Sunday, February 6, 2011

Path to Optimism

In Birdland, snow sifts silently out of a wool-colored sky. At the horizon, the sky is bright and only the bare shrubs at the edge of the corn mark where the white field meets white sky. The snow mutes and layers the picture outside my window, steeling color from the covered landscape, so that I have to squint to see the green in the cedar tree and boxwood. I guess it is the same picture I have seen hundreds of times, on any winter morning when the wind is low and the sky is overflowing with snow. I've probably used similar words to describe the same picture in these letters, but most things are cyclical like that.

My semester has begun its own cycle, and my life takes the oblong shape of trips to town, back and forth, back and forth. First the drive in, on sometimes treacherous roads, then the walk to campus. When I can remember, or spare the time, I try to keep to my dear friend, Michael's "five miles under" policy. I've read that at 60 mph, your gas consumption increases dramatically, so I save gas. Michael came up with all kinds of benefits of driving more slowly: "You can listen to the radio longer." But for me, a big one is safety. How old was I before I figured out that the faster I drive, the more likely I am to slide off the road into a ditch? I’m embarrassed to say. Yesterday I passed a black, Chevy pick-up that had spun out off the road with such force it climbed the embankment, coming to rest next to some barbed wire, bounding a field of corn stubble. I drove on slowly, thinking of sailors passing a shipwreck and taking heed of the dangers below the surface. In town I park my car a mile from campus to get a brisk walk in, and avoid the traffic and congested parking. My route takes me close to the new Boneyard Reservoir down a winding path with sand-colored stones and water features. Now it’s mostly still and icy, but in the spring it will be lively and lush. I walk through the park and down to the Green Street Walkway, a winding sidewalk away from the traffic between two busy streets.

The footpath is lined with park benches and small trees. My walk is sadly marred by trash, a littering of plastic drink cups, beer bottles, cigarette butts, plastic bags, a tan sock, the detritus of life in a disposable and careless society. Stones that form a semicircle at the intersections have been kicked in. A few of the little trees lining the walk are snapped off at the trunk. I am amazed at how much work it must have taken to snap a trunk two inches in diameter. Was it a community effort?

Last fall I came upon one of the generous cement planters and the sweet potato vines and coleus had been uprooted and tossed to the sidewalk. I brought the wilting plants back to my office and put them in water, where they took root. Don’t get me wrong; campus is full of rubbish and senseless vandalism, but I see plenty to give me hope, too in the thoughtful projects of my students. Every semester various groups come up with new ways to recycle, save energy, enrich their community. On my way back to my car I stop for a moment at the reservoir and think about some wise words from a woman in the neighborhood. The News Gazette recently reported that Anna Urquhart, who lives nearby said, “It really is going to bring out a change because when you look at something like that you know the

re is something better. You don’t feel so down and out and want to give up. This can brighten your life and make you feel better that they’re doing something in our community.” Her words fill me with pride that my hometown has merged beauty and utility, as if someone out there understands how nurturing a community spiritually can foster a spirit of cooperation. Anna’s words remind me that we all have to be responsible for this walkway. We pay taxes that help build and maintain it, but we can also care for this public space in smaller ways. Picking up a plastic bottle or can to recycle is a small act that can have rippling effects that enhance the entire neighborhood.

With the new semester, my week takes on a new rhythm, a new dance step: City, Country, City, Country, City, Country, Country, City. Already I’m looking forward to my next walk down the Boneyard Path.

Nurture Beauty; Foster Peace; Blessed Be.

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