Playing Catch

I bought a mitt today.

The last time I did that I was thirteen, and if I’m honest it was my mom who bought me the baseball glove, a Larry Hisle model that lasted me more than three decades.

Larry-hisle-baseball-cardBy the end there wasn’t much left, just some well worn leather and more than a handful of memories of being a kid.

That mitt saw me through the ups and downs of little league, lay in a trunk for a spell, and then reemerged to see action in staff vs. student softball games, my coaching stint of my son’s t-ball team, and hours of catch when my daughter started playing softball.

Sometime over this last wet winter it disappeared, probably tucked away in a forgotten corner of the garage, and certainly not available to say “put me in coach.” I searched for it a time or two, but with snow on the ground those efforts lacked urgency. Spring rains further slowed the priority of my search. Had I left it in the trunk of the car? No. Up by the suitcases? No again.

Then, over the weekend, on a trip to the beach, I was tossing around a tennis ball with my kids. It was a perfect night. The sun was setting, my wife sat by our fire on the sand, and the little green ball flew through the dusk in a big familial triangle. This was one of those moments I’ll tell my grandkids about, a memory I hope will be as rich for my own kids.

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The next day my wife reminded me that I was missing my mitt.

I told her that I’d noticed Larry Hisle’s absence a few weeks earlier, but the bustle of life got in the way and it was so easy to forget searching or running to the store for a replacement.

She’d noticed it too, but had the presence of mind to also know how important it was. “Henry is ten,” she reminded me. “How much longer do you think he’ll be excited to play catch?”

Forever? I wanted to answer, knowing it was a lie.

As a principal, as an educator, it’s easy to find ourselves caught up in the current of “must-be-dones.” In May and early June that number of required tasks swells. Nights out pile up, and working every weekend and every evening still doesn’t guarantee that all the items will come off the to do list. It can feel overwhelming.

For those of us who strive to be productive and responsible the pressure of doing it all has the power to blot out better perspective. Planning, preparing, finishing, writing, signing, answering, diffusing, solving, responding… the list is endless. Life will feel different in July, but in the mad scramble from spring break to graduation the world of a school is more frantic and filled with obligations than most of us like to admit. It’s easy to lose perspective.

And when we do, what’s left?

I’ve long celebrated the notion, shared with my by a teacher who had it right: “The best teachers teach from a full life.”

But I’ll admin that as a principal I was certainly not embracing a “full life.” Caught up in the sturm und drang of late spring, I had allowed myself to focus on one thing at a time: my job, sure, something I care deeply about, too easily all consuming.

Until my wise wife caught me after that weekend at the beach.

I won’t go into our conversation that morning, other than to say there is a reason she is the best part of my life. Then today I bought a mitt.

I’m not so foolish or filled with hubris to imagine that I’ll never struggle with balance again. Looking back at this little collection of posts that have piled up over the past six years I see more than a couple of times I’ve acknowledged being out of balance. But today, as the summer sun peeks over the trees and makes it easier to imagine that I can life the “full life” that teacher talked about, I’m seeing as clearly as I have in a while.

When I get home from work today I hope to go to the park with both my kids and have a catch.

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Fathers and Sons

What Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel Fathers and Sons was doing on my high school English reading list is beyond me. I taught English myself for more than a dozen years and never included that particular Russian, nor even saw Fathers and Sons in the book room of any school where I ever worked.

But there it was in 1987, on Mr. Shinkle’s syllabus, tucked in with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Madame Bovary. I loved Kesey, read Flaubert, and never cracked the cover of Turgenev.

F&SOver the years, particularly when I was teaching English, I thought about that.

For a long time as an English teacher I believed that I needed to curate my students’ reading list. I was the one with the college education after all. I had ideas about what books were important, what books mattered.

Sometimes I think I was almost right.

I marshaled my kids through The Odyssey, Hamlet, Huck Finn, all the classics. Frankenstein I came back to year after year, and I had a unit that swung like a gate on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That one took me a long time to get right.

