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A Return To The Woods Of Life


I wrote this as a column for my college newspaper during my Junior year…about 20 years ago. It was about walking in the woods behind my house in Hopatcong, NJ. I can only hope that Benjamin and Matthew will one day find such a place to learn and play together.

Lake Hopatcong

It was Good Friday. The sun was shining and the air was cool and still. I could feel spring in my bones. I went down to the woods behind my house to walk with my father and play with my nephew.

To my nephew Kevin, the woods and the stream and the giant “climbing rocks” were all so brand new to him. I, however, once knew the place well. It is where I had spent much of my childhood. It was where I went when I needed to escape as I got older. It was the place that I had abandoned when I went to high school.

After my father decided to head back to the house with Kevin, I decided to try to find something that was missing in a place I had once called, “The Woods of Life”, in a poem written a long time ago.

The woods, for me, holds a special parallel to life. They serve as a parable to my views of life and a reminder of hope in the early spring. How? Let me explain.

The Dam: My friends and I used to spend a great deal of time trying to dam up this one part of the stream at the edge of the swamp. We figured that if we dammed it up, it would form a little pond where fish and other wildlife could live. We looked at it as a challenge.

We spent hours digging at the bank of the stream and dumping the mud and dirt on the dam which was made of everything from old wood to pieces of metal we found scattered around. But we could not stop the water. It would always find a way through the dam or around it. But we kept at it for what seemed like years. We were successful at making the stream wider, but we could never get the “pond” as deep as we wanted it. And anytime that we felt we had got it right, a rain storm would destroy the dam.

There are still pieces of metal and some wood there. The water runs through, not hindered by much. Looking at it on Friday, I would not have guessed that anybody had ever tried to dam up that part of the stream. I wondered why we had spent so much time at that one spot. I wondered why we had never given up. I wonder how such a huge failure to me and my friends now served to put a smile on my face as a warm feeling took over my body. I thought about it and came up with this conclusion.

Sometimes in life we become huge failures. Situations and our own bad decisions can hand us humiliating defeats. We may work very hard at something and give everything we have, yet sometimes everything is just not enough. However, we learn from those failures. It is the failures that teach us more about life. We take these bad times from our pasts and we refer to them in the future.

We also have to remember the old cliche: “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it is how you play the game.” My friends and I did not dam the stream, but I have such good memories from our endeavors. Digging and splashing and laughing and planning all are etched in my mind fondly. We failed at the dam, but we had a damn good time failing.

A year or two after we had failed creating that dam, I made an attempt at another dam, just to prove that I could do it. Sometimes, we have to know when to give up, move on, and start over. I did. I moved up stream to an area with higher banks that could form a natural barrier. I then rolled huge boulders into place in the water. After placing a pipe between the rocks to regulate water flow, I piled thick mud and moss in the gaps of the rocks. The dam was about a foot or two tall, and it was a complete success. I took my previous failures and used them to succeed. Eventually, the dam became too successful and was partially destroyed by someone else to return the rest of the stream’s flow. Yet, even now, my dad had to build a little bridge out of old tires and trees so that my nephew could cross the once thin and shallow stream. I beat the stream.

The Swamp: In the woods, there is a swamp that spreads out over a relatively large area. Throughout it is scattered moss, covered islands of dead tree stumps or mud. In order to cross the swamp, you have to hop from island to island, hoping the island doesn’t sink. Every so often, you may slip and find yourself up to your ankles in mud or water. As you travel through it, it seems like it will never end. The other side is so difficult to see and dead trees lie all around. You can get confused and lost easily.

There are times when life seems like this murky swamp. Things seem bleak and it seems that hopes and dreams lie dead all around. Like the waters, life seems stagnant, and sometimes you cannot do anything but pray that you don’t fall into these waters. There are times when you don’t feel like hopping to another island because you are afraid, afraid of what the next step may bring. You don’t know if the next island will give under your weight or that you may not jump far enough and land in mud. It is this place in my life that I feel I am at now.

You know you cannot go back and sometimes you just want to stay in one spot. But you must move on. The swamps in life are stagnant and scary, but you have no choice but to continue on. You just have to realize that you will eventually find your way out. There is another side, a place where the footing is sure. A place where you can look back and feel proud at what you have accomplished.

The Hilltop: On the other side of the swamp in the woods is a steep hill that seems to rise above the tree tops. Climbing the hill is no easy chore. It is covered in dead leaves that may cause you to lose your footing.

But when you have made it to the hilltop, you can look out at everything around you. You can see clearly where you have been, and you can see what is ahead of you. On the other side of this hilltop, the stream flows smoothly and the water is crystal clear. The plants in the valley are lush and beutiful. From this hilltop, you can clearly see the beauty of the sunset. Being up on this hill is truly breathtaking.

In all our lives, we will make it to the hilltop. We may have to struggle through swamps and climb steep inclines, but eventually we will make it to the hilltop. We can look and see why we had to go through the swamps, and we can appreciate it. We can see where we are going. We can see the beauty of life and how wonderful it is. The waters are flowing clearly ahead of us. All we have to be willing to do is to climb that mountain and struggle through the swamp, because once you make it to the hill top everything is forgotten.

Although I believe I have a long way to go to get through this swamp that I am in now, I know something beautiful lies ahead of me. Although there are more struggles ahead, I know they will be worth it, and I can’t wait.

The woods of life are beautiful. They are constanly changing and growing. Like trees, dreams die but are quickly replaced by other trees. There are different paths and trails through life; which ones we take are completely up to us. Streams don’t always flow straight. They curve and bend. They run slowly sometimes and faster other times. This represents our hopes and our faith. There are going to be hills and valleys and swamps throughout our lives. We just have to muster enough confidence to make it through.

Perhaps one of the most insightful things I have heard lately came from my three-year-old nephew, Kevin. I went back down in the woods with him on Easter Sunday. He wanted to climb on these rocks. It soon became a tough climb for his little body but he kept on going. When I asked him if he wanted me to carry him, all he said was, “No, I am like the little train.” Then he continued climbing, saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” Perhaps that is all we need to do to get through the tough parts of life: Keep reminding ourselves that we can do it. Life is beautiful.

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Categories: Observations, Prequel
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