A Yellow Thread, or On Obsession
by Susannah Felts
And so I fell in love with a color… –Maggie Nelson
And so in these dark times at the close of a decade, I find myself enchanted by a color. Like anyone, I’ve had my share of obsessions, but this one is new. The universe baits me; everywhere I look there it is, dark and bright at once. Not a note but a chord.
Call it mustard, turmeric, saffron, ochre. Call it gold, even—but a little bit brown, like pastry hot from the oven. Call it goldenrod, a plant and a word I love. Those two o sounds, the hard consonants at front and back. Every September, I rejoice when the native wildflower bursts forth on roadsides where only green and brown had been, and not a minute too soon.
I ask friends online: Have you ever been obsessed with a color –and harvest a number of replies, all variations on yes. Oh yes, absolutely.
I’ve been scrolling the socials too much, deep into the night.
What are you working on?
An essay about a color.
An essay about obsession.
Goldenrod is what I named my current iPhone when I bought it, three Septembers ago.
Two years ago, I purchased a yellow couch for my writing room. I did not make the decision about the color easily, but now I know there was no other way. Once the choice was made, my heart fucking sang.
And long before the phone and the couch, there was a pillow, chosen for my daughter’s nursery, purchased on a steely March afternoon when I was eight months pregnant. Was that pillow a microdose of what was to come, more than a decade later? Did that one earthy yellow pillow cast the right kind of spell?
In our house, objects tend to linger in places they shouldn’t. In this way, a 2 oz. bottle of acrylic paint—yellow oxide—has come to rest on my desk, as if with a shy nudge, as if to say: Look, woman. I’m trying to tell you something.
Perhaps you can have a spirit color and not know it. What happens when you figure it out? And how will you know what that color needs to tell you, and how will you know when it needs to take its leave?
This thing I have with yellow, maybe it’s been happening for a while, a whisper, a tug at my sleeve.
But the color of the moment in my mind is also the color of the moment, as in trending, like shag haircuts and the zodiac—has been for quite some time, in fact. It’s “surprisingly ubiquitous,” wrote Katy Kelleher in the Paris Review Daily, “especially for a color that leans so far toward brown.”
Take yourself into any clothing store right now and you’ll find it. Hence the fact that I’ve ended up at Target more than once in the past few weeks, feeling an unusual degree of satisfaction as I drift through the racks; hence the fact that I have, in the past month, succumbed to buying a…
…and a yellow backpack.
Overkill. Excess. It spooks me to be so in sync with the consumer marketplace. But I tell myself this can’t last. I tell myself I should cultivate yellow in my drab closet while I can, perk up all that black and gray with this slightly pensive pop. I tell myself, fuck it, you’re too old to care about dodging trends.
To some extent, it’s that old truth, that trick of the brain: what you’re looking for, you will find.
Gingko leaves, pressed in a book, preserved and brittle, lost in my house. I’ve forgotten which book, but it’s here somewhere. I gathered those leaves one fall from a street lined with those magnificent, ancient trees, those living fossils; I saved them without purpose, with only desire.
So let’s call it a delight—like those the poet Ross Gay gathered up, a whole bookful of them.
Can an obsession be, also, a delight?
There are things we want to think about and things we don’t.
On October 1 it was 98 degrees. We wonder if we will lose autumn altogether in the terrifying future. But at last, for a few short weeks in November, the leaves do change. Frost may have a point about the hue that’s hardest to hold, but yellow, I think, can be counted on, lingers longest. For a moment the color that so grips me is all around, “each leaf giving off its own light, a tiny sun come to earth,” as my friend Margaret Renkl writes in the New York Times.
Yellow, says every child’s first book, says the internet, is the color of the sun! Of happiness!
You would think that, to stave off despair, I seek the sun, the flood of those rays. In fact, right now I crave gray skies, which feel both beautiful and safe. Against a low November sky, my beloved yellow sings. I can see clearly, not blinded by glare. That gaping hole in the layers above, it’s still there, but I feel its menace less keenly. Oh sun, more and more I think of you as threat.
When you were a child, you realized that if you looked at a word long enough it began to look goofy. It lost its reference point, became unfamiliar, strange.
Annie Dillard in “Seeing”: “A fog that won’t burn away drifts and flows across my vision. I can’t distinguish the fog from the overcast sky; I can’t be sure if the light is direct or reflected. When you see fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, it’s not the fog itself you see, but streaks of clearness floating across the air in shreds. So I see only tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity.”
The third chakra, the yellow one. The solar plexus. Manipura, lustrous gem. Yoga has taught me this. The third governs the gut, and self-esteem, self-realization, self-confidence.
I enjoy Googling “third chakra.” Site after site, I find words like:
gut intelligence and
center of vitality and
personal power and
Maybe it’s just middle age, or what we used to call that. Is this my yellow period? This color I’ve claimed, or that has claimed me, is a whole note in a minor key. It’s shining but bursting with dark seeds. It is calm with a lopsided smile. Smelling of earth. Grounded and reaching.
