Long strides, deep breaths, a fresh look

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One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal, but the one who expected the impossible became greater than all.

- Soren Kierkegaard

ONE late September afternoon, I decide to hike to the top of the hill behind the house. I need to take some long strides, some deep breaths - to leave my work for a few minutes and have a fresh look at the world about me. I ask my daughter Lydia to come along; our dogs come too.

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We all go through the steel-panel gate and start walking upward, across the neighbor's land. The third-crop alfalfa is calf-high on me, waist-high on Lydia, and the dogs disappear into it as they run - it is dark and lush after three weeks of rainy weather. The goldenrod blossoms along the fence rows have already faded, but the white and purple asters are in full bloom. They are the last flowers of the summer; a big, gorgeous fountain of white asters erupts from a little swale by the gate. Today's sun has brought out some daisies, too, on the sandy shoulder of the hill, as well as bright magenta clover blossoms.

It's a hard, steep climb to the top, especially the last few rods. I want to sit down and rest in a patch of scant shade cast by the scrub oak trees that fringe the nob near its summit. Lydia begins searching for a climbing tree.

Some of the scrub oaks have branches near the ground, so, at her request, I lift her up and onto one of the lowest. She stands on it for a few moments, gripping a higher branch, becoming very frightened; then she wants to come down.

I decide I will have to show her how to do it. However, I haven't done any tree climbing for some time now. I vault up to catch the lowest branch and proceed upward, confidently. I climb as high as I can, until the branches are bending beneath my weight and the entire tree is swaying. I look around to take in the increased field of view; it's really not that much different - it's not such a big tree. I never would have climbed it if it hadn't been for her.

I describe the view to Lydia, whose upturned eyes are following my every move. I can tell she is impressed. Looking down, I warn her that, in tree climbing, getting down is always much more difficult than getting up. I negotiate the descent successfully, however, and when I touch ground she announces that she wants to try again.

I lift her up to the lowest limb again. She stands and grips uncertainly, as before. I tell her the best way of maneuvering up to the next branch. She turns the wrong way and does exactly the opposite of what I told her, yet manages to reach the next-highest branch anyway.

She is bent over, however, holding on with her hands to a branch that is level with her knees. I persuade her to reach for an even higher branch so that she can stand up straight. She is hesitant about this; she needs some persuading. Finally she reaches for it, grabs it, stands up straight, smiles down at me.

O, my beautiful child! What a joy to have shared this small triumph with you! All my worries disappear for a little while - I am so proud of you! Perhaps I have not lived and worked in vain, after all....

Lydia wants to know how high she is off the ground. About eight feet, I say - we discuss how high eight feet is. She decides I should nail wooden steps on the tree and build her a tree house. I say this tree is a little too far from the house, but I would try to build one in a tree nearer the house, when I get the time. That seems to satisfy her.

I tell her it is time to be going home. I make no warning about climbing down, nor suggest any way of doing it; she lowers herself to the lowest limb by herself. I catch her off the limb, hug her, then put her down. The dogs have come back from the woods; they are drooling, their muzzles flecked with saliva - she pushes them away impatiently as they try to lick her face. We all half walk, half slip down the hill. She tells me that she and Bradley are recess-line leaders this week.

We close the gate and walk back toward the house. I am hurrying ahead of her now, because I am late for chores. Lydia is stopping to kick pebbles and to build roads in the loose dirt at the edge of our driveway.

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