Monday, October 27, 2008

When Autumn Leaves

The breeze was gentle, enough to ruffle the leaves still clinging to the branches. I hustled along the sidewalk beneath their bright oranges and golden yellows towards the subway. About half of the leaves had already fallen, and every few strides, another would drift from the branches at the gentlest push of the wind. It was hard to believe that autumn was nearly gone, and that very soon winter would be here, in all of its dark and icy coldness, with its blustery winds and heavy snow storms.

It wasn't that I didn't like winter, even the long winter here in Canada. Every season had its high points, and for every storm was a night of peaceful snowfall, when the sky seemed luminous, and the world quiet and restful. No, it wasn't about the approaching winter, mostly it was about time. How fast life moved as you got older. I slipped on my toque. Summer had just left and already I could feel the iciness in the wind.

Seasons change.

I left the sunlight as I moved down the endless flight of stairs and into the dark tunnels, past the elderly Busker playing a polka on his accordion. The music brought back memories. Family gatherings and weddings growing up. I remembered taking my first sip of wine at my cousin's wedding when I was fifteen, procuring a cigar from my uncle and doing Humphrey Bogart impersonations all night. I remembered the laughter and careless joy that seemed so easy and endless. Mostly I remembered the striking sense of hope and optimism that permeated the clinking glasses and fresh scents of cologne and perfume. Through it all we danced, polkas and waltzes, and of course, the chicken dance, my favourite as a teenager. (What kid knows how to do a waltz?)

The subway is nearly empty. Finch station is the start of the line, and we will pick up people as we approach the downtown core. The train fills up slowly, and I watch the people as they file in. Some are smiling, but most have that faraway glaze to their eyes so common on public transport. With my shaved head and relative bulk, no one sits next to me. I'm not offended. Subway seats are too small anyway.

The music from the accordion is still in my head. Usually I work on my files or study on my short trip to work, but today I am able to let go the ever pressing urge to "be productive."
I haven't been to a family wedding in a long time. The gatherings stopped about ten years ago, and when I moved seven hours away to Ottawa, my contact with my extended family dwindled.
Unfortunately, the little contact I've had hasn't been encouraging. Some of the relationships have lasted, but not many. The hope and idealism I felt as a teenager at those gatherings now rings false, and if I dwell on it for too long the disappointment becomes heavy.

Seasons change.

The sky is bright as I leave the tunnel, but the tall buildings of downtown Toronto cast the busy sidewalk in a cold shade, and the new winter wind already has people hunched over as they hurry along. This is my third job in a year. The gym is a bright and positive place, and I like both my co-workers and clients. I never expected to be working as a personal trainer at the age of thirty-six. By now, I assumed I would be a senior pastor somewhere, established, wearing collared shirts and greeting families every Sunday morning as a religious shepherd.
These days, I wear workout clothes and running shoes, working alongside people whose backgrounds in science and kinesiology and nutrition dwarf my years of personal study in those areas as I study and struggle to catch up. It isn't what I expected, but in so many ways, I am doing what I have always done. Working alongside people to help them grow and adapt, as life casts upon them the sorrows and heartaches and disappointments endemic to the human experience.

Seasons change.

We all have our stories, don't we? We all have our youthful memories, when everything seemed so alive and full of possibilities, when we looked upon the world with eyes of hope, when our desire to change the world and our expectations to create change were not just dreams, but living realities. As we get older however, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold fast to what we once dreamed so vividly. The weddings become bitter divorces, the smiles we remember seem fake now, and through our adult eyes, we recognize the too often desperate nature of "celebration."

Buried in these memories, even when do not articulate them in a conscious fashion, it becomes increasingly easy to allow cynicism to rule our hearts. It becomes easy to say to God "you don't exist; my life is not what you promised." It becomes easy to let the burdens of care for the world to be swallowed into the winter wind and the seemingly endless cycle of disappointment, to stay behind the mortar of our black and white "realities" and let hope stay buried in the past.
We all make choices, and our past struggles often make it difficult to choose hope in the face of such an absurd and tragic existence. Our memories tell us that all does not end well, and that most things actually end very badly. Perhaps it is this loss, the loss of our idealistic innocence, that is the most difficult to overcome. It takes away our ability to believe that something more, something greater, is still possible. And when that happens, the lights in our imaginations, which once burned so brightly in every room, slowly flicker and die. And as they die, we die along with them.

Seasons change, as they always will. And as in our life, the question becomes simple. What will we do? Will we allow ourselves to be permanently trapped by that which has come before? Will we forever hold ourselves prisoners of our mistakes and errors of years past? Or will we resolve to make the present, the now, a place of possibility once more?

I still remember vividly those times with my family. And while I am saddened by the losses and heartache that has followed so many of those hopeful moments, how so many of the people close to me have suffered, colouring those memories with sadness seems not only unfair, but also wrong. They were happy moments. Were they true? Did I really understand what was going on? Perhaps not. But it shouldn't diminish those times.

Sorrow casts about like pigeons in a downtown park. It is easy. Hope is more difficult, and sometimes we must strain to look forward, to use our imagination to see past the hurts and tragedies of our memories and the lives around us.

Seasons change, my friends, as we do. My prayer this week is that you will not lose yourself in the disappointments of unmet expectations, but that you will reach forward and embrace the possibility of a new season. The world is not what we make of it, but what we make of our world lies within our own willingness to adapt to the seasons that inevitably come and go. My prayer is that despite what you see around you, despite the struggle and tragedy of life, that you would dip into your imagination and see again what it could be, and find hope once more.