I turned 53 recently. It was a quiet celebration, no big parties or huge dinners, just a calm recognition of time passing and a life being fleshed out at the edges.
There was no need for extravagance. Here in the mountains days are merely days, and it’s in the slumped, relaxed plod of them that we find degrees of ourselves that became lost in the frenetic pace of the city.
I have become a man more comfortable in the soft glow of a morning fire than the sear of traffic on a freeway. I’ve grown more attuned to the symphonic clarity of an October sunset than the raucous clatter of an urban street. But memories are kind things and turning 53 allowed me to look back at some good ones.
Like hockey. Back when I still played the game, I was fast. I was always the fastest skater on the teams I played on. Mind you, I was never more than a men’s league forward, but I could always skate and I loved it. There was something in the power and grace of skating well that called to me and I’d spent hours trying to refine the skill as a kid.
There was a construction lot down the street from my adoptive home. The winter I was 13, the workers had created a crater about the size of a swimming pool and when the freeze came it became my own private rink. None of the neighborhood kids discovered it and I went there at night and skated in the dim glow of the distant street lights. You couldn’t see very well, but there wasn’t a need for it.
See, on that small stretch of ice, all I wanted to do was skate.
I left the stick and the puck in the snow bank and flashed around in circles, figure eights and quick lateral dashes. I practiced moves I’d seen on televised games and I learned to turn and stop and change direction in multitudes of ways. On that stretch of ice I felt as though I was inventing the game for myself.
I went to that ice every night until it melted. Skating became a way for me to free myself from the isolation I felt in that adoptive home. And because playing in actual leagues was a privilege that had been taken away from me, it was the closest I could get to the game. I became a very good, very fast skater on that construction lot, and it stuck with me through the years.
Once, on a lumber camp team in the 1980s, they called me Feel the Breeze Wagamese. Someone wanted to put that on the back of my jersey because they said a breeze was all you could feel when I blazed passed. I laugh at that now, but a part of me will always be Feel the Breeze Wagamese.
I’m 53 and I haven’t played an organized game since I was 39. I’m older, slower, with reflexes that are dulled and whatever muscle memory I once had has faded with time. But there’s enough of a kid left in me to think I could still do it, to still pine away for it every now and then.
Somewhere in my recollection are the white glory of a rink and the feel of the wind on my face as I cut around the net and head up-ice. Nowadays when I puff up a hill with the dog in the knee-deep snow, I cling to that and breathe a little easier.
My cousin Fred vanished with my hockey gear one year and that was it for my playing days. The $700 it had cost me was too much of an investment to do all over again and it was easier to just retire and call it a game.
But that was the man reacting. The kid still wanted to play.
I can’t look at a stretch of ice any more without thinking of the game. I can’t watch a few minutes of Hockey Night in Canada without missing it. But that’s the particular joy of growing older — the pocket treasures you carry with you always.
I was once Feel the Breeze Wagamese — and I still am. As long as I cling to the memory of the speed of my youth, a part of me will always be that streaking forward. That’s not a native sentiment — it’s a human one.
I can’t waste time on regret, can’t idle away an hour pining away for what might have been, I can only cling to the treasures of my past and the promise of the future.
I can only look back and marvel at what an incredible journey it’s been. Feel the breeze. It’s fair and warm.