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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Trying to catch a falling leaf


Learning how not to get the bends.

I get Thursday and Friday off from work on Thanksgiving week, so it turns into a 4-day weekend. The problem is, our family is usually required to cram in at least 3 different holiday events during that period and I end up feeling like I have less time of my own than in a weekend of the typical two-day variety. Although all my grandparents have been dead for over ten years, my extended families are still trying to maintain a tradition of gathering on Thanksgiving. So we usually have to get together at Lisa’s parents’ house, my parents’ house, my mom’s extended family and sometimes my dad’s extended family as well. It’s a bit much.

All these events are in and around the Nashville area, so we avoid excessively long car trips or overnight stays. Sometimes I wonder if that’s not more of a curse than a blessing. If our relatives were more dispersed, we might not be expected to make it to all these competing events. Trying to avoid scheduling conflicts is always a pain. One year Lisa and I had to eat a late Thanksgiving lunch with my family and an early dinner with hers on the same day. I think I nearly over-dosed on tryptophan that year.

There never seems to be much quality time. It’s too much running around, way too much food, a bunch of male relatives passed out on couches in front of big screen TV sets watching football games they aren’t interested in and, for couples like us, a lot of time chasing youngsters around making sure they don’t break anything in somebody else’s home. Naps get messed up. Bed times are thrown off. There are too many tempting sweets and there are always conversational minefields to navigate. One year it’s politics. Another it’s religion. Or maybe someone was overheard complaining about somebody else’s kid. We had the worst case scenario a couple of years ago when there was a rumor that one of the gay cousins might bring a partner to Thanksgiving dinner and there were nearly wholesale successions from my family. By the time it’s all over with I end up feeling frazzled and worn out and looking forward to returning to the safe shelter of my office.

In the midst of this entirely unnecessary but not uncommon traditional holiday stress, there were a couple of peaceful moments. The church we are attending has a tradition of gathering early on Thanksgiving for a breakfast. Everyone brings fruit to make fruit baskets for shut-ins and canned goods to donate to a food pantry for the less fortunate. There’s a brief worship service and a devotional. It was nice to have a few moments of gratitude and perspective before the wholesale festival of American excess officially kicked off.

Then on Saturday – the only event-free day of the weekend – we went hiking as a family. Just Lisa and I and the kids. The entire weekend was filled with glorious weather for late November, but we only got occasional opportunities to take advantage of it during all these family gatherings where everyone seemed more interested in talking about what nice weather we were having rather than actually experiencing it.

It was as if God broke out the good china for the Thanksgiving weekend. More often than not, it seems that’s the case in Nashville. Sure, sometimes it’s bitterly cold and rainy or even spitting snow, but I can recall many years when the November curtain parts over the Thanksgiving weekend and the in the midst of late autumn’s barrenness we get a reminder of spring days to come.

So Saturday we went to Beaman Park. It was the first time we’d been there. I messed up the directions which cost us an extra half hour or more in the car. I was sure the website had them wrong, but that wasn’t the case. I got to learn once again the subtle difference between admitting you were mistaken and admitting you were wrong.

The park is 1500 acres of undeveloped land that was formerly owned by a group of doctors as a private hunting preserve until they sold it to the city recently. The park is basically just a couple of hiking trails through some beautiful unspoiled land. We chose the two mile loop for our walk. It started out meandering by a stream then wound up and down a forested ridge. It was lovely as it was, but it made you wonder how breathtaking it would have been a few weeks ago when the turning leaves were still mostly on the trees.

When out hiking, I have a bad reputation for always rushing ahead. I don’t really consider myself a type A personality, but when it comes to hikes, I have a hard time not pushing on to the destination. Even in cases like this one where the end of the trail was just going to get us back to the place we started, I always want to see what’s around the next bend, over the next ridge. It’s like a continuous To-Do list. And I’ve been known to write down things I’ve already accomplished just so that I can check them off as finished.

This day we had the kids with us and I could feel the hills in my bad hip. It wasn’t as hard as usual to keep to a slow pace. Maybe that's a benefit of arthritis. Ben rode most of the way in a backpack carrier. He liked saying "Hi" to the trees. I tried to teach Olivia about trail markings. We stopped periodically and listened to the language of the brook or the message of the wind passing through those few dry leaves autumn had spared. At one point, I happened to be in front when we stopped. I turned around and looked back down the trail towards my little family which was scattered over a stretch of 30 or 40 feet of trail.

Ben was stunning. There he stood, stilled and full of wonderment. His two year old wispy blond hair wavy and tousled by the wind. He was clad in a little pair of hiking boots, jeans, a blue shirt and a black and red plaid coat with a suede collar. I swear he looked like the cover shot of Lands End for Toddlers. Lisa is the consummate bargain hunter when it comes to kids clothes and has this strange knack for remembering which yard sale or thrift shop was the source of every article and exactly how much she paid for it. This beautiful coat is an exception. She can’t recall where it came from or even if it’s a hand-me-down or a purchase. But he looks perfect in it.

She’s standing by him, holding his hand. She’s wearing jeans and a simple brown sweater, having succumbed to her innate brownness after experimenting with a more colorful phase. Likewise, her hair is pulled back in a headband, exposing the streak of grey in front that she is learning to wear as a badge of honor. She looks peaceful and unbothered for a change.

