I decide to walk up the bluff today. I have been accustomed to going to La Riviere Park for my daily walk, but choose to visit my old hiking grounds.
The trail presents a living memory. I know it so well I can walk it blindfolded. I have in fact, walked it several times in the dark, my feet following a trail cut in my mind. Our dog Fargo bursts ahead, his nose needing no recollection for bearing.
This memory lane bears little resemblance to the path I had navigated just a few months ago. Giant basswood trees have fallen to their graves, blocking the trail at several places. The trail bears deep scars from erosion, requiring circumnavigation. I stumble through newly grown honeysuckle vines, which span the trail like trip wires.
The rock ledge at the top of the hill where I stop to sit with Fargo has a piece missing from the corner. I stoop to pick up the missing piece and return it to its rightful place, which I do out of some sense of obligation to put the world back together. The piece feels misshapen from erosion and time. It no longer fits.
In short, things have changed. Nature gives no quarter to sentimentality.
The world has changed. The social landscape bears little resemblance to the sensibilities of old. Daily doses of violence fill the news. Angry tweets and flaming posts fill social media. Partisan politics fill the void between problems and solutions. Talking heads on television and tweeting heads-of-state sow division. The norms of civil discourse and social behavior disintegrate before our eyes.
Yet, the more we try to fit the world back into our idealized memories of the past – the economic boom of post-World War II, the social revolution of the 1960s, the music of our youth – the more society diverges from the ideal. It no longer fits.
The Christmas season approaches, beckoning us once again to the nostalgic memories of our past. We place the grade-school ornaments of our children on the tree. We pursue the ritual of holiday shopping as if that defines Christmas. I bathe my hands – and sometimes my shirt – in flour and potatoes to make the Norwegian lefse of my ancestry.
Christmas begins to feel the same. Yet new experiences invite us in.
At Navy Pier in Chicago, a choir lifts the spirit of Christmas to new heights. Busy shoppers, pulled aside from their holiday routine, gravitate to the sound like a family to a feast of goodwill. Children stand mesmerized. No one talks. Everyone listens. Or sings. “Joy to the World” washes across our faces.
At Starved Rock State Park, canyons carved by glacial melt-water offer unexpected relief from the flatness of the Illinois plain. In the lodge, we strike up a conversation with a waitress working two shifts to provide for her two young children. She shows us their picture. Her wide smile offers welcome relief to the cynicism pervading this holiday season.
At the grade school Christmas party, I help build gingerbread houses; an event I skipped last year. My granddaughter shovels gum drops into her mouth faster than she shingles her roof. The house takes shape. Not known as a reliable gingerbread house contractor, this feels new to me.
In the race for U.S. Senate in Alabama, a civil rights champion defeats a substantially flawed candidate promising a return to the past. Suddenly, character matters more than party. This feels new to me also.
We need each other at Christmas in the present moment. Hope lies in the future, not in the past. A new Christmas need not break the spirit of old. It only needs to fit.
Back home in the Mississippi River bluffs of Southwest Wisconsin, twilight descends on the trail. Time to go home. Fargo still chases new adventure with his nose. The deer trail down the steep hill winds around newly fallen trees. I cannot trust my memory of the path. Now, the Christmas lights on my house in the valley appear, steering me home.
A new path opens. A new Christmas awaits.