As a more veteran teacher my tastes expanded, and I was happy to add Haruki Murakami, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison to my reading list, but it was still my reading list.

A few more years in I allowed myself to let the kids choose. They did, and what they did broadened my own understanding. We were way past The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter by then, and the kids were excited about what they were reading.

I could still introduce them to Virginia Woolf or John Barth, pull back the curtains on Tennessee Williams or share a plum with William Carlos Williams, but the students were showing me authors I’d never heard of and more important than that they were talking with each other about the literature that brought to life a spark in them.

I’ve been an administrator now long enough that I almost forgot about that.

Then, last week, walking in the hallway outside the library of the school where I’m now the principal I spotted it on the rolling cart of library discards. Fathers and Sons.

The sign on the cart read:

FREE BOOKS
Please take one
Never bring it back to ACMA
If you decide you do not want it, give it to a friend, or leave it somewhere, like a waiting room. Thanks!

The ghost of Mr. Shinkle whispered for me to pick it up. I did.

Over spring break I spent some time with Bazarov, a staunch nihilist I hadn’t really been introduced to when I was seventeen; Arkady, his friend, too nice to be a true misanthrope; Nikolai Petrovich, a patriarch and decent man; and Odintsova, the powerful woman whose charisma wound through so many lives.

IMG_0168Fathers and Sons is a novel with lots of big ideas and contemplation on youth and age. At the risk of sounding like that book report my teenage self never turned in, the novel follows two sons, just out of college and at the start of their adult lives, and two fathers (along with assorted wives, lovers, uncles, and hangers on) who carry with them the scuffs and scars of lives long lived.

It is a book that wrestles with romanticism, questions meaning, and ultimately shows (in a more realistic way than I’d expected) the tension between generations.

Early in the story a son is prompted to take his father’s book of poetry away and replace it with something more sensible. “A couple of days ago I saw him reading Pushkin,” the son remarks. His young friend replies: “Please tell him that’s no good at all. He’s not a child any longer and it’s time he gave up that childish nonsense. Fancy being a romantic at the present day! Give him something worthwhile to read.” So the father allows his book to be replaced with something modern and German. It works as well as a rubber anvil.

That’s not to say nihilism wins in the end; Pushkin looms large throughout the book, and I was pleased to see that those characters who fared best in the end were the ones who had been kindest throughout the narrative. I might have thought that trite a few decades back. I appreciate it all today.

Literature has a way of finding us when we need it. The providence of a falling sparrow Hamlet talked about and all that, another book Mr. Shinkle taught me.

IMG_0169 (1)I’m the father now, not the son, and the book I dodged as a teenager felt different on my nightstand as an adult. Those passages where Turgenev talks about the simultaneous folly and power of youth mean something different to me now than they would have if I’d read them thirty some years ago, when instead I was thinking about the 80s version of what high schoolers still think about today: love, belonging, one’s place in the world …and socializing, eating cheap pizza, and having fun after school.

I’m more patient now as a reader, embracing the tangents and loose focus of the narrative, the familiarity of the author, and the pauses for history lessons. As a fellow approaching fifty, I appreciated Turgenev’s non sequiturs like the line: “It is a well known fact that our provincial towns burn down every five years,” offered without explanation and left behind as quickly as it came up.

I also dug those passages that just felt true: “Arkady was puzzled and watched her in the way that young people watch -that is to say, constantly asking himself what it all meant.”

Heavens, that was me at seventeen.

With gray in my hair, I empathize with a different cast of characters than I would have in 1987. Sure, I can smile at Bazarov’s youthful arrogance and Arkady falling in love, but those are not the fellows I relate to most. Instead, it is in the fathers, not the sons, that I find feelings that resonate.

Midway through the novel, when one young protagonist leaves home, tired of what he considers his tiresome parents and longing to return to a woman he finds interesting and world he sees as his to take, one of the fathers of the title bemoans being “given up” by his son. At eighteen I’m sure I would have identified with that son, headed off to conquer the world; a father now myself, I read this passage, where a wise wife comforts her husband, differently:

There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.”

