Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind. – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Do not waste time, for that’s the stuff life is made of. -Benjamin Franklin
Air condition – 88 degrees, pleasant; Water condition – 70 degrees, transparent
A typical summer day in Richmond, only on this day the 1 p.m. sun looks me a bit more in the eye than did July’s midday sun, and when I turn my back to the low-angled glare I find that the sycamores along the northern bank of the river have dyed their hair some burnt shade separating green from brown. Blush or rouge has been applied in splotches to the canopy on the higher slopes, and beneath my waist I see discarded flakes of this late season tree, maquillage littering the river surface. No, this is no summer day. It’s a warm and rare day in early October.
My daughter Brooke and I are at one of our favorite James River Places – the lowest step of the watery granite staircase known as Pony Pasture Rapids. With our two dogs we wade out to the first significant channel connecting the water on the first elevation to the long flat pool passing quietly between Windsor farms on the north and Willow Oaks on the south. We spread our things out on a massive monolith of granite partially perched on the river bed such that a diving flow of water at the upstream center of the slab is able to crawl under rather than go around. Brooke drops leaves into the small upstream whirlpool, watches them swirl and disappear, and then takes the high route over the boulder to meet with them again on the downstream side where I sit with my body half in and half out of the flow, helping her verify the identity of the surfacing arrivals, and marveling with her at this magical leaf teleportation.
Beyond the closely-gathered circle of my younger daughter and our two goofy dogs, I find myself likewise shepherding a scattered flock of resting clouds, each wooly sky-sheep seemingly as content with its current GPS reading as I am. The only evidence of my proximity to a semi-major east coast metropolis is the missile-shaped upper half of the Carillon aimed for launch from a thick crowd of trees at Dogwood Dell a mile or so to my downriver side.
Amazing city! That I can find a spot like this a mere two river miles from the city center, properly orient myself, and look out to see a world mostly the way it was before humans arrived and hopefully the way it will be long after we’re gone.
I almost wish I weren’t wise enough to know that in a blink of an eye from this day I will come to this same river on a warm fall day and have only the ghosts of my playing children to watch over. Already the image of my older daughter Anna bouncing alongside me in innocent play has faded from flesh to shadow, and if I watch Brooke’s 11-year-old shape and mannerisms carefully, I understand that my playful time with her also fades. Sad? I’m not sure. The mental sore spot of this fore-knowledge is strangely interesting, and I find myself probing it with my thoughts as one might probe a mouth-sore or vacant tooth socket with his tongue. The pain is not alarming, or hard to bear. Only interesting. Interesting because the resting clouds, the bright and optimistic young face under the red hair, the voice of the river singing “Forever, forever, forever . . .” as it tumbles over my feet and legs, these all create such an illusion of permanence. But the reality is change. The colorful leaves floating past me speak of it. The low-angle sun on the back of my neck speaks of it. That shadow of thought trailing just behind the present speaks of it. “Change” is the word we humans use to speak of it. Sometimes aggravating, sometimes painful, sometimes welcome, but always, always, interesting. Change. Yes, the reality is that time passes and things change. Sad? No. I refuse to be sad about my one and only reality. Just interested.
Brooke humors me, bears with me, really, in this “melancholy shepherd” role as long as she can before pulling me up to play. She puts her hand on her hip, waves her opposite pointy finger like a windshield wiper, and says what YouTube sensation SweetBrown says in her starring role: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” And just like that Brooke slices all that stuff, that moody contemplation, away from my present and I find myself properly playing with her and the James. We play our all-time favorite river games. We find a nice exposed slab just upstream from a deep pool where Brooke can jump and test her duck wings. We play “rock-star,” seeing who can build the highest river rock tower. We uncover 40- million year old secrets by throwing brown river stones against larger rocks and breaking them open to discover what the crust of earth looked like during some crisis of temperature and pressure in its ancient history. We wonder, we explore, we rock-hop, and we find any possible excuse to break into a raucous duet of laughter. We play.
Before I know it, and without a thought, it’s time to leave. I don’t know where the time went, but some deep sense or awareness of satisfaction leads me to believe that it went somewhere good. That if there truly is a “cost” of time levied on our earth experience, then these last three hours were time well spent. This unexamined, playful life is worth living, even if often transparent to the mind’s eye or the writer’s hand. Maybe if Socrates had spent more time at play with his daughter he would never have uttered his famous quote to the contrary.
The dogs drag themselves forward with Brooke and I as we walk the trail back to the parking lot. They will never learn to pace themselves out here. There is just too much dog-joy to be found, and they are afraid to take one second of the experience for granted. They run, climb, and swim themselves to exhaustion as quickly as exhaustion can be achieved.
Around me on the trail, chlorophyll, the green of summer, is being drained from the forest with increasing counter-clockwise turns on the spigot handle. The green shade of bio-business is being purposefully drained away, leaving us a glimpse of how colorfully unique all the trees look in their street clothes, or their retiring attire. They prepare for a new season, for their autumn. They change. The forest speaks of it. . . Change. Change, the passage of time, and the interesting, slightly painful shadow of thought trailing just behind.