Valley News – Column: Swept by a receding tide

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Published: 02/28/2022 11:58:14

Modified: 02/28/2022 11:58:40 AM

From October to May, most mornings start for me coaxing the fire in my woodstove back to life. If the coals ignite with a little stirring, all I have to do is add more wood; once the coffee is done, I retire to my office to sit in front of a screen. On the mornings when the fire has gone to ashes, I start by lighting some kindling and finally I pull up a chair by the stove to read, one eye on my book and the other on the growing fire. My wife sometimes feels guilty that the coffee and fire ritual is mostly mine, but the truth is, I have the better deal. The stove keeps my coffee hot and the heat is bliss.

Mornings don’t start out so peacefully for most people, and they haven’t for us for most of our lives. In the early years of our marriage, our days started with a sprint that lasted until nightfall. When we added kids, the mornings became harder than sprinting, and we made parenting decisions on the fly. No reliable peace and quiet, no time for contemplation: someone had to prepare the lunches our children would bring to school.

The proximity of the wood stove is a very practical emblem for this stage of my life. When I was young, warmth seemed to come from within, and it drove me with a youthful assurance that today has me scratching my head. Back then, the future held exciting possibilities just on the horizon, waiting for my shaping hands. But how much more complex everything would become! Today my warmth comes from burning wood, and the thick contemplation that comes so easily sitting with a coffee by a wood-burning stove stays with me all day, whether I’m running down a road countryside or chopping firewood with a roaring chainsaw away from home. At the end of the day, I can record the miles I’ve traveled and see in my mind a nice pile of logs to split and dry later, but what do I do with all that thinking?

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. A little over two decades ago, my wife and I traveled to Manhattan to celebrate my uncle’s 80th birthday. He was in remarkable health and his spirit was sparkling. After a toast, he reflects on how his life had changed. Arthritic knees, he says, and now an unexpected pleasure in sleep. The part that really caught my attention was what he said about reading. It was taking longer now because his mind was wandering, but he said this not with regret, but with amused curiosity. I, middle-aged and a teacher needing to flip through a hundred pages a night preparing for my lessons, found his tone perplexing.

Now I understand. A few years ago I picked up an old copy of Moby-Dick from my library and started what could have been my tenth reading. I first met the white whale when I was in high school and a second time in college after taking some philosophy; then, as a teacher, I introduced the book to my own students, but never with much success. In this most recent reading, Melville spoke more clearly than ever, but finishing seemed to take forever. In my head, ten versions of me wanted to discuss almost every passage.

For me, the course of time has reversed. Not completely and certainly not literally, but so many of my thoughts are swept away by a receding tide that can send me 30, 50, or 70 years into the past. This phenomenon would be terrible if my thoughts were sad or sentimental (Cue Springsteen’s glory day), but they roam everywhere, creating what one might generously call the context. I am the sum of everything I’ve been through, the people I’ve met and the books I’ve read; and this sum will not remain quiet.

Not quite all my thoughts are upside down. In my office is a growing pile of seed catalogs, and soon I will be planning my garden. Every year I make small changes, some whimsical. A year ago at this time, I was drawing a fence for a garden that I had shared with foraging deer for forty years. My tradition was to plant pumpkins along the far edge and train their vines on the surrounding grass, but with a garden fence I would lose that extra space. My solution was to plant seeds in my manure pile outside the fence, and by September I had more pumpkins than I could give away.

The real future belongs to the trustees, my four grandchildren. To be around when the youngest graduates from high school, I’ll have to live to be 97, far longer than any of my parents. Better not to project themselves into their future and instead see in the gleam in his eye, in the cadence of another’s voice an entrepreneur, a historian, a wildlife biologist and perhaps a free climber high on the wall of El Capitan.

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