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On Life by Josh Wallaert

On Life by Josh Wallaert

When I was young, my grandparents lived in a hand-built log cabin in northern Oregon. I can remember summers spent there in innocence, dreaming, exploring, swimming in the Clackamas River. With hands small enough to investigate even the narrowest of rock crevices, my brother and cousins would spend hours in the water, catching crawdads. Five-gallon buckets were filled and carried up to the house. My grandniother would cook the little creatures alive, and that evening the valley would echo with the shell-cracking, flesh-slurping sounds of a crawdad feast.

When the river level was low, a small island would emerge from the shallow waters of the Clackamas, and upon it my brother and I would envision ourselves shipwrecked. Hopelessly stranded in this island wilderness, half-Robinson Crusoe and half-Huckleberry Finn, we would live for decades, eating the leaves of small aquatic plants to survive. Our creativity knew no limits. Slender, bowed tree limbs became our fishing poles, which we used to catch imagined fish. We wrestled twenty-pound beauties to shore with an exaggerated display of theatrics, cooked our trout dinners over hypothetical fires, and ate from imperfect bowls fashioned of river clay. When late afternoon came and the sun was shadowed by trees, we slept on beds of stones rendered smooth by the maternal massage of the river current.

Such were the summers of my childhood. Like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, my playmates and I traveled to a far-off magical world, swept away by a bend in the Clackamas River with its rippling reflective surface. The river was our mirror. After all, as the poet Jim Morrison once wrote, there was little sense in trying to “swim through windows.”

Children find such escape with magical ease. To the young truth-seeker, mirrors exist in puddles, in bubbles, in highly-polished grand pianos, in the shimmering, shiny metal heaps of junkyards. There are the large mirrors mounted on opposite walls of barbershops, which seem particularly well-suited for purposes of immersion. A child’s first haircut is a mesmerizing adventure. Light bounces endlessly around the room, ricocheting into picture-in-picture infinity.

And, oh, the iris of the eye! Reflected in the eyes of friends, neighbors and strangers, children unearth new universes, possi-bilities, mythical lands. Blink, blink, and the unicorns shudder!

Adults, alas, must find their looking-glasses elsewhere. America is the land of the nine-to-five. Caught in the frantic action of a business day, we grown-ups learn to use makeshift mirrors. Hurriedly, we fix our windswept hair in the passing reflection of a taxicab window or in the revolving door of a skyscraper lobby. We search for mirrors in the glass display windows of clothing stores and jewelry cases. Middle-aged, weary, and cynical, we squint, frown, tilt our heads, and look into—rather than through—the looking-glasses that surround us.

Do not be surrounded by mirrors. Be swallowed. Submerged.

Seek a return with me, to the grandparents’ log house, to halcyon days of crawdad-catching, to the river island with its wild gypsy children, barefoot, dancing circles in the world of the sun. It is there that I belong, forever dreaming, twirling small aqua flowers between my fingers until such things be forgotten, abandoned for fresh attractions, danced upon.

Here, I shall live and die—and grow old in between. I shall be a wide-eyed child, a wild-eyed father, and a smiling-eyed grandfather. And then, when dusk beckons and death’s dinner call comes, that faraway song from the cabin up the bank, I will sigh, in peace, and close my eyes:

Across the water and home to sleep.

This piece was originally published in Hearthfire Journal.

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