I am raking the driveway. (Thank goodness for sturdy, plastic-tined rakes. I have always hated the sound of metal tines on the pavement.)
The leaves are thick on the driveway, which is bordered in the back (our yard) and on the side (neighbor’s yard) by tall oak trees. Those sturdy, leathery leaves fill the drive and drift up against the hedge that curves around the front yard. That yard, protected by the hedge, is relatively unlittered—by oak leaves, anyway—but the driveway has undulating oak leaf dunes.
It’s weird, though. We call our oak tree the Whomping Oak, after the Willow in Harry Potter. Usually—every other year we’ve lived in this house—it holds on to its leaves, which turn golden and then crisp up and turn brown.
They stick tight to that tree, those leaves, rustling and whispering in the winter winds, a presence in the backyard. Then spring comes. Buds form on all the trees, and one fine, warm, day: whomp. We walk into the backyard and find the Whomping Oak has dropped all its old leaves and is working on shooting out new ones.
Not this year, though. One day this Fall—last week, in fact, Mark was in the driveway, staring up. He had just gotten home from work; I heard the car door slam, and waited for him to come in.
When he didn’t, I stepped out onto the stoop to see where he was.
“Everything okay?” I asked, watching him stand, eyes skyward, hands on hips.
“Look at this tree,” he answered.
And then I saw what he meant. The backyard oak’s leaves were beautiful. They had turned a red-gold color. The tree was ablaze.
After a few days, the leaf color started mellowing more to the gold side.
After a few more days, the leaves started blowing off and into the driveway.
Why is this year different? I think about the long summer we had, with temps staying in the seventies and eighties through September and into October. I think about how trees stayed green well past the usual optimal leaf-peeping days.
I think about the snapping cold nights that then descended, saying ‘bye-bye’ to our long-lived tomatoes, and triggering whatever system makes leaves preen and glow with reds and oranges and golds. That happened late. In fact, that is still happening; James and I dropped off gently used coats at a drive this morning, and the sun chased away the clouds left from last night’s rainstorm while we drove. Bright and clear, the light shone through, from a sky the exact color of Crayola’s sky-blue, and the leaves left on the trees dazzled.
They shivered and shook in the mischievous breeze, and they golden-glowed, as if they were grasping for just one last second all the sunshine they’d sucked up and hidden away in the summer and spring.
Yesterday—Veterans’ Day—we slept in until 7:30, and, instead of going to the gym, I took a nice ambling morning walk with Mark. We scuffed and crunched, like little kids, through drifts of leaves, kicking them up. The leaves were golden.
Because I was a child who always seemed to be hungry for something, many of my personal nature metaphors were food-related. There was brown sugar snow, for instance,–when the snow was deep in the streets of my western New York town, and the cars, pre-pollution control devices, colored it with their exhaust: a deep, rich, edible-looking-but-ickily-poisonous brown. It LOOKED just like the dark brown sugar we used in the chocolate chip cookies we made only on memorable occasions.
And I thought of leaves like the ones Mark and I crunched through yesterday as corn flake leaves. They crackled like cereal flakes, and I even convinced myself they smelled grain-y. And they were that perfect toasted-gold color.
We walked through corn flake leaves on Veterans’ Day.
The sun poured down on the fallen leaves; the leaves turned their crisp faces to the sky and reflected that glory right back.
It’s been, for sure, a golden leaf kind of a week.
And also this week, I met Lee, who’d been absent a couple of weeks ago, when I first started my strength/core training class.
Here is how I happened to be in that class: I went to a new doctor for the first time last month, and she was very supportive of my walking efforts. I told her I was re-upping at the gym for the winter months, and she got very interested.
“Consider doing some weight training,” she said. “I think you’d really benefit from weight training…”
[—at your age, she was diplomatic enough NOT to say. So I finished the thought for her.]
So, I got up each morning and I went to the gym, where I walked a mile around the indoor track, then got on the recumbent training machine for nine minutes (Why nine minutes? I don’t know.) Then I walked another half mile.
As I walked, I watched all the serious lifters—kids on, I think, high school or college sports teams; a doctor (I know this because he often answered calls while training, saying, “This is Dr. ____…”); four or five women of a certain younger-than-I-am age. All of those people were impossibly fit and lean.
I circled, and I watched them work with dumbbells and with those cute weights that look like plump little handbags and that come in vibrant colors.
They hefted, they heaved. They grunted. They turned red.
They had spotters.
Sometimes their weights crashed noisily to the ground.
