to right.
Other times it was a stage at the world’s largest theater. I practiced speeches, lines from plays and church talks to the squirrels and chipmunks that applauded so long I had to ask them to stop so I could continue. "Please, no, thank you, go on."
Often it became the library where I learned to love “Hardy Boys,” “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Where the Fern Grows.” I also learned to appreciate short stories and I marveled at the ability of authors like John Updike and Edgar Allen Poe to tell such thick stories in so few words.
That haven in the trees also became my own personal writing workshop. I learned to tell stories about creatures seen and unseen and I discovered that the world was as big as I wrote it to be.
Sometimes I think about my father and the many hours he spent building and maintaining that special place. Back then I thought he probably did it because he wanted me out of the house and out of his hair.
How wrong I was.
Today, with children of my own, I see that he did it because he wanted me to have a place to dream really big things. He wanted me to have a laboratory for my imagination where absolutely anything and everything was possible. On those swaying pieces of plywood suspended mostly by sweat and prayer, nothing ever stood in the way.
But in today's high-tech world of Facebook, Twitter and text messaging, I fear our children's tree houses have become just another digital destination. They’re just one more application to download and play while waiting for the teacher, the bus driver, the doctor or dinner to appear on the table.
Want to play in the tree house? There’s an app for that.
Don’t you remember the great ideas of your childhood? The amazing inventions, stories or pieces of art weren’t fueled by megabytes — they were ignited by the kinds of dreams that only come when the distractions disappeared.
Now, more than ever, in our turbulent, over-scheduled and technology-driven world, it’s not just our children who need a tree house. Whether it's a few feet off the ground, a quiet place in your office or a chair in your bedroom, everyone deserves to have a place to escape cell phones and televisions and newsfeeds and virtual friend requests.
We deserve a place to feel childlike again, where everything is possible because your parents or teachers said so. It’s a place where you believe you can do great things because God has blessed you with one of the greatest resources of life: your imagination.
If my father reads my columns in heaven, I hope he knows that I finally understand a tree house isn't a thing and it really isn’t even a place. It's a state of mind.
Go find yours.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and the upcoming novel, "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jasonfwright.com
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