Being a dad has many fine points: pushing the swing just high enough that BOTH dad and daughter are a might nervous; telling the stories of Wanda the Wolf (who lives at 1 Cave Road in Circleville PA); encouraging the toddler to coast just a wee bit fast on her Burly MyKick Balance Bike and then convincing her the resultant skinned knee makes her look tough. The list can go on.
Perhaps though, the best part of being a dad is being able to better know my own father. No trigger I can yet identify causes me to be thrown back to my own childhood, though from the vantage point of my dad:
Once, when holding my daughter’s hand I felt oddly nostalgic. Seeing her hand in mine, I could see my hand in my dad’s when we would walk to the local diner for hot chocolate with whipped cream (now the Bistro at Haddonfield).
Walking down a path in the woods, some combination of roots, rocks and ferns enables me to see myself, three decades prior, running down a similar path.
Just as my dad helped guide me as a child, these rare moments of role-reversal deja vu continue to guide me as a father.
For most of 2016 (and really, for most of the past 20+ years), I’ve been pondering my future: who I want to be, what I want to do, where I want to live. Pondering one’s future is not an easy task because it requires a person to review their past as they plot their next steps. Pondering the future takes time and energy; time and energy that may be devoted to other pursuits.
In fall 1997 or 1998, Outside Magazine ran an article with the 100 things to do to have a successful life. The activities I remember include: getting marooned on an island (and escaping a week later), bungee jumping, and spend a night in the Sahara. I’ve tried, with no luck, to locate the original article (update: Here is the article, sent to me by a reader). Every few years Outside compiles a new, though similar, list.
It must have been fall 1998, because I was dating my high school girlfriend at the time. Anyway, Outside Magazine inspired my 17-year-old self to write my own list for a successful life. I spent a teenage eternity of four hours developing my own life-list. Only 48 goals could spill out of my mind in those hours, but I remember reviewing the list and feeling good about the direction of my life.
The notebook got lost as I moved from home to college, then college to my permanent residence, but one goal really stuck with me: “Be respected in life”.
I wrote those simple words as a 17-year old because of two events that greatly affected me. I will try to condense those stories here:
When I was 12, my grandfather died unexpectedly. As the story goes, at the service one of my grandfather’s friends mentioned my grandfather’s height – he was 5’6″. Astonished, another of his friends disputed the fact stating “Bill [my grandfather] must have been taller!”
A high-school teacher of mine did his best to mingle with the high-school kids. He tried to be ‘cool’. At this point, I am unable to recall specifics, but rather than elevate the students to an adult level, he lowered himself to the student’s level. As an adult, I’m now aware this particular teacher was experiencing some personal stresses at the time, but this ‘lowering’ behavior disturbed me.
Combined, these two stories demonstrated to me the type of person I wanted to become. I instinctively knew the ability to elevate others, as my grandfather did, took steadfast personal energy while lowering oneself, as the teacher did, required no energy.
My original journal surfaced a year ago. Rereading the writing of a 17-year old, the clarity of the 17-year old’s vision astounded the 34-year old. The list included not only activities: see Mt. Everest from base camp; go skinny dipping; and see a full moon from each continent, but also lifetime milestones: get married; start a family; never stop learning. The day I reread the list, I checked off nearly one quarter of the entries.
I realized, of the activities I had accomplished, the more difficult the activity the more satisfying the memories. Wendell Berry alludes to this in his book The Unsettling of America. While Berry does not outright say “difficult work leads to satisfying memories”, he does argue for a return to a more settled, agrarian society rather than the fragmented, unsettled, city-based society we have today. Yet he acknowledges that the work he advocates for is not easy and maybe not even enjoyable on a granular scale. However, when taken in its entirety the work is satisfying.
All of my farmer friends confirm Berry’s thesis.
A minuscule ebb tide of people from cities to agrarian wilds exists today. Authors such as Wendell Berry and Ben Hewitt actively pursue this lifestyle. Others, such as The Frugalwoods, want more meaning out of life, so they leave cities such as Cambridge, MA to head to rural locations.
A pall of dissatisfaction hangs over America today. We are wealthy and the work is easy, but neither appear to bring satisfaction. Yes, a growing rift between the wealthy and poor does exist in this country, yet some of the most satisfied people I know do not live on the wealthy side of the rift. Farmers, sawyers, and contractors predominate this satisfied-but-not-wealthy clique on the ‘have not’ side of the rift (which begs the question: What does it mean to ‘have’ or ‘have not’?).
What do all of these people have in common that a large portion of the US seemingly does not?
I have trouble explaining why I enjoy lifting a 120-pound drum sander out of my car only to give myself gnarly road rash on a Saturday morning, but I do. Is it easy to elevate people as my grandfather did? No, but my grandfather did so and based on conversations about him, he led a satisfied life. My farmer friends would “absolutely not trade the financial and physical hardships of this life” for easier work and a larger paycheck.
The older I get, the more I am convinced the answer to the riddle is simply “Just because it’s hard”.
