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Hymn to a Cold Virginia Morning

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

- Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

Most mornings I have no need of an alarm. I usually find myself coming awake a few minutes before the alarm is set, instinct dominating, or perhaps some inner workings of time and obligation ensuring that my body, no matter how tired, will respond to its duties. I roll over then and shut off the alarm before it goes off, and stretch myself to consciousness.

I go downstairs to walk the dog. He follows unsteadily down hardwood steps made secure by cloth strips, a concession to the assault of time on legs and balance. He hops the final step at the bottom, skids himself to a stop, turns toward the door where I stand with his leash, and for the first time that day wags his tail.

Winter mornings are, I think, the best times for the two of us, Lucas sniffing each corner spot, each mailbox post, every bush and shrub that might hold a secret scent, and me trying to be patient with a dog lacking any sense of urgency. On the weekends no one is around that early and the neighborhood is quiet. There’s no need to rush. We both can sniff and breathe without demand.

One morning several days ago the temperature struggled to top 20 degrees. I had bundled myself well enough, and my dog took no notice of the cold. Our routine was as it always is even though thin ice cracked underfoot and we both blew out white plumes with every breath. Later that morning I traded messages with a longstanding friend who lives near the beach in California, and when I let her know that I had just taken an extended sub-zero walk she sent me an image of the sun. “Here, you need this.”

But in truth I need no warming on mornings such as these. I walk under a sky as sharp and as crystalline as broken blue glass. A chevron of geese might fly above, so close to the ground that it seems as if I could reach up and pluck a feather from them as they fly by. Their honking echoes between houses as they disappear beyond trees that have shed the blaze of autumn to sentinel the cold. On rare mornings Venus shines as a bright, white pinprick against the blue while the sunrise forms its orange and purple rim along the horizon.

Because there is so much else to regard on mornings such as these, there is no compulsion to regard the cold as anything more than another tessera in a quietly elegant mosaic.

And I consider how rare such mornings are, and because they are rare, I see them as precious, to be absorbed and held dear. My dog walks on, slowly now after fourteen years of frolic and exploration, his steps as measured and careful now as my own. We are a pair, the two of us, each finding in our time together something distinctly our own.

I’ve passed six decades now, and unless I live to be 130, I can no longer claim to be ‘middle-aged.’ That honorific no longer applies, and I must recognize that I’ve moved onto the next phase, whatever that might be.

Most days I do not do so. I do not honor this reality. Most days I nurture the illusion that I am still the same person I was when I was eighteen, or twenty-eight, or forty. Most days I expect my body to be able to do the things it always did, and that brought me such pleasure. I do not acknowledge the strange noises it makes, or respond to the odd pains that arise in new places. I avoid mirrors as much as I can for fear of lines and sags and graying. It is so very strange to be this age, and I try to turn it into something different.

But in the end I know where illusions end and reality begins. I am not who I was thirty or forty years ago. And I thank the Fates for that. I’m not sure I ever really liked that person.

In my considerations I see all the mistakes of judgment or perception, all the callousness and thoughtlessness, unintentional or otherwise, all the arrogance. All the blindness that masqueraded as confidence. All the ignorance that passed for wisdom. I think of the people I hurt, and the things left undone because of inertia, or laziness, or lack of concern. I think of friends lost or abandoned. I think of chances lost.

And I know that, as these mornings carry the subtle, hidden message that each day has its own special character, I dare not squander any more chances. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I remain conscious each day that time is limited, and that no morning is guaranteed. There will come a time, too soon, when there will be no more mornings at all, and we, all of us, will be left only with what we have done, who we have loved, and, much more importantly, who we have become. I can waste no more time.

My lovely dog finally grows weary, and we turn for home. I watch him with some sense of wonder, and try to absorb what he can teach me. Lucas approaches each day with his own inarticulate expectation that he is where he belongs, doing what he is meant to do, being who he is meant to be, and surrounded by those he loves and who love him best. He does not think of time. He does not procrastinate, nor dissemble, nor regret. For him, there are no lost chances.

We reach the front door. I open it on this very cold Virginia morning. The two of us walk inside, and I feel the welcome press of warm air. It is morning, possibility overwhelms obligation, and the day at once is filled.


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