I speak softly as I stand in the frigid midnight, three days before Christmas, gazing through the old tree’s spectral branches. It’s a Kentucky coffeetree, sole survivor of a twister that years ago laid waste to what was once a miniature forest. I knew this place as a child, this flat piece of dirt, this long drink of farmland. It was once home to my mother, grandparents and great-grandparents. It holds fine memories, but I never intended to move back.
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” I whisper to the pallid stars of December, weak bulbs barely visible through obsidian clouds. “I’m at least half certain we half-control our own fate.”
I’ve lived largely as a creature of jagged mountains, dark forests and slow-crawling rivers. Before familial obligation convinced me of the need to return — before Alzheimer’s laid frigid hands to my father’s mind, before age and infirmity clawed hungrily at my mother’s temperament and mobility — I dwelled in wild places. A ghost town in the high lonely of the Montana Rockies, paradise at 30-below, complete with hot- and cold-running moose. A ramshackle cabin deep in the Ozarks, inside the boundaries of the Mark Twain National Forest, fronted by the catfish- and cottonmouth-laden Gasconade River.
“I miss my old life,” I tell the sky, “but how much of life have I missed?”
If I’m deadly honest, as one should be when contemplating the advent of a new year, I know that beauty alone did not lead me toward the primordial. Whether by nature or nurture — I suspect equal degrees of both — I rose to adulthood burdened with a particularly debilitating case of social anxiety. Though that disparate theology of psychological paralysis no longer enervates the fiber of my being — I’ve developed enough coping skills and wily tricks to function in a quasinormal fashion — I’m always aware the pernicious phoenix hovers in the background. Given the opportunity, it would rise from the ashes with a maleficent and ravenous smile.
I curse at the shade of the flaming bird. “Enough of you for now; you’ve taken up too much of my time already.”
I leave the bone-breaking chill and return to the warmth of my tiny home. Better to ponder my blessings, on this eve of 2017, than to wade the sticky tar of my past. I thank God for my best friend, a woman who was once the love of my life, but for many years now has been my beloved sister of another mother, the single most important person in my human journey. I praise the existence of dogs, those wondrous, wise and glorious creatures that have been my constant companions — and often my salvation — for half a century.
I offer a sincere orison to the universe for gifting me with aspiration rather than ambition. Joy of knowledge for its own sake led me to open obscure doors and learn abstruse skills. It gave me the ability to sit quietly and create, to consider the rarely considered. It taught me the art of surviving unusual places and situations.
If a new year is a rebirth, and it can be if we wish it, there is no need for recrimination, regret or anticipatory fear. We need but to walk slowly, bask in everyday miracles, and realize that while experiences and events are transient, love and faith are eternal. Be happy. Be grateful. Be hopeful.
I think of the wounded winter sky, and conclude it is not really wounded at all. I toss a metaphorical kiss toward the ether.
“We’ll speak again in the spring.”
Ron Marr is a longtime columnist for Missouri Life magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.