Perspectives on the New Year, Part 2: Writing Through the Terrain

Continued from Part I.

This was written on 12.31.13 after walking through a local “county park” where there are trails throughout the woods there.  In order to get to this park, I have to walk through a neighborhood near our apartment, where there is a “secret” entrance to the park for those who live in the neighborhood. It had just snowed, and because the park grooms its hiking trails for cross-country skiers, I had to walk purposefully along side of the trails, to avoid stomping into their path and messing up their skiing, making the hike more strenuous than usual.

I found myself at the end of the “secret entrance” trail.  For the first time in two years, I saw a freshly groomed trail.  Prior to this, I thought a “groomed” trail meant that the snow was packed down from the skiers’ skis passing over the snow.  But I was pleasantly surprised to see something instead that corrected my misconception, and it fascinated me for some reason.

It’s actually quite pretty; it looks like someone went by, dragging a giant comb.  The lines were perfectly parallel to each other, and they travel side-by-side for the entire width of the trail.  I was careful to stay off the trail and walked along the side of it, occasionally grabbing for branches and small trees in order to stay upright. With at least four inches of snow on the ground, this was not so easy.

This day was a beautiful day, although cold.  I wore my trusty green winter coat that I’ve had for so long that I cannot remember not having it.  I’ve never been cold in this coat, even when walking through Chicago one bitterly freezing night when the wind dashed madly between skyscrapers.  Today was no exception, despite the fact that temps were in the teens with even lower wind chill values.

The snow fell in clumps from the bare tree limbs, and sometimes flakes chunked together as they fell from the boundless expanse of gray sky.  I took several pictures along the way, which always slows down my exercising, but I had to because I began seeing metaphors that I needed to capture.

The freshly-groomed trails made me think of the upcoming “new year”.  What is New Year’s Day? It’s another set of 24-hours that spins past like all the others, but why is this one special? What causes people to want to congregate in Times Square, or other large cities, and watch an illumined ball count down to midnight? throw confetti? drink champagne? kiss people? What is it about us that likes a fresh start? Why do we like the reset that occurs with a new year? Why do we look back at the 364 days that trail behind and think that somehow January 1 will start a new, improved era in our lives?

I am not immune to such hopes.  Ever since I can remember, my journal (for the most part) has been the recipient of many new starts, reflections on the old and hopeful wishes for the new year.  The earth turns its course around its axis, and the axis spins its way around the sun, and somehow in the dead of winter we cast our hopes aloud or in private, thinking we’ll finally accomplish those tasks, develop those attributes, be the person we’ve always wanted to become.

I thought about this as I continued my hike beside the beautiful, freshly-groomed trail, admiring its cleanness.  No one had come through yet where I hiked.  But towards the upcoming intersection, I noticed a sign that was posted to a tree.  It said “Caution: Two Way Traffic”.  As I passed it, I decided to look back.  Another sign, posted on the other side of that same tree, said “Do Not Enter, Please”.  With the trail behind me, I noticed those longitudinal groom lines as they, perfectly parallel to each other, scratched and sloped their way up the hill and disappeared around the curve of the trail that I had just descended.  I marveled at how a change in my perspective (by turning around and looking behind me) gave a different view of where I just was.

(C) 2014. Do not use without permission, please!
(C) 2014. Do not use without permission, please!

Perhaps there is a lesson here.  It’s okay to turn around and glance back at the past (and I will expound more on this shortly), but it’s often a bad idea to try to head back to the past.  Maybe some of us need a little caution sign in our lives, when life gets difficult and nostalgic lies come creeping in to lure us into false comfort: DO NOT ENTER, PLEASE!

I turned back around and continued a little more up the trail.  I saw where another trail emerged from my right and then merged into the trail beside which I was walking.  I am familiar with this junction, as I walk this trail a lot during the year.  But I liked seeing the beautiful, comb-like scratches in the snow, imagining how it would feel to glide skis over such perfection (I have yet to try cross-country skiing).

Then something else interested me.  The other trail that merged into my trail had the marks of a skier.  This skier did not just glide through; there were herringbone designs in the snow.  I am not at all experienced with cross-country skiing, but this pattern suggested that the person decided to “walk” their way through this part of the trail.  As I looked ahead, I saw why.  Our trails descended, especially as they merged, and the combined trail continued its descent until it leveled off over the foot bridge up ahead.  To me, it appeared as if the skier was resisting the descent.

(C) 2014. Do not use without permission, please!
(C) 2014. Do not use without permission, please!

As I continued along, I snapped pictures of the scenery ahead of me, then turned around and snapped the scenery I had already passed.  I began to muse, “Well, aren’t we as humans a little bit like this?” Some of us resist change, and we dig in our skis to avoid the perceived scariness of sliding onto a new, unmarked path. I know I can be this way.  There is comfort in the familiar.  Perhaps the skier was familiar with the trail but just being cautious.  I know I’m very much this way in my own life.

The other thought that crossed my mind was how writing, for me, was very similar to my hike on this day.  When I write, I capture a moment or moments on paper, giving birth to a particular context that will not necessarily exist later, or if it does, it will be changed by the passing of time.  I am taking mental snapshots and translating them into verbal images in my journal.  Weeks, months, years later, when I revisit those words, they tell a story of a moment that is no longer in the present, but gives voice to something that was.  I get a taste of my own personal history, and that can be satisfying.  A favorite Anais Nin quote comes immediately to mind:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

I enjoyed the different perspective as I turned around and photographed the trail I had just walked beside.  At one point, I looked ahead of me at a hill I was about to climb.  Subconsciously I quickly assessed it: it would require a little more muscle power, a little more lung capacity, perhaps produce more sweat.  I didn’t dread it, probably because I’ve done this hill before, although it was more difficult with my current trail-walking restrictions and the added burden of snow.  What interested me is that once I arrived to the top of the hill, I turned around and saw the hill as something I accomplished.  The same hill had opposing attributes – both ascent and descent – and the degree of difficulty depended on my current position on that hill.

I believe that writing helps me to see the terrain of my present context, whether a problem, a crisis, or just plain day-to-day activities that occurs.  Looking back over old journals is like standing at the top of the hill, looking down the trail I just scaled.  And I keep writing, writing my way up the next ascent.

(C) 2014. Please do not use without permission.
(C) 2014. Please do not use without permission.

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