It wasnt' deja vu exactly. I know that phenomenon, the distinct feeling that time and place is being strangely replicated; you're somehow sure you stood in the exact same spot in the universe, seeing a world you somehow saw before. Nope.
And it wasn't just some misplaced childhood memory. Being out there didn't usher in some sepia-toned flashback never, ever to be forgotten.
It was something else together, something less quantifiable but far more stunning.
I was out walking along the river, by myself, on a trail no one had been on, save a snowmobile, since maybe two inches of snow had covered the ground. That snowmobile had been a blessing. If it hadn't had come through, I would have been even more tired, pushing snow hard off my path for two miles. Needless to say, my running shoes were back in the garage; I was slogging along in heavy snow boots, huffing and puffing in a way that made me wonder whether this afternoon constitutional was asking too much of an old man.
But I was lovin' it.
And I was thinking about how strange retirement really is, how sort of vacant, creating an emptiness that some find quite impossible to live with. Not me. But it does. You find yourself, strangely, in time and place you'd never thought you'd be, like out there along the river, walking a lonely path in the middle of a foggy, cold afternoon, the air rife with occasional snow. It was actually dark, winter dark--there were no shadows at all. What I'm saying is, it wasn't a beautiful day, not by any one's standards.
I snapped the picture above right then, not because the woods along the river were begging to be photographed. Nothing about the place was particularly comely. That picture will never make a bank calendar or a Sioux County postcard. Nobody'll ever frame it and hang it from the wall of a den. Look for yourself. That's the path I was on. It's not beautiful at all really, but there I was, a place a year ago I never would have been, at a time I never would have been anywhere close. Still, there I was, middle of the day, alone. Weird.
But something right then and there brought me back to long forgotten moments at a time in my life when I did walk through woods and along rivers in the middle of overcast, winter days. I grew up 500 miles east, along a lake, the landscape nothing like this at all; but suddenly there I was, a boy in a stocking cap and a heavy winter coat, along a river, alone on a dark gray afternoon, fresh snow kicking up from his footfalls.
Maybe it was what was going on beneath all those winter clothes--the furnace of body heat making my back wet with sweat while my face registered a temperature that was nowhere near balmy. Maybe it was that odd, sweaty cold that I hadn't really felt for a half-century. It's not that I was a boy again--I didn't see myself carrying a .22 or a double-barrel 16-gauge, although I would have been, way back when. I didn't feel the urge to shoot anything, and there was too much stiffness in my knees for me to think I was a kid. It was something else I was feeling.
Just for a moment, there was out there along the river a wonderful exhilaration in the sense-rich perception that I was somehow back somewhere in the neighborhood of where I'd come from, on a path through an childhood idyll that, even without my knowing, had sustained me through life itself with its own peculiar comfort. Out there along the river, I was, in a very spiritual way, home.
Maybe it's what Native people honor simply in the image of a circle. Just for a moment, I'd come back to something alive and real and even sacred, maybe a peek of something eternal.
This morning's Writers' Almanac poem, by Dorianne Laux, carries similar glimpses:
The clear water we drank as thirsty children
still runs through our veins. Stars we saw then
we still see now, only fewer, dimmer, less often.
The old tunes play and continue to move us
in spite of our learning, the wraith of romance,lost innocence, . . .
It was a very momentary thing, but what I felt out there on a path along the river, the fresh snow cracking beneath my boots, my insides as warm as anything alive, was glorious.
"We continue to speak, if only in whispers,/to something inside us that longs to be named," says Ms. Laux this morning, as if only to me.