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Autumn Years

Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

The autumn years are a time of reflection. Yet autumn always feels like the start of a new year. A few Indian summer days with the last cherished warm days lie ahead.

Our dog, Keena (Japanese for soya bean) died several years ago at the age of sixteen. She spent her last days slowly walking in the tall grass looking for a place to die. We buried her on the edge of the field where the sand beneath the sod is 3ft thick. It’s easy digging in sand that holds tiny shells from a long-lost sea. We have buried four other dogs and a cat belonging to family and friends beside her. Keena, Bozer, Molly, Molson and Jax, now rest beneath the timothy and broom grass. Puddy the cat is farther down near the woods. We lost Dutch, a yellow lab near Bon Echo, and never found him again. I remember him too when I pass by their graves. Passing by their graves on the way to the woods reminded me that they all lived in the present, all loved their humans, and all were themselves. Like us, they all had their own idiosyncrasies; Jax was addicted to fetching Frisbees while Dutch loved rolling all over dead animals. They were so easy to love.

I’ve been reflecting on life and death as many who see the face of cancer do. My thoughts like the graves of the dogs are surprisingly shallow. To be profound, I’ll have to borrow the thoughts of others, which, while walking through the woods, I don’t feel compelled to do. Simplicity walks well with a meditative spirit.

Old Edmond, the man who sold us his ancestral home, said that there was a man who couldn’t be buried in the church graveyard because of some violation of the rules of church life. He was laid to rest in a sandy knoll near the swamp. We have never found a gravestone or marker of any kind but we believe he is out there. Like a figment of Edmond’s imagination, he is gone without a trace. Much of what we think of ourselves is a figment of our own imaginations.

While wandering through the knoll, I found my old self, like Keena, looking for a place to die. Like perusing brochures for warm places to go in winter I scan the landscape for a comfortable resting spot. I see the unknown buried man as a kindred spirit. The calcified opinions of his peers not open to learning that he belongs. The idea that we can influence the afterlife by where we bury someone or repeating a creed is mislead. He has found a good place to return to the earth. We all are part of the cycle of life, and carry our own flicker of fire.

Maybe it was because of my bride’s recent flirt with cancer, the graves of the dogs, or because I’m changing life seasons from summer to autumn that I began to think of where to find a resting place. I’m looking for a place to start anew and plant my maple key in the moist black earth. We don’t always direct our thoughts, sometimes the thoughts direct us.

As I walked dreamily through the sandy knoll, my bare feet, muddied with earth after a recent rain, I saw and heard a raven flying above. Did the sight of the raven mean something? I don’t think so. The signs have already been sent. We live in them. I often look for signs where none are to be found and miss the signs when they fly by. It’s like calling out to someone to see a falling star. The flash is gone by the time they look up.

Many of life’s changes come unannounced. Like finding a baby in what used to be your spare room, seeing your now-adult child move across the country and disappear in the mists, or coming home and finding your house on fire. We often move into new phases of life before we even know it. We wake up one morning and realize we are entering the autumn years or maybe the winter years of our lives. The canoe gets heavier every year, and the portages seem longer. Ah, but the trip is so worth it.

Where should I plant myself in this earth? I look at spots between the trees where saplings grow. My neighbours will be maples, birch, poplars, pine, and willows. I am rootless, like a maple key or pinecone. Over there, beside the pine is an open spot. I laid myself down and stared up at the clouds. Here I can reach deep into the depths of the earth for nutrients and look up at the blue sky or see the stars at night. Here, can I find that lost soul? A soul we all lose from time to time, and run with the dogs. I imagined seeing the spirit dogs running by. A smile appeared on my face when I realized that they were moving far too fast to keep up with them.

Here lying on the earth, in the woods I watch the clouds roll by. Here we lose the knowledge of books, other people’s ideas, or look at life through their eyes. Here our true self is laid bare.

We are influenced and inspired by the thoughts and actions of others around us. Richard Rohr who has given me a lot to think about, said,” Your True Self is a little tiny flame of this Universal Reality that is Life itself, Consciousness itself, Being itself, Love itself, Light and Fire itself, God’s very self.” I believe this is true, although most of the time, I don’t live like I believe this to be true. My vision is crowded with other things. Something as simple as going for a walk in the woods helps focus the things Rohr is talking about. Even when we don’t have the words to say it so eloquently, we get glimpses of our true selves. This realization comes into full colour during our autumn years.

As autumn approaches, both the season, and my own autumn, I see the glorious colours now just beginning to come into being. As my autumn years unfold, I am truly grateful to be able to share these years with my bride. She is ever-present. She is always gathering flowers and stones, looking for a place to swim, and enjoying being alive. She has a beautiful laugh, and lives close to the earth in her gardens. She is a true inspiration, an embodiment of love. I no longer take this treasure for granted. It is through others that we most often experience love.

In time, we will be dropping our leaves and returning our life force to the earth. What happens next I don’t need to know. I have no fear of what comes next, just a faith that this beautiful world we all know is consistent with whatever is in store. The goodness we see in Creation gives me the only clues I need to know about the things we have yet to know. This is the way life is meant to be.  We’re thankful for this gift of life. A life our true self wants to live fully in our autumn years.

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