I don’t know, maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe it’s the sentimentality of the holiday season . . .
Could be that I turned 71 and am more acutely aware of loose ends, and also of the cycles looping through my life. It’s not a ‘bucket list’ impulse. I’ve never had the cliche urge that seems to infect old people with the fever to jump out of airplanes or walk across beds of red-hot coals. Not that, but there is something going on, some satisfaction in taking care of unfinished business, and also, the need to pay more intentional tribute to the circular seasons that ebb and flow through the course of a lifetime. It manifests in my attention to connecting the dots along incomplete trails I’ve begun, or left in segments. And in the deepened awareness of the swirling patterns I’ve become incorporated in by nature of my family, my unique history, friendships, quests, quirky traditions, and the steady, inexorable currents of time. Trails completed. Circles closed.
Not that this is something ever done, because just as a box gets checked, a new one opens up. New cycles initiated, new trails begun, fresh awareness, some physical and tangible, others emotional and only vaguely understood. Still, something’s going on, and it seems to have come into particular clarity for me lately.
Like I say, some accomplishments are very tangible and concrete. Fulfilling an ambition to float the Gila River, in New Mexico, last March, for example, which has dangled out there in my imagination since I lived in Santa Fe in the 1970s. Getting around, finally, to running the Rogue River in Oregon, which has been somewhere on my river-running radar for probably forty years. Who knew, after all those failed lottery applications, that you could just show up and score a permit, which I did with my oldest good friend, Grant Herman, in September. Or, in late August, with Marypat still navigating her knee-replacement recovery, the final 100-mile piece of the Clark Fork River between Butte and Paradise, Montana. Somewhere in those four paddling days, a revelation – “Hey, look at me!” she exclaimed, “I’m kneeling!”.
The meaningful return to a summer canoe expedition in the Far North, with a band of six guys, most of them strangers. Those extended, logistically-challenging, expensive expeditions have a poignant flavor, because who knows which will be the last I’m capable of. I had that same pang of uncertainty when we did the Mountain River with the kids, or the Noatak with a band of friends. For a guy who has no history of making the ‘cross’ to mark a blessing, I am tempted by that gesture at the successful conclusion of each one of these journeys. How lucky am I, I think, every time.
In the vein of traditions, we are logging the 10th year of our Three Rivers gathering, that Memorial Day glut of quirky river sections with a boisterous gang of paddling friends. This spring will be a decade-marking week of rivers in celebration of a tradition no one knew would go anywhere or last even one year.
This has been a particularly rich year for family ceremony, as we managed to corral nearly 30 of us for a summer reunion in Maine, where the tapestry of familial fabric came together, created new patterns, and reinforced old ones while cracking lobster tails, walking the trails of Acadia, oogling new family members, and memorializing Aunt Judy on a bluebird day along the Atlantic shore. Most of us also came together to celebrate the long life of my Aunt Noey Congdon, in Denver. She was the last of her generation to pass the torch, and hers is an indelible legacy of fierce integrity and absolute grace.
It struck us this year how our celebrations seem evenly divided between the youthful outbursts of weddings and births, punctuations of exuberance put on by the contemporaries of our kids, and by more somber gatherings to remember those who pass on, mostly our contemporaries and our elders. In that way we teeter at a crux of comings and goings, joy and grief, dancing and comforting. The passing of energy and the anticipation of a future with new and unknowable forces at work.
Here in Butte we remember last winter held fast in the grip of old-time cold and snow. By this time last year we’d already been out skiing probably twenty days, and we were in for a season of minus 40 cold and unrelenting snow. This year, in the final days of November, I climbed a nearby mountain through a skiff of snow in shorts and a tee-shirt. My back is thankful, and anxiety about pipes freezing and whopping heat bills is reduced, but it’s another mark of the cycles we all play our roles in or are forced to live through.
All of it expressions of the great river of existence bearing us along. Headlong descents, quiet pools, swirling eddies and whirlpools, foam-laced drops, serene dawn mists, fearful unknowns, comforting serenity. Another bend left in our wake on this daunting and awesome expedition.