This is the only color you wear, Mama, says my daughter, who has seen me mostly in black.
The world is burning, but I look around my one little life and think, this may be as good as it gets. The dark that awaits is the question that haunts. The moment, this moment, is indisputably bright. Sing praise. Fold your hands.
Even before the pillow, there was Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” and in it, her 100 yards of golden theatrical silk, tangling and soaked in New York summer storms, failing to make young Joan feel better.
It’s one of my favorite images of all time.
It seems that my fixation on yellow—is fixation synonymous with obsession? Are they different shades?—has deep roots, has been slowly pushing up. Now that it’s in season I am rapt, listening for what it has to tell me.
What I hear is that, in the pages of a novel I’ve been working on for years, am now close to finishing, an attentive reader might find the yellow of fall in Chicago and the lemony light of spring in Tennessee. There’s a battered yellow couch in a barn. There’s the yellow to which white stars fade in a vision experienced by the main character in a cabin in the woods. A cat’s eyes, the paper of an old cartoon affixed to a fridge, the t-shirts given to a volunteer work crew, a traffic light, more leaves, a cast, the dust from an imploded building, rushing toward Lake Michigan. C-clamps, tiny flowers, royal icing. The “scum of pollen,” and spent tulip leaves. None of this exactly planned. All of it yellow.
Best of all, a silk kaftan, whipping around a woman’s body in a spring thunderstorm.
In my email: Is citrine the stone for you?
On the radio: A show dedicated to songs with gold in their titles.
On the floor: The gold of my kid’s dirty socks.
On Facebook: Greta Thunberg in a yellow rain slicker.
In my email: Enamel cookware, in a “sunny new hue.”
Yellow sweaters and shirts haunt me online, in the margins and feeds. Speak now of an obsession, and your obsession will find you.
Sometimes I think it’s a default, these days, to be obsessed. Our obsessions turn us into targets. The more obsessed we are the better; the more we go searching for what we think we want. The more we reveal ourselves to it.
Obsession, they say, is useful for a writer.
What can you ask of a color? How much meaning can it hold?
The proverbial canary. The coal mine, this earth, my mind. Yellow might be my brain’s way out, a portal through which it dodges everything else trying to crowd in.
Doesn’t yellow also threaten?—it is, after all, the color of caution, a battery running low. Time is running out.
I think of the poet Ciona Rouse, and her poem on yellow, the bite of it. As it turns, the speaker asks:
Do baby chicks & marigolds feel
some strange appropriation
when they see what
jaundice and warning
What if yellow brightens my world too much? What might I be missing. A fixation on anything—color or person or object—straitjackets the mind. Of course, there’s the mad yellow of that famous wallpaper. Or that of sickness, of cowards.
A man in yellow pants, the splash of yellow on an album cover on a screen, yellow semi cab, girl in a yellow jacket,
my vertically-striped bath towels,
pee too dark cuz I’m in need of water,
I see queso I think yellow. Turning signals, lines on the highway.
That Coldplay song, on repeat in my head.
At what point does a fixation go sour? Sour as a lemon.
This essay drowns in yellow. A word search finds 42 matches, each one highlighted in the color it describes.
Dillard again: “If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.”
The drumbeat, the hot pant of yellow on my neck, leads me to the page. Hustles me into writing, into lending the feeling of a color to the shape of letters. I can only assume the throbbing will subside, just as the golden leaves will fall and compost themselves. The vintage yellow footstool that I purchased in a heartbeat last week online—the one my daughter, just now, tells me she loves—will post up at the center of our family room. The color will stick around, but shouts of it from every corner won’t dilate my pupils to pinpricks.
Give into it, writes a friend. After those three words, she places an emoji: the sparkle. It’s one of my faves, second only to the yellow heart. When did I begin using that one so liberally? A string of three or four, or the grace of just one. In this language, a yellow heart is a hug. An appreciative nod, a smile, an empathetic yes.
Every morning I look first thing to the backyard, where there’s a Metasequoia glyptostroboides “Gold Rush,” at ten years old the tallest tree in our yard, its delicate fringed leaves luminous in the day’s early light. This tree, another living fossil, was a gift from my parents. They brought it to me and my husband in a nursery pot, back when this decade had just begun, back when we were just beginning to imagine what our small plot of earth might evolve to contain. I watch it go from brilliant yellow to rich rust to bare, its bark providing “winter interest.” They say it can reach 100 feet, given time.
When you were a child, you learned your colors. You studied the names of the crayons and thought, why.
Susannah Felts is a writer living in Nashville, Tenn. Her work has appeared in publications such as *Longreads*, *Guernica*, *Catapult*, the *Oxford American*, *Hobart*, and *The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2017.* She is the author of *This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record* (Featheproof Books), and is at work on a second novel. She cofounded and co-directs The Porch, a nonprofit literary arts organization.