Olivia was closest to me. She stood there in the vulnerably slender form of a five year old. Her hair was crinkled from intentionally sleeping with braids in the night before. Her face and stance both show her unconscious defiance to the gravity of the world and the arrogance that comes from being very bright, very young and yet to experience the burden of failure.

Looking back at this sweeping vista of my family I thought "This is my life." These are the people who will affect me more than any other human beings on this planet. It wasn’t quite an epiphany, but it was a moment of thankfulness and timelessness as I could sense my future compressed into the finite years to come.

A short distance ahead there was an intersection of trails and some benches to rest upon. Waiting around there, I noticed an occasional stream of leaves falling from a nearby oak. Most every other tree had already shed its leaves but this one clung to a few remnants. I’d recently seen an episode of the kid’s cartoon Caillou where Caillou (a four year old boy) and his father and grandfather went on an autumn walk and tried to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground. I began darting about, making the occasional lunge for a leaf. It’s harder than you might think. Some spiral quickly to the ground giving you scarcely a chance to grab at them. Others soar like paper airplanes forcing you to chase them across distances trying to avoid smashing into tree trunks or tripping over a rock or root while you keep one eye on the leaf and the other on the ground. Olivia and Lisa wondered what on earth I was doing till I explained, then they all joined in for a few minutes of attempted leaf catch. I finally got one. I don’t think anyone else did. I expected Olivia to get frustrated and whiny when she didn’t succeed (Caillou sure did), but she didn’t make the first complaint. She’s changing, almost before our eyes.

We moved on and finished our hike, loaded up and drove back home. When we got there, all of us were reluctant even to go in the house. We spent most of the afternoon outdoors, running around in the yard, playing games or gathering sticks. I built a fire in the chiminea and we ate our dinner on the deck. It was one of those days you hated to see end. At the same time, you knew you would do it a disservice by striving to cling to it.

There are so many days in my life that I can’t recall anything about. Olivia asks me from time to time to tell her a story about when I was her age. I can only remember a few events from that time. I probably remember a handful of days out of each elementary school grade. If I tried I might be able to list half of the classes I took in college. Just a few birthdays stand out. There are girls I dated whose names I can’t even remember and I didn’t date that many women. That’s okay. I don’t spend much time living in the past. That doesn’t worry me. But sometimes I feel like I don’t spend that much time living in the present either. I’m too often looking ahead to the weekend, or a holiday, a new job, the completion of a project or the time when the kids sleep through the night and are out of diapers. It’s the next bend in the road, the next turn in the path.

I think for some people it’s easier to live in the moment. For me, there are just a few things in life that hold me to the present and serve as a magnetic force grounding me to my current reality. One is holding a peacefully sleeping child. I believe another is the practice of writing. I might be reflecting on memories or considering what the future holds, but I am doing it in this present moment. It’s akin to catching a falling leaf that only soars for a instant between withering on the tree and resting on the ground.


Blogger Variations On A Theme said...

I'm so glad I was unconscious on the couch so as not to distract you from writing this brilliant blog entry. I am SO glad you're writing, and I know exactly what you mean about writing helping us live in the moment. I've always thought it was very similar to meditating. Love you!

4:19 AM, November 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and tied together. "It was one of those days you hated to see end. At the same time, you knew you would do it a disservice by striving to cling to it." That is a concept that I am just learning, and you put it well. It seems like you and Lisa were on the same page... (is that the day she did not take her camera as noted in her blog?)

7:13 PM, November 29, 2006  
Blogger wordsonwater said...

This is one of your best. I think I know why I responded so to your words the first time I read a post. We are cut from a similar cloth. I always run ahead, turning to see the stragglers behind occasionally, but often, they are too far behind to observe. I write things down that I have done and cross them off. Didn’t know anyone else had that guilty secret. At some point in my life I didn’t remember a lot of what happened, but since I started blogging it’s been like a floodgate was opened. I may not remember the names of all the boys I dated (but I did date, a lot), but I remember their faces, their eyes, even the way they smelled. I have whole days of my childhood come to me in flashes now, in Technicolor with texture and taste that is palatable. Mostly I see now and then and tomorrow all at once, like Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughter 5 who became unstuck in time. I look at my children and it’s like a mirror trick where there are hundreds of retreating images visible, each of them at a different point in time.

Oh, sorry, I do have my own blog. Didn’t mean to babble on so. Write on. I’m listening carefully, and I’m not the only one. This post made me happy and nostalgic for my babies who are far from me now. Thanks.

7:38 PM, November 29, 2006  
Blogger valis said...

Thanks to each of you for the comments. It was the day Lisa left her camera at home Jeff. And Words, feel free to babble at will. And thanks for the suggestion of adding the counter. It is interesting to see it inching upwards. I wonder some times how many of those counts might be from annoying ad software that cruises around looking for blogs to post links to webpages on.

Some time I ought to do a roll call to see who all is dropping by.

7:33 PM, November 30, 2006  
Blogger valis said...

It is interesting to me which posts people like and which they don't. I can't tell when I'm writing something if it is going to work or not. This post left me feeling nostalgic and a little melancholy, but it didn't appeal to me as much as some other things I've written. Still, I'm glad it connected with you guys. I think sometimes when I'm too consciously trying to be clever or stylish with writing it loses something genuine.

7:39 PM, November 30, 2006  

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