I would never have expected to remember it; but the oddest things come back to mind, given the right circumstances. The fourth through sixth grades of Friends Community School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, were assembled in the room that sometimes doubled as an auditorium. It must have been late spring -- late May, no doubt -- since we were all beginning to feel the wild joy of a school year winding down.
I don't think we heard much when one of the teachers -- was it Mrs. Burton? -- got up to introduce the slides of her family's tour of the Western United States the previous summer. Even after the slides began and we fell prey to the attractions of unknown highways, we giggled and prodded each other and told intentionally awful jokes that made the teachers speak sharply to us.
We all grew a little quieter when slides of Yosemite National Park began to appear on the wall. The first slide was store bought and had a title at the buttom -- "Yosemite Valley, California." The slide showed a seemingly endless valley, with huge cliffs and mountains looming fantastically along the way.
"How do you say that?" I whispered to my fifth-grade sweetheart, Leslie, who sat next to me most of the time.
"I think it's 'YO-se-mite,'" she answered, rhyming it with "dynamite."
"YO-se-mite," I said to myself several times, as another slide went by -- this time one of the teacher's showing a cliff face, rounded at the top, as if a mountain had somehow been sheered down the middle.
"This is Half Dome," she explained, "one of the huge, glacier-carved rock features of Yosemite National Park. . . ."
"Yo-SEM-i-te!" I said to myself, hearing the teacher's correct pronounciation. It sounded better, ending softly, echoing the sight of the calm meadow that now appeared before us.
". . . and this is Tuolumne Meadows," the teacher went on, "a vast, carefully preserved area with abundant animal and plant life, at an altitude of 8,600 feet."
8,600 feet!" I exclaimed out loud. "I'm going there."
But we lived in Pennsylvania. Yosemite was in California. It was an impossible distance. It was almost impossible to imagine that our teacher had been there herself.
I was 10 years old that May in fifth grade, and now it's early June and I'm 25, standing by Tioga Road along Tuolumne Meadows, throwing snowballs at my wife and two friends. this is indeed high country: Tioga Pass, connecting the east and west sidesof the Sierra, has been open less than a week, and heavy snow still lines the roadsides. Although Tuolumne Meadows is beautiful with promise, just awakening from winter. In a month or so it will be lush with larkspur, columbine, lupine, western wallflower, penstemon, paintbrush and much more.
Wham! A snowball hits my right shouler (one can only take on three outraged opponents for so long without consequences), triggering a flood of memories. Where did I first join forces with snow? Pennsylvania, of course, but I was so young then that it can't really be important now . . . those snowball fights on the way to school, weren't they something? I brush them from my thought, preparing to fend off another volley from my friends; but they return as a vague feeling on the edges of mind, an expectation, a connection not quite made. Why this awareness of Pennsylvania, of distance, of school? I have no reason to think of these things. Then, suddenly, I realize the connection: late spring, fifth grade, the slides of Yosemite National Park, the wonder, the impossibility of getting there.
Of course! For no obvious reason, as I throw a few more showballs, I feel invigorated and satisfied. But later, encamped beside a furious snow-fed stream , I wonder a little more: how didm we get here? Certainly I remember well the sequence of events, now 12 years past: my father unexpectedly receiving a job offer from a firm in California, my parents' initial agonizing, their decision, our move.
Yet none of that history really explains the power, the satifaction, of that fifth-grade memory as it strikes me here, now, in Yosemite. It seems that we spend our lives moving inexorably from event to event, leaving the past always behind except for a nostalgic reminder now and then. Yet, at times, we find that the past has a present power, striking us with a sense of wholeness and fulfillment. Life suddently takes on the form, not of a straight line to the future, but of a series of concentric circles, within which a hope or action may come full circle to its completeness. Our lives move outward from insight to insight, from wholeness to wholeness, with memory invoking the astonishment of our beginnings.
Sitting on my sleeping bag writing these notes, I envision myself as some small speck of possibility in those photographs that Mrs. Burton took 15 or 16 years ago. The thought gives rise to great curiosity; for I realize that I will eventually looking back on thesem moments, and recognizing in them a direction that I do not yet perceive. What, I ask myself, have I lately seen or done that is even now moving me toward an unexpected fulfillment? What is the next circle , most certainly unbroken?