My wife and I celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary over spring break, taking our kids out for dinner. More mushroom now that falcon, I hear in Turgenev something beautiful and true, something I couldn’t have understood in 1987 …not even if I’d read the Fathers and Sons.

I won’t take the book back to the rolling library cart; I’m enough of a rule follower not to do that. Though Bazarov would, I suppose. Instead, I’ll tuck it on the bookshelf in my office, a reminder that so much of our stories, and how we understand the stories around us, is a matter of perspective. Maybe that was the lesson Mr. Shinkle wanted me to learn.

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February Falls

Like a blanket of snow not deep enough
To give schools the day off

Gray skies, cold mornings, wind with an edge
February is the two hour delay of the school year
Not a day off
Frustrating
Cold
So cold
Feeling somehow like a broken promise

Screen Shot 2019-02-09 at 9.03.49 AMIn parts of the world
Wet or icy
Where the sun hides for weeks at a time
And windshields need scraping on dark mornings
All too often
Frustration rises behind eyes
Coloring the world
Tin, not silver

February is a time when
Nice
Is harder to come by
Rare as the sun
Hidden behind clouds of
Fear
From and Of
The thousand winter worries
That spring
Eventual spring
Will erase

Even if in February
That feels like a lie.

Ultimately, February is a time for
Solving problems

Ducking chin to chest
Against the wind
Tugging on a wool cap
And getting to work

March will be better
April hardly cruel at all
And by May, a riot of green
Again
Before the mad dash toward July

But still
February

Slush, slipping,
A scowl on the heart
Two hours delayed.

No Problem

Board games, homemade pretzels, and a couple of good books, Winter Break, that oasis in the middle of the year of public education, is winding down, and as it does I look back over the mounds of crinkled wrapping paper, the soot in the fireplace, and more holiday dishes than anyone should ever have to wash up, and I’m overcome with gratitude.

…and…

Cleaning the garage, taking the elderly cat to the vet, and the car to the shop, Winter Break is more than just hot chocolate and gingerbread. These two weeks away from work offer the obligations of life a chance to get resolved. They’re an opportunity to go to the gym, catch up on laundry, and whittle away at the to do list that has spent the fall growing from a seedling into a stout tree.

Both relaxing and getting work done is a balance as tough to find (for me anyway) as the missing bulb in a string of lights, and it’s something to strive for during these short days and cold nights. For the kids, the freedom from homework, the luxury of late wake ups, and ample time to go to the movies or read a novel for fun have made the two weeks heaven. For us over forty crowd, just having time to connect, whether going for a walk around the lake or covertly wrapping presents in the bedroom, is time to be savored.

This year my folks visited us here in Oregon. In their eighties, they brought a very grounded energy to the house. While the rain fell and a fire popped and flickered in the fireplace, we played King in the Corner (a card game my own grandma had taught me), watched the cats explore new laps, and listened to music.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.01.13 PMOn this winter’s playlist was No Problem, a 1980 album by the Chet Baker Quartet. Listening to Baker’s horn, Norman Fearrington’s deft drumming, Duke Jordan’s piano, and the heartbeat of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen’s bass is a lesson in cool. No Problem is no Kind of Blue or Take Five, but the album’s easy sound felt perfect this December.

As comfortable as the quartet sounded together, I know that to make music that swings with such a relaxed gate doesn’t happen easily. Their work in the practice room, the years of experience each musician brought to the sessions, and the confidence that comes from knowing that preparations are complete are the ingredients needed for such a success.

To sound as relaxed as No Problem only happens after hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) of anything but relaxed preparation. Gold from sweat, that sort of thing. Kind of like being an educator.

I hope my fellow teachers, counselors, administrators, and staff are preparing to return to school renewed and rested, ready to embrace the opportunities that 2019 will offer. What those will be is anybody’s guess.

