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Inside looking out: Brad’s song

Published January 12. 2019 07:23AM

“Nature never wears a mean appearance.”

These are the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, written in the 19th century. The other day they came back from my memory while I was having a conversation with my friend Brad.

When faced with a life-threatening illness, people often choose to experience solitary moments in the outdoors. Brad has terminal cancer. With no definitive timeline to live out, he plans his days carefully, and like the healthy should also do, he’s trying his best to appreciate each and every breath he takes.

I could hear the exciting anticipation in Brad’s voice when he told me his plan for the rest of the day. He sounded as if he was singing a song to imaginary music he was playing inside his head.

“I’m going to put my dog in my truck and drive up to the lake.”

He answered my question before I could ask it.

“I love the frozen desolation,” he said. “I go there for the peace and quiet of it all and to cleanse my soul.”

Frozen desolation. Peace of mind. Cleanse his soul. These topics sparked a deep discussion about why a frozen lake in the midst of a winter day is so special.

The same lake in the summer is bristling with energy and life. People swim. Boaters fish. Birds glide their wings over the sun-laced waters, either looking for food on the water or enjoying a cool flight on a hot day.

Look at the same lake in the winter, however, and an extraordinary change takes place. All life appears to be gone. Ice covers what once were gently rolling waves of water. The trees are black and barren against the ominous sky. No birds fly overhead.

According to Brad, this stark scene, painted on nature’s canvas in black and gray, is beautiful.

I admired his perception of the lake in early January when most people wouldn’t think of it as a scene of inspiration. I began to wonder more about his revelation.

The ice has stopped all motion of life, but not in a dreary sense. Along with the lake, time seems to be frozen, too. Nothing moves. Everything is perfectly still. An artist once told me there is movement in still life, imagined in the mind, but lost in translation. In his words, he said, “Stillness moves in inexplicable ways.”

When time stops at the frozen lake, all thought stops, too. Worry and stress disappear into the thin cold air. If we listen closely, our heartbeats are the only sounds that can be heard in the mystical silence. We don’t simply exist there. We become.

For a man battling cancer, Brad knows the value of an empty mind. He lost his wife to the same disease last July. His days now are filled with anxieties about his health care, his finances and his future. He needs a place to rest his weary body and ease his burdened mind. He goes to the lake to absorb the quiet solitude and the absence of motion, the magnificent stillness that moves blissful moments of peace into his soul.

Emerson wrote, “Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive. The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation.”

When Brad experiences nature’s hibernation, he reinvents himself.

“The frozen lake is so calming,” he says. “It quiets my mind. I escape from me.”

I have a seasonal empathy for him. Whenever I need time to contemplate my small existence within the magnitude of this awesome universe, I go fishing in my boat on a misty morning or I go walking on a trail in autumn and listen to the crunch of the decaying leaves beneath my feet.

Henry David Thoreau said, “We need the tonic of wildness … we can never have enough of nature.”

Brad and I have spoken often about his fragile mortality. He spends long days trying to prepare himself for the “what ifs?” He’s fully aware that he needs to focus on what he has rather than what he fears. His lovable dog, his loyal friends and a decadent dessert he occasionally indulges in at a nearby restaurant give him a simple pleasure that brings a temporary normalcy to his abnormal circumstances.

Thoreau, who lived two years by himself at Walden Pond, learned much about time from his seclusion. “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”

Brad’s precarious condition reminds me that no one is excluded from the daily passing of time that subtracts minutes from our lives with every tick of the clock.

My friend’s wisdom is exhilarating. Go to a place where a lake in winter freezes time and silence awakens the spirit.

Thoreau’s wisdom is eternal.

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

Rich Strack can be reached at

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