Ten weeks after the summer solstice, we took our friend Linda hiking again.
Actually, since she drove us, it’s probably more accurate to say that she took us hiking. Except in our minds it’s our hike and everyone else is just along for the ride, no matter who brings whom.
This week we noticed pine sap, in sticky drips on the tree trunks.
“Oh, that smell!” said Linda. “It reminds me of east Texas!”
The smell propelled me, too, into nostalgia, but it took me to Monterey, California. I’m not even sure the trees I walked through on my way to La Mesa Elementary School were pines, but the smell of the pine sap reminded me of that walk and the pieces of bark we’d pick up from the ground and stuff into our pockets, treasures because of the perfect, pinky-finger-sized holes the woodpeckers had left in them.
We were hiking the usual New England farm trail, but while I was in Monterey, Linda was in Texas. I think only my kids were where we all actually were.
As we passed the river, we heard Canada geese in the distance.
“My mother had a knack for hearing geese,” Linda said. “We could be inside the house, all six of us kids who were living at home then making noise, and my mother would suddenly say, ‘Stop! Listen!’ We would all go outside and crowd onto the front steps and look up into the dark and listen to the geese flying overhead.”
We walked along without speaking, and I pictured a long-limbed, pre-teen Linda among a pile of children in the reluctant cool humidity of an east Texas evening, staring up at the sky and sharing their mother’s awe.
“Out at my parents’ graves,” Linda said quietly into the silence, “this was years after they died but we had a difficult relationship, and I didn’t go out to their graves for a long time. So, I was out at their graves, kind of looking around, wondering why I was there, when I heard a goose. I looked up and there was one goose circling around and around overhead. Honk! Honk! Honk!” She pointed up and drew a circle above us in the sky beyond the oak trees.
“As I watched, I saw two more geese fly in and join the first, all three honking and flying in circles. And after a few times around, they just flew away.”
We both took a deep breath.
“Wow, I got chills just thinking about that again,” Linda said, and I realized I had chills, too.
“And it’s not like I think it was them sending me a message or anything supernatural, but…” she trailed off.
“I don’t think it has to be an intentional message for you to take meaning and comfort from it,” I said.
As we walked back to the car and in the days following that hike, I thought about the meaning we create, the narratives we construct around the things that happen to us, and how we can bring ourselves either comfort or pain depending on the stories we tell ourselves. How something as simple and unconnected to what we’re doing as geese flying overhead can have significance. It can bring us closure and connection and peace.
And in a world that’s often confusing and painful and full of violence and despair, I’m grateful that we have that meaning-making ability.
I’ve shared Linda’s story here with her permission. I feel honored that she shared it with me, and I hope I’ve done it justice in the retelling.