Old habits of youth die hard, but are easily resurrected.
It is July; the heat of the summer of my fifty-fifth year and I am walking along a northern Minnesota country road much as I did nearly a half-century ago. As I walk, my attention centers on the gravel at my feet, though I alternately glance furtively at the wind-swayed birches to either side of the road.
But I am concentrating on the rocks and stones that I trod.
I am seeking two specific kinds of rock; white quartz, and shiny silica, favorites of my youth. In part it is a mental exercise to see if my powers of observation are still as keen as my youthful days of filling up partitioned whiskey boxes with various stones, neatly organized.
It does not take long for old behaviors to kick in, though to be fair, milky white quartz is amongst the most common minerals in the world, and the alluvial and glacial till that paves rural Midwestern roads is as ubiquitous and unquestioned as the air itself.
I walk these woods whenever my family and I return home, no matter the time of year. I am walking today not so much to rekindle my youth, but as a comfortable respite from a hectic and at times stressful summer off, away from my New Orleans classroom where I teach high school English.
What was supposed to be six weeks of part-time employment, touching base with friends and family and general decompression concluding with my daughter’s wedding before an early August return to prepare for the new school year has been something else entirely.
An unexpected death and subsequent funeral, car troubles, a stove conking out and needing replacement, a broken nose (not mine) and an array of other fits and starts have turned the summer into one more of mental gymnastics and retooling in many respects than relaxation and rejuvenation.
On the other hand, there have been unexpected and heartfelt reunions and revelations, surprising others seeking my input and counsel, some genuine and spontaneous moments I would not have predicted but am very grateful for.
It is all about perspective.
The first draft of this missive is being written in a black leather-bound journal given to me just the other day by dear friends of over thirty years. It belonged to their son, who died tragically this past spring at age twenty-two. The journal is (or at least was) empty save for two quotations about writing taped into the front and back covers. His parents had discovered this particular journal along with a number of others of various styles, sizes, bindings – mostly blank, awaiting their calling. In addition, there were dozens of filled notebooks and journals: poems, stories, quotes, song lyrics. Thoughts and ideas, random musings.
They are overwhelmed by the volume of books and have not had time to read through much of it as yet. The sheer number of filled notebooks is staggering to them, but I get it. I, too, have stacks of notebooks and journals filled with…life.
This one they wanted me to have, and I am grateful. I only hope I am up to the challenge of filling it properly.
The gift touched me, even more so now that I have it with me, outside in the summer sun. The heat warms the leather, releasing the richness of its aroma. The scent permeates the pages themselves, as does Aidan’s presence, mingling with the fragrance of good wood pulp – the kind that makes an elegant, gliding, scratching sound when creased by the tip of a sharpened pencil.
The sound of words filling the page keep time with the rustling birch leaves. Orioles and chickadees provide backup harmony. Aidan played guitar.
We sat yesterday, his father and I, in Aidan’s room, taking it all in. The poems and song lyrics painted on the walls, the journals. Leafing through page after page of Aidan’s thoughts both ordinary and profoundly mundane. Sad and amusing, poignant and quizzical.
I knew Aidan all of his short life. I was, in fact, one of the first non-family members to hold him, though as families we had not seen each other much the past few years. He spent most of his life in and around the northwoods of Minnesota, and of Lake Superior. His relationship with nature was solid. Mine is deep but comes and goes; a city kid who spent the summers of youth on a northern lake, and only periodically returns to the woods for family visits and vacations, I don’t have the same relationship with nature that Aidan did.
As I walk along I take note of the freshness of the familiar; wild daisies and ferns, scrub and Norway pines, the ever-present birch trees – to me the most fascinating of trees in part because of the bark. The duplex in Minneapolis where I spent the first ten years of my life featured a large birch in the backyard. At the age of seven I nearly killed it stripping off its lower bark in order to make an Ojibwe canoe as I had learned about in school…
The rocks around me are in no such danger.
On Aidan’s dresser sits a large mayonnaise jar filled with crystals. I looked at them for a bit as we sat in his room, put my hand in the jar and picked up a few, running them through my fingers. They reminded me of the milky quartz I had collected those many years ago – though without the spiritual aspects that seem to go along with crystals. At least in theory.
The chunks of quartz that I am kicking up today, that I am picking up and putting into the torn off corner of a plastic grocery bag that I have lined my cargo shorts pocket with, are asymmetrical chunks and in varying sizes. Most are dirty, there is nothing terribly unique about any of them. But they are remindful.
I am back in professional youthful rockhound mode; I walk the gravel road with purpose, taking it all in, observing, catching a glimpse of white or shiny mica, or some other oddity, picking them up in stride, filling my bag-lined pocket. I am twelve again, walking through the woods, picking up rocks just because they are cool, communing with nature and then stopping to write about it.
Notebook filling, the old-fashioned way.
The afternoon is fading and I turn to head back to my brother-in-law’s house. I am now walking mostly westward, into the latter-day sun; the small pieces of
mica in the gravel glint in a way I have not noticed before. The white lumps of quartz take on a shinier quality, and thanks to the angle of the sun I even find some less common rose quartz pieces mixed in the aggregate.
I am back at the house with a full pocket and a beginning to be filled journal. It is a good start.
Aidan, we hardly knew ye. But in some ways, I know you better now than I ever did before.