Transience and Permanence

Naturally, I made the wrong choice. It’s spring by the river where the wind cuts and if the sun hides her face, you’ll be shivering and cursing misplaced optimism. My winter parka felt great at first. But I set a brisk pace and the sun graced us with her beneficent presence. In five minutes, I knew I had made the wrong coat choice on this particularly fickle spring day.

But I’m not complaining. I am, in fact, delighted to shed my outer layer, dropping its weight from my shoulders and stuffing its puffy down in the crook of my elbow, dragging it along. I’m surrounded by people on this afternoon river walk. But we hold a strange kind of commune–terse smiles and projected hellos across wide berths of social distance.

I swing down to the river stairs, giving six feet to the young parents in running clothes struggling to re-secure their toddler in a stroller. A few minutes prior, they let her walk, and she darted away, squealing with new-found independence. I smiled at the parents’ caution and the toddler’s lack of it, shaking my head.

Runners pass me–there are so many now. Desperate for the whiffs of clear air, a change of scenery, and the feeling of blood pumping. I often join their ranks, but my recent walks have become precious too. Not the same ordeal as a run–no outfit change, less mental will to exert. I slip from my apartment, throw on a coat (sometimes the wrong one), and go. 

I’ve been listening to podcasts and stories–anything to let my eyes wander and my mind transport from the confines of four rooms, two laptops, and three cats. I feel urgency to balance my physical body with the hamster wheel of an anxious mind. Chasing the water’s flow, pushing against the wind, seeing flowers emerge from bare tree branches and daffodils bob in small clumps. It all helps somehow. 

Everything feels simultaneously monumental and small, like a frightening expansion of unknown and a sudden narrowing of normalcy. The sights are familiar, but the backdrop is foreign.

I need more time to process. 

I’m turning toward home, deep into downtown and weary of shifting the winter parka between my arms. Sun rays grow longer, but hold steady. I power through my podcast, managing, to my surprise, to work up a sweat, even without the coat. Walks aren’t weak, and I wonder why I mostly think they are. I relish these moments of freedom from screens, news, chores, artificial heat, and unnatural light.

I’m past the pretty path of blooming cherry trees across the street from historic row homes. As I enter the shady grove before the walking bridge, I notice a carpet of small yellow wildflowers and an expanse of plush moss, and I slow. I crouch to take a picture of tiny bright blossoms among knobby roots. When I rise, my gaze rests on mottled bark, then continues upwards until I’m arching my back to look at the bare branches towering far above. 

And I’m transfixed. A slow realization washing over me about this tree in Riverfront Park. It has seen the world turned upside down before. It’s silently observed fights and engagements, car accidents and bleary-eyed visitors from the hospital across the street. This tree has lived through wars, maybe World Wars, maybe distant wars that affected people close. This tree has shielded guests, flocking to its base for annual summer festivals. I’ve ran past this tree many times. I’ve never stood silently under it, admiring its stark crown and stately grace.  

I feel a dawning understanding: these moments are both the permanent and transient. Spring will soon roil into summer, the petals fluttering now soon ground into dirt. The biting air will soon turn balmy. This walk will soon be over, and I’ll return to screens and new routines. This tree will soon flourish or be struck by lightening. But it has faced that proposition many moments and seasons before. It stands as a reminder that while change is inevitable its rarely absolute. We have totems to ground us, to remind us what remains beyond churning change. 

In this season of blooming and sheltering, what are emerging as your totems? Are they of nature or unique human creations?

I see my walks and runs differently since this tree–looking not only for beauty but for some glimpses of wisdom. And while I’m not always ready to receive them, I trust they surround me, waiting for the right moment for lightening to strike. 

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