I walked faster. THAT looked like dangerous territory.
It was certainly, for me, unknown territory. I wouldn’t, I thought, know where to even start.
Then there were the fitness machines—not the treadmills, recumbent trainers, or stationary bikes, but the ones that target specific bodily areas. People would get on them, arrange their limbs in just the right way, take a deep breath, and then huff and press, or huff and pull; they’d cross their hands over their chests and slowly dip backward; they’d extend their arms and do a sort of hard cruise forward, then way, way back—arms still straight.
There is a machine that makes people twist. There are huge, inflated balls that people sit on and do painful-looking exercises of all kinds.
This area, too, was a mystery to me.
I kept walking.
Then, my first week back at the gym, as I was deep into my recumbent nine minutes, a former colleague, Eric, stopped to chat as he walked around the indoor track. Turns out that Eric, in his ‘retirement,’ teaches a strength/core class on Tuesday mornings at 6 a.m.
What he does, he explained, is show us exercises, teach us a routine that uses all of our muscles, help us figure out which weights to use, and show us how to pick and navigate those machines.
If I was interested, Eric said, I could just join in next Tuesday.
And didn’t that seem pretty fortuitous? Just, in fact, what the doctor ordered.
So the following Tuesday I showed up at 6, and Eric took another student, Judy, and me through an hour-long workout using machines and the walking track and resistance bands. (“If you’re sore tomorrow,” Eric joked, “blame the bands. Not me. Not MY fault!”)
He explained that the workout used every set of muscles in the body. He showed me which weights to use (light ones) and how to set the machines for (minimal) resistance.
And so the next day, feeling I had entered a little way into the mysterious Kingdom of Barbells and Machines, I switched up my routine.
I walked half a mile. I used the machine that works on arms and shoulders, then the “abdominator,” and then the stretch-your-back machine. I walked some more. Then I got a set of light barbells and did the lifts Eric showed us.
I walked some more.
I did my nine minutes on the recumbent machine.
It felt pretty good, and I did that every day for a week.
The next Tuesday, there were three of us in class. Lee was back. He’d been on vacation.
Lee was a cheerful, energetic man. He also happened to be in his nineties.
Eric put us through a workout very similar to the previous week’s, adding in sit-ups on a fitness ball. I kept imagining the ball popping out from beneath me and hitting the wall while I splatted ignominiously on the carpeted section of gym floor, but I am thankful to report that didn’t happen.
What did happen was that we did a rotation: the ab machine, the ball, the back-stretcher. I followed Lee and let me tell you this: when he got off a machine, I had to adjust the resistance, or weight, or whatever. Lee works out at a level far beyond my capability.
Sometimes when we talk about the Venerable Old ( The Venerable Old are…older than 90? as opposed to the Regular Old, of whom I am one), we use hushed voices. We say things like, “She is still as sharp as a tack.” The implication, of course, is that, my gawd, she’s older than dirt and still knows her name and address!
Lee did not make me think ‘Venerable Old” when I saw him. He was just a regular person, enjoying a strenuous workout, who happened to have lived 90-some years.
When we finished (“If you’re sore tomorrow,” said Eric, “blame the exercise ball. Not me. Not my fault!”), I stopped to retrieve my jacket, zip it up, chat a little before leaving. I wound up walking out right after Lee. He kind of bounded down the stairs and trotted out to the car he drives, a little PT Cruiser-type mobile, with WW II Vet markings. He waved and peeled away.
Is that what weight training can do for me? I wondered. I’m doubling down on my weights and machines.
And it feels good.
I’m really, really tempted to do that English teacher-y thing and stretch the metaphor—talk about the long summer leading into a long golden fall, and then apply that to Lee in his own golden autumn. Yadda yadda yadda.
That’s not really what I’m going for here, though, except, of course, that Lee is pretty freakin’ amazing, and I hope I can be like him when (if) I grow up. It was just a kind of a gift of a week—a time of golden leaves before the grim and serious winter moves in and takes over. The sheen and the glow and the crisp, corn flake leaves were invigorating.
And trying to keep up with Lee was invigorating, too.
Every once in a while, a week comes along, and it’s crammed full of messages like, “Maybe you should try something different,” and, “Maybe you should wake up and be aware of the beauty all around you.”
That’s the kind of week this was, an unexpected, late autumn week of unanticipated beginnings, unique inspiration, golden leaves. I don’t even mind that it’s time, now, to go out again and rake them from the driveway.