Some, I’m sure, will conform to that old Edison quotation: “opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls looking like hard work.” The peace that comes from Winter Break may just provide the space I need to welcome that overall clad possibility when it walks into my office.

Other opportunities will, I hope, come from some of the seeds planted this fall, as the fruits of early labors begin to appear in the spring thaw. Good friends and creative colleagues, students, and families will present other opportunities, and I’ve been in the business long enough to know that these personal invitations to make a difference often matter the most. A few may come about out of tension and stress; these opportunities to solve a problem or turn something around are often the hardest and most rewarding.

Like a good jazz album, for any results to be positive I understand that I need to bring the right mindset to my work, an openness to improvisation, and a willingness to work hard. This isn’t easy, not always, but …Winter Break.

I return to school in a different mental space than I when left campus a couple of weeks ago. Will the second half of the year be without challenges or heartbreak? I’d be foolish to promise as much. Will the new year bring stress, and tears, and lots of hard work? Almost certainly so. But looking ahead, to the start of a new semester, a spring of unexpected adventures, and on to graduation in June, I feel buoyed by Winter Break and ready for what is to come.

And my answer to those inevitable difficulties, that hard work, and the surprises that don’t bring good news, I hope will be delivered with the ease and optimism that comes only after lots of preparation and the right state of mind, the kind of practice that Chet Baker et al. brought to the album of my season. I enter the year with confidence (but as little hubris as I can muster) and my answer to those challenges of 2019, said with hope, a belief in good, and quiet determination will be: no problem.

“Be kind like Rahul and confident like Ruby”

As the dad of an extroverted ten year old boy and thoughtful thirteen year old girl, with a wife with a clear sense of perspective, there isn’t much to watch on TV that we all agree on. Sure, Doctor Who is a hit, but truth be told my wife sneaks peeks at her computer while the TARDIS is hurtling through time and space. When the kids were younger Expedition Unknown was a winner, though once she realized Josh never finds what he’s after my oldest’s interest cooled appreciably. When the World Series was on three of the four of us were up to watch a few games, but for consistency the only series that always wins the day is The Great British Baking Show.

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Together we’ve binged the show, side by side on the couch, popcorn in hand all this fall, and over Thanksgiving break together we devoured the most recent season.

What strikes me about The Great British Baking Show is its overwhelming sense of kindness. On the show, beneath a literal big tent, contestants from across the UK bake and bake and bake everything from familiar shortbreads to exotic and odd dishes out of British history.

It’s a competition, but not as cutthroat as many American cooking programs seem to be. Over the weeks contestants strive to do their best, but can be seen helping each other, encouraging each other, and presenting a sense of camaraderie that swells up to meet the tears and heartbreak that comes under pressure.

Everyone is welcome in the baking tent. Age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical differences, choices in style, the diversity of all these make a richer picture of humanity, even as all are focused on creating art …edible art, of course… and participating in what comes across as a grand adventure and rollicking good time.

But that good time isn’t without hardship. No one can bake perfectly every time, and whether it’s mixing up salt and sugar or making an ambitious attempt that falls short, there’s something metaphoric in these bakers’ onscreen world. On The Great British Baking Show, as in life, everyone wants to do well, has doubts, fails, and has the ability to come back.

A sensitive lot, it’s not unusual for contestants show tears after being told they didn’t do well, but over and again they gather themselves and “crack on.”

My kids, seeing these tears, pursed lips, and determined nods saw in the bakers something from their own lives. While they haven’t been told specifically that their doughnuts are over decorated or their biscuits too wobbly, they have been in school for years and have felt that sense of sadness and frustration in subjects that don’t involve sugar or spice.

How healthy then for them to see adults, some like them, some wildly different, wrestle with disappointment. How great too that they see other adults around them supportive, generous, and kind. “It’s just baking” was a refrain from more than one contestant, and while it is, maybe for those of us watching it was also something more.

For educators like me, sentimental and sometimes silly, The Great British Baking Show offered some lessons I’ll take back to my work next week.

