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Bounded, Boundless

Posted Dec 21 2009 7:29am

Carl Larsson

Last week I met a woman of roughly my mother's generation. She was winsome in a white pageboy haircut and a craypaz-pink sweater. Identifying herself as the oldest of five sisters, she remarked that, after close to a lifetime inhabiting the role of problem solver to her younger siblings, she'd grown weary of it and had decided, now that she was nearing her dotage, to start being part of the problem.

A funny line; it won my appreciative laugh. Later I found myself ruminating. Why, in the case of this woman, did becoming "part of the problem" seem such an invigorating, liberating decision, when it's this very sense, that of becoming more of a problem than a help, that so vexes and oppresses my mother? I suppose the answer hinges on the word "decision." That this woman is able to choose whether or not to position herself thus is very likely what allows her to speak of it so wittily. It's only natural that my mother, along with anyone else whose illness might have robbed her of certain abilities - such essential abilities that the end effect is to rob her of part of her identity too - should mind the change, mourn it as another the loss.

Natural, yes. But inevitable?

Yesterday, late in the day, we took the kids for a walk in the woods. I had envisioned a kind of splendor, a kind of dark awe in the face of such tall trees all clotted and weighted with snow, and the cold and the hush and the encroaching gloom. Yet the kids fought and fussed: this one's snowpants were ripped and letting in the snow; that one was grumpy about missing the Patriots game; the other kicked her brother for shaking snow down on her head. They all wanted to know if they could have Burger King for supper. And the noise of them! You couldn't begin to hear the hush of the woods for all the ruckus of their antics.

And then the snow did begin to work a kind of spell on them. One kept sinking to her knees and stretching her neck forward, mouthing creamy peaks off the bushes and low-hanging branches. "Look at the baby deer," she'd cry, meaning herself, her face glowing red and sparkling with the cold and wet. Another kept toppling face-forward to the ground like a bowling pin and remaining there, oddly still, oddly content, for a good minute each time, his body sunk through so that he lay flush with the top of the powder. "It's comfortable," he commented. The oldest ran forward, fleet and soft, and left the path, camouflaging himself behind the muscled gray-brown backs of fallen trees, both his limbs and the trunks patchily capped in white mounds so that he was hard for us to find when we caught up around the bend. Bunches of frozen red berries dangled low. Around the rim of a meadow, trees thrust their gnarled branches into the leaden sky like forks and knives sticking up out of a silverware basket. Tiny and faintly blue along a skin of snow, we saw the pie crust markings of bird feet.

By the time we stopped walking I'd abandoned my notion of how the walk would go, having acknowledged my utter inability to craft it so, just as the kids had abandoned themselves, given themselves over first to strife and complaint, and then to the bounded, boundless world as they met it all around them.
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