I’ve always loved exploring. Since my earliest memories, running around in nature without a map has stirred my soul. I spent countless hours in the woods behind our house as a kid. The river bottom was my playground. I built forts out of branches and drew pictures with pencils kept sharp by my trusty pocket knife. I imagined elaborate adventures and daydreamed about the future. Sometimes I would go with friends from the neighborhood, but I usually went alone. It was my domain and I was perfectly happy there all by myself.
A few weeks back while visiting my mom, I decided to go check on my old spot. Some things were exactly as I remembered them. The crooked basswood tree I had to grab in order to make the hop over the narrowest part of the river was right where I left it. But some things were different. A wide swath had been cleared and repurposed. With no big tree line to follow, the hard hook in the river was trickier to find. It was tough to get my bearings. I had to think a little harder, and there were more than a few unnecessary circles. The familiarity was gone.
That got me thinking. Three decades have passed since I first explored those woods. That’s a lot of time. In some ways, I feel exactly the same- just a little bigger and older. In other ways, I don’t know if that kid would even recognize me. I began to wonder how excited he’d be about the adult he became.
Soggy Moon Boots
Nostalgia had called me back to the woods as an adult before, but it had been a while. I made my way on the route I remembered to my favorite place- my secret spot. I crossed the frozen river once, and then again. No problem. The ice supported me without complaint. My path took me across the river again, but this time was different. I heard the unmistakable high-pitched squeak- that space-man radar gun- echoing first in the distance, then closer. I was about to get wet. After the initial cold shock passed I got a grip on the ice behind me and managed a quick and clumsy exit. I couldn’t help but laugh. This had happened before.
It was like any other day of adventuring. I think I was about 8 or 9 years old. “I’m going out back!” I called upstairs, then running out the back door, down the hill, through our yard, past the pond, and into the woods- always welcoming me back. It was a cold January day- low teens, maybe single digits. I came to the river and tested the ice. It failed. I was not prepared to feel that cold and I was not ready to be in a survival situation. I was in up to my arm pits and getting out was difficult. I finally managed to lunge far enough to get a hold of the root of a nearby tree and hoist one water-logged leg out of the water. I ran back towards home, water slushing out of my moon boots. A layer of ice coated my snow pants solid with the exception of hinges that formed around the knees. I ran like the tin man in desperate need of oil. I ultimately made it home just fine, but I was scared out of my mind.
I busted in the back door and screamed for help. My dad came down the stairs and saw me standing there- stiff and blue. He dropped to his knees and started to chip the ice off my zippers. “What happened?” he asked. Shivering uncontrollably, I stuttered out; “I th…th…thought th… th…the ice was s…s…s…safe, d…d…d…dad. L…l…l…like the p…p…p…ponds.”
“Rivers flow, and flowing water doesn’t freeze, son,” he said.
Honor your kid-self
It’s hard to guess what 8-year-old me would think of 38-year-old me. I hope I haven’t let him down. A lot has changed in the time that’s passed between frozen hustles home. Testing the ice of life has produced plenty of both pain and opportunity (those two seem to hang out a lot). Apparently, I am still too fascinated by what’s on the other side of that river to be bothered by thin ice. I’m not quite sure what to make of that.
Flowing water doesn’t freeze. Adult me hustled back to the house with a frozen lower half, a big dumb smile, and a valuable reminder. Some things are rigid. Other things are fluid. Many things are somewhere in between. Deciphering which is which is far from a perfect science, but the consideration itself is worth the effort. What would your kid-self think of your now-self? You had big dreams back then. You explored with abandon. Where are you flowing and where are you frozen? Do you accept what you’ve become?
We owe it to the big-dreaming, ever-exploring kid in all of us to keep at it. Of course, the dreaming and the exploring will be different. That’s not important. What matters is that we’re still dreaming something, that we’re still exploring somewhere. Flowing, not frozen.