The two professional bakers making the decisions about who won and lost offered judgement that was honest (I think. Heck, I can’t taste the cakes). Criticism seemed tough, but was often accompanied by encouraging words (the sponge may be doughy, but the mango passion fruit hazelnut ganache, or whatever it is they’re talking about, tastes great). Contestants took the feedback with a nodding sense of acceptance, knowing, I think, that it was delivered in such a way as to guide them to better things.

The critique that was offered was always specific and situational, meaning they may have burned those biscuits, but the next bake has the potential for greatness. Leaving the amateur bakers with hope was as important as pointing out that the puff pastry leaked butter on the pan.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 2.18.31 PMWhen the hosts, two generous hearted comedians, Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, announced the “star baker” they seemed to do so with pride, and when they had to say who came out on the bottom they exhibited caring, even as they broke the news. Hugs ensued.

Even more, the hosts showed an ability to insert humor into the high stress situations of the baking competition. With a hug or clever comment they helped crack the tension and allowed the contestants to breathe, laugh, and regroup. Like great teachers (and counselors, and secretaries, and even principals) they showed that laughter can help create an atmosphere where progress is possible. Without humor, without heart, it would just be a competition. We seem to have enough of that. It was a clear lesson for folks like me who have the opportunities to bring balance to what can be a high stress world of middle and high school.

I’d be naive to imagine that every day at school could be The Great British Baking Show, but the spirit of the program, the exuberance, celebration of differences, and kindness on display are things that I can take to my work and encourage in those around me.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 2.22.09 PMAnd then, at bedtime on the night we watched the final of the last season, I overheard my wife talking with my kids and I realized that it was more than just communal TV time or one sentimental educator’s musings on how to apply something he saw over vacation to school.

My wife and kids were talking about the people they’d been introduced to throughout the program: painter Terry, whose artistic vision (he did a 3D face sculpture?!?!) outpaced the time allowed on almost any challenge; Dan’s love for baking for his partner and his kids, and joy in this opportunity to break out of the under-appreciated challenge of being a stay at home parent; Kim-Joy, who my son observed would be a natural at my little art school; and the welcoming couple who’d taken Rahul as one of their own family when he emigrated from India.

Their pyjama conversation was about those little moments when as an audience we were reminded that The Great British Baking Show isn’t about baking, it’s about humans.

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And my wife, who is far wiser than I am, and far, far more able to connect and make a meaningful point brought it back to our own kids when she told them: “Be kind like Rahul and confident like Ruby.”

Good advice for us all.

After Issue #200

WARNING: This post is about Moon Knight. For my constant reader looking for education related content, a peek at the history of my school, or some sort of musing about being a principal, stop reading now. Come back in a week and you’ll find a post on teaching and learning, or ACMA, or art. That said, to anyone willing to swoop into this post on their glider capes, I whisper “welcome” through my cowl mic and up to the moon copter. I hope for you, maybe, this post inspires a nod of acknowledgement to a nerdy kindred spirit.

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They’re cancelling Moon Knight again. As a fan, and an avid one at that, I should be bothered I suppose, but having weathered the decades long starts and fits of the silver and jet avenger I half shrugged when I heard the news, vowed to enjoy the final couple of issues of the very strange current run, and pick up the collection from the Sienkiewcz and Moench years that comes out in January.

199By then someone new will have thought about what to do with my favorite superhero, made a pitch to Marvel, and started plotting the next incarnation of the Fist of Khonshu. Perhaps it will even be good.

For any devoted Spiderman fans, a monthly (or some decades even weekly) issue of their fellow’s comic book has been a steady staple since 1963. Peter Parker was slinging webs long before I was born, and looks to do so uninterrupted long into the future.

Moon Knight?

Starts. Fits.

Sure, Moon Knight is a little weird. Resurrected by an Egyptian god, multi-personalitied, a bit more violent than a good superhero should be, Moon Knight makes Bruce Wayne look well adjusted.

