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Enumeration: 4 elements whispered in gratitude



1. EARTH

The mountains welcomed me back last summer as they have every summer, with neither preferential nor prejudicial treatment. COVID had no stronghold, the rain and wind came as they pleased, as did the snow, far too early for my tastes. Clattering down scree slopes, footsteps soft on needle-strewn trails, lichen-crusted boulders shifting under my weight, evidence of my passing tracked onto snowfields, I walked and walked, the ravens' chortle pulling my gaze upward.


Autumn was golden, bright mornings mellowing to honeyed afternoons, leaves languidly drifting to settle on the ground. Up high, larch needles quietly turned daffodil, dandelion, butterscotch, poppy, carpeting the forest with an unreapable gleaming harvest. One moment, reclined on spongy lakeshore in the sun; the next, punching snow off the tarp, frozen fingers struggling to start the stove. "Shimmering and shivering," an artist friend called it.


Back at home after a trip where serious mishap--or worse--was only one step or one broken tentpole away, the fire in the woodstove slowly thawed my shoulders, tensed from days hunched against the wind. Yielding to the warmth, I instantly craved the elemental pull. But the mountains await; I will return.

2. WATER

Buoyant, afloat, inflatables bolstering bravado; bubbles, burbles--rivers, they beckon. Rivers demand surrender, and succumbing is so simple. Sand shifts under bare feet, silky soft or coarse; burrow into the cool granules at the water's edge or sprint across a stretch of scorching beach, soles burning, to the nearest refuge. Golden sunrise submits to blistering noon; we slip effortlessly into the current, drift idly, spin in whirlpools, brush slippery boulders cloaked in river slime. Beaching ourselves on raft tubes or sand spits, we turn our heads to the river, the rhythmic pulse of the water thudding in our veins.


Mornings are languid: coffee and books, dreams shared in fragments across trenches harrowed in the sand by toes, snippets of conversation, the whole day ahead, with no urgency to get through it. Evenings, stars spin across the sky. One lucky year--a comet, its bright tail fanning out in the V of the river between rugged Idaho shorelines. The water flows past, undeterred.


Sparks from driftwood spiral upward, flaring out against the backdrop of black. Above them only stars, a black tapestry with pinpoints of light, so many of them that the constellations we know are indistinguishable from the spray of those we don't.


On the water, we are the people we were meant to be. The people we'd be without the things that make us unlike ourselves. We arrive at the launch depleted by the effort of preparing for the trip; we depart overflowing. Water: the great restorer.

3. AIR

A memory from high school: my best friend Shannon and I are buzzed on wine coolers, Bartles & Jaymes peach, the signature flavor of our weekends. Our arms are around each other's shoulders and we're belting out a song, gazing into each other's eyes, soulfully, the way you do when you're 17, emboldened by wine coolers. It doesn't matter whether the song was Duran Duran's "Rio" (her fave) or Van Halen's "In a Simple Rhyme" (mine); we sang it with great enthusiasm, blowing sweet boozy breath straight into each other's faces--an act that would be unthinkable in 2020.


Sophomore year in college, my best friends and I visit Star Tracks, a karaoke-type recording studio that provided lyrics, background music, headphones, and, at the end, a cassette tape of your group's recording. For this experience--which any 10-year-old could now access on a smart phone--we drove an hour each way and paid a $40 fee for a single take. If you wanted to re-record, you paid again. We sang, of course, Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," which became the anthem for what has been--so far--a wildly enduring friendship.


Mine are friendships of marathon talking sessions, ideas spiraling into words drawn up from our diaphragms, pushed past the larynx, blown out as meaning. Mine are friendships of tears--tears of joy, tears of sorrow, of shared relief, of frustration. Inhaled sobs, gasping through incoherent explanations. Mine are friendships of laughter, gulping choking fits of it, the epiglottis flapping erratically, impeding the intake of breath. Mine are friendships of shouted words of encouragement--on scary climbs, above churning rapids, before childbirth, upon releasing personal essays out into the world.


All this air: the conveyor of conversation, song, laughter, pain. Confidences shared sotto voce, the sound of your own name in a familiar voice. The most weighty friendships are buoyed by this--the lightest, most elusive, most substantive of all elements. Not oxygen in a literal sense, but nearly as vital.

4. FIRE

To build a fire you take not, Jack London-style, a bundle of matches clenched in your frozen paw held over a tangle of branches, a dog watching skeptically, but instead wafer-like tendrils of hardwood, curling off the whittling knife in a froth. Next the kindling, short sticks of dry wood the circumference of your thumb. Pile on top a tipi or log cabin of sticks as thick as your forearm. Ignite.


To build a child you ignite the fire within by providing unfettered access to a cluster of character-building experiences. Let them shave off thin disks of digits. Let them play with matches. Let them scorch their fingers. Let them wallow in the pen with the pigs, let them crawl in the coop with the hens. Let them walk alone to and from the bus stop: uphill only on the way home, but a solid mile's journey. Let them use power tools.


As kids, my siblings and I bonded around two things: my father's relentlessly cheerful attempts to reframe onerous chores as larks ("The Happy Family Pruning" was one of his more indelible ditties) and my mother's eternal forays into health food fads (powdered milk, "better butter," carob, sprout everything). Try being the kid who brings a soy cream cheese/black olive/pimento spread on a whole wheat roll to lunch and you'll quickly learn that your only allies are those related to you by blood, and that even they are reluctant to acknowledge the bond.


"The Happy Family Pruning" included memorable and inspired lyrics such as "They're happy to be pruning, they're happy 'cuz they're working, the happy family pruning." The lyrics burned a path into our psyches. Not only were they patently untrue, they were sung in that bullish tone that standard father training seems to include.


"The Happy Family Pruning" had spin-offs, imaginatively titled things like "The Happy Family Hauling [Irrigation Pipe]" and "The Happy Family Flossing." The continuous narrative soundtrack was the worst of all ear worms, rendered even more tuneless and trumped-up with each iteration. It was, therefore, destined for the family annals.


But if we weren't the happy family pruning then, we became so later, kindling an intimacy for which I remain grateful. It was as if by saying it--singing it--my father made it so, offering us the glowing embers of a life lesson in optimism.


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