Blooming crocus, turkey buzzards and robin red-breast signal the early arrival of spring this year. One abnormally warm day in early March, I visited a near-by state park for a run followed by an invigorating dip in the lake. My run took me on a new trail overlooking the bog. As I neared the end of the bog path, an alien wailing hoot stopped me. My attention ripped from the roots and rocks at my feet and out onto the lake. There, floating like downy feathers on tannin-black water, were ninety-two tundra swans.
The run and swim forgotten – replaced with the memory of this one afternoon.
Daily, I ride my bike to and from school. The three and a half mile ride takes me through farm fields being converted to housing developments, along a golf course and through campus to North Commons, across from the Business Building. I change from my riding clothing to my classroom clothing and then finish the ride by crossing the street and locking my bike in front of the Business Building.
During my ride my mind flits from thought to thought in some semi-logical way. The random thoughts remind me of the flight of a honeybee during the summer – flying from clover to clover in a thoughtfully erratic pattern, pausing long enough to drink the sweet liquid sunshine hidden deep in each bloom.
Most times I can not recall my ride; just that I arrived at school ready for class, satisfied with twenty five minutes of quiet contemplation. However, one ride on a cold December morning remains etched in my memory.
In mid-November, we borrowed a copy of Snowflake Bentley from our local library, Schlow Library. My daughter binge reads new books and Snowflake Bentley proved an arresting read. The book describes Wilson Bentley’s life and his quest to photograph snowflakes. The author, Jacqueline Martin, and illustrator, Mary Azarian, described Bentley’s life and drive to photograph snowflakes that I gained a deeper appreciation for the art of snowflake photography.
For three days in early December, spectacular frost covered the earth. Snowflake Bentley caused me to be more aware of this special frost. Each morning the frost was somehow grander than the last.
On the last day of the magnificent frosts, I cruised downhill through a thicket adjacent to a new housing development under a brilliant sun and robin’s egg blue sky. The path through the thicket ends with a hard left hand turn at a farmer’s field before continuing uphill along the field. The most amazing sight awaited me as I exited the thicket.
Frost as thick as feathers covered the flora on the embankment opposite the bike path. The frosty embankment looked like a wave frozen mid-crash. The sun glinted through the frost. Individual plants hid behind the wispy brush strokes of ice. The sun melted the outline of the farmer’s fence into exposed frost.
After passing the farmer’s field, most of the frost had melted under the intense rays of the sun.
As I biked through Hort Woods on my way to North Commons, minuscule shooting stars appeared. Confused, I paused to observe the clear sky – not a snow cloud in sight. Then I noticed the sun-warmed tree tops. As the sun warmed the trees, the frost crystals began to melt and fall to the ground. The reflection of the sun off of each crystal gave the illusion of children’s sparklers on a mid-summer’s night.
I ended my ride, as I always do, at North Commons to change my clothes. As I changed, I thought of Snowflake Bentley and how much he would have appreciated the ice show.
This past weekend my family and I hiked through the local game lands. The dogs relish exploring off-lead and I enjoy watching my daughter explore the new sights, sounds and smells. My daughter wanted to hike through the field in the middle of the woods. Every year someone allows the field to be planted; sometimes corn, sometimes hay, sometimes fallow. This weekend we watched twenty three gold finches flitting among the thistle.
A few years ago my wife gave me the book “Travels in the Greater Yellowstone” by Jack Turner. Turner’s writing changed the way I view life. Turner defines ‘paths’ and ‘trails’ differently. Without looking for the exact definition, I vaguely remember ‘trails’ have meaning: they allow a traveler to get from point A to point B in a straight forward manner. ‘Paths’ are fickle; they do not get travelers from point A to point B in the most efficient way, but might veer off the trail to allow the traveler a glimpse of a vista. Paths lend meaning to the trail. Trails grow and become more permanent; paths are ephemeral.
Never had I considered the impermanent nature of footpaths in the woods until my wife and I were hiking a familiar path used as a short cut between two longer trails. A mountain biker materialized out of a section of woods where we had no knowledge of any paths. We investigated the area that birthed the bicyclist and discovered tramped down plants, but no defined path. Following the trampled plants we discovered the beginning of a forest path.
That forest path now forms a more permanent fixture in the woods; local trail maps feature this footpath and disused forest floor is replacing a section of the now-unused shortcut path.
Life reflects this transitory nature of paths. The transition of a baby being carried by mom to a two-and-a-half year old running through the field of thistle serves to magnify this ephemeral nature. Three years ago, sunflowers filled the field as my then-pregnant wife and I hiked with just our dogs. This weekend my daughter pointed to tiger swallowtails and meadow fritillary butterflies. I can’t help but wonder where we will be in three years?
Maybe it is too much to jump from woodland paths to the nature of life, but I don’t think so (neither did Robert Frost). I try to appreciate and celebrate the small changes; caterpillars to butterflies, sunflowers to thistles.
If life is a trail then the small changes are the paths that encourage us to slow down and enjoy what we have.