And…

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.37.53 AMHe’s a masked vigilante with a (mostly) steady love interest, a daughter, and a slew of charismatic friends. With the exception of the exceptional Ellis and Shalvey run, Moon Knight is more interconnected with real world characters than most folks who wear capes. Diner owner Gina and her boys, Frenchie and his partner, Crawley and the flies buzzing around his shaggy head, Moon Knight’s world is populated by diversity and rich with possibilities.

That his three personas don’t always get along, his relationship with his god is unhealthy more often than not, and his relationship with Marlene (a complex character in her own right who has only begun to be explored) is as complicated as it is may be part of the reason for the interrupted history of a character not easy to pin down.

There are those who say they’d like to see Moon Knight in a movie or a Netflix series. I guess, but which Moon Knight?

Maybe it’s my age, but I’ve come to realize that I care less about hoping for an incomplete cinematic version of Moon Knight and more about the next incarnation of the Fist of Khonshu that will show up in a comic book.

That could be a few months from now, or a few years from now. And that’s okay.

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What does any of this have to do with anything? My very kind frequent readers know that my posts tend toward celebrating something positive or trying to make sense of something a little less so. This little ditty, they’ll comment, is just about Moon Knight.

Yes, and…

I think that there is something in my attitude toward this quirky hero that holds true for life writ large.

MKIn this world, the real one, not just the Marvel universe, there are cancellations and interruptions. There are optimistic beginnings, difficult endings, and lots and lots of weird stuff in between. There are days that the world feels wrong. There are days it seems to soar.

And time after time, when the universe hasn’t quite turned out like we wish it had, or we’re looking out the window after something important has ended, we find that just outside is something new, some wild creative approach that we never thought about and now can hardly wait to see happen.

Life, especially a creative life, isn’t always constant, or easy, or uninterrupted. Joy cycles through life, waning and waxing, dark always replaced by illuminationkind of like the moon.

Off the Grid

It was 100 degrees out and the water in the North Santiam felt like heaven. Rushing by, sun sparkling off the rapids, the river was much as I remembered it from fishing trips in high school. It was mid-July and my son and I had packed up the tent, his fishing pole, and some snacks his mother would frown on, and headed into the woods for a summer camping trip.

For educators like me, July is an opportunity to renew, disconnect (at least for a bit), and take a deep breath between the crazy rush of graduation and the exciting potential of the first day of school.

July is for educators what Tintern Abbey was for Wordsworth.

Describing that place of nature and retreat, and what it meant to him in the long time he spent away from Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth told readers of his poem:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration…”

Like that old English poet, I know I’ll look back on this trip to the river and feel “sensations sweet” during those “hours of weariness” that find us all “‘mid the din” of our workaday world.

One of the biggest differences between July and the rest of the year is pace. There is certainly work to be done, both tying up loose ends from the year before and planning for the year ahead, but for many of us this middle month of summer allows time for reflection, learning, and a refocusing on what really matters. That’s a lot easier to do in the middle of a forest than it is at a desk or amidst the rush of daily life.

Being someplace where my phone displayed those marvelous vacationary words “No Service” meant not only an opportunity to spend time with my son, but also a chance to put the outside world on hold for a few days, put energy into building a fire, finding the best way down to the river, and exploring the world without computerized navigation.

Unplugging for a while helped me shake off the stresses of incoming email and piles of work to be done. I knew I’d get back to those emails and that work soon enough, but separating from them allowed me the energy and perspective to do so with a clearer head and focused mind.

For all of us who work with students, a time away from campus can help refresh and renew us in a way that nothing else can. Knee deep in the river, looking up at towering evergreens and a sky so blue it feels like it’s from a song, I was reminded of myself as a person, not just a principal. Paradoxically, by August I think that will make me a better principal.

As I sat by the North Santiam watching my son tangle his line in the rocks, sentimental fool that I am I thought of Tintern Abbey and knew that:

…here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.”

I hope educators, and students too, everywhere are able to have a few Tintern Abbey moments this summer and return to school in the fall rested and filled with renewing memories.