NOTIONS: Painting on the fresh canvas of the winter solstice

December 19, 2005

I wasn't looking forward to the Thursday afternoon meeting. The issues involved saddened me. And besides, this felt like a decision that could have been reached via e-mail, rather than a 60-mile round-trip drive for a half-hour conversation.

But the other fellow said he liked to do things face to face-an old-fashioned notion, he admitted, but his preference nonetheless. So I climbed into my car, drove at breakneck Interstate speed, and covered the distance in 30 minutes.

When I arrived at the other fellow's office, the receptionist seemed puzzled. She gave me the "Do you have an appointment?" line. I said I did, and she asked me to wait.

Moments later, the other fellow's assistant appeared. She apologized for her boss. She said he was on a conference call and had forgotten to tell her that he'd scheduled a meeting with me. She said I could wait half an hour or return another day.

Having driven the 30 miles and not wanting to do so again, I said I'd wait. I asked if they had a spare office where I could write and use the phone. She found one.

I spent much of the next hour making notes and calls. Then I skimmed an old Newsweek I'd found on the credenza.

When the other fellow finally arrived, he apologized for the oversight. I said it was OK; I'd enjoyed the time to think. We transacted our business, then talked about more pleasant matters. It was nice meeting face to face.

We shook hands and wished one another a happy holiday. When I opened the office door, it was snowing hard.

The three-hour drive home-on gridlocked highways, snail-paced side roads and snow-packed parking lots-was an exercise in patience for this once- and still-too-often impatient soul.

But because my wife, Pam, died in March, I had no one to rush home to. And because the work day had been wrecked by the storm, I had no reason to return to the office.

So when traffic was moving, I listened to the windshield wipers or National Public Radio. When it wasn't, I read the alternative newspaper I'd tossed in the back seat the day before, or studied the human behavior so vividly displayed on the crowded roadways around me.

When I got home, my friend Cheri called. She'd wrapped up her day with a reception for some college students at a downtown hotel. She wondered if I'd like to meet for dinner. I said I would.

I donned my boots and a heavy coat, pulled on gloves and a hat, and walked a mile through city streets, past bumper-tobumper traffic, to meet Cheri at Champps.

While the supper and wine warmed us, we talked about the weather, people's reaction to the weather and what we'd done that day. And when we'd had our fill of food and noise, we walked a mile through the silent, snowy night to retrieve Cheri's car.

As we walked and laughed and talked, Cheri told me she loves snow, because it's nature's way of saying "Enough of that; I've grown weary of this painting. Let's start afresh with a crisp, white canvas."

I'd not grown weary of the masterpiece that was Pam's and my life. On the contrary, I cherished it. But despite my longing, it's departed this world, as though snatched by thieves or kissed by flames.

As winter solstice nears, the ashes of that pyre leave me anxious. I've not bought all the gifts, or decorated the house, or sent the Christmas letters-seasonal traditions Pam and I went merrily about together.

And I wonder all the while why I procrastinate: Don't I care? Am I frightened? Have I allowed the shadow of death to overcome the joy of the season?

And yet, even in my reverie, there glows from the cradle of Christmas, and winter walks on snowy nights, the promise of a fresh canvas.

In the mail the other day, I received some advice from my friend, Ken Reed. Nominally, it was about grieving. But really, it was about living.

Among other things, Ken said, "We choose how we view events. To remain negatively focused keeps us rooted in the past, unable to move forward. The toll it extracts is costly, not just emotionally but physically."

So instead of cursing forgotten appointments, snowstorms and traffic jams, I'll take, in this season of renewal, a page from Dickens.

I'll borrow some brushes, prime my new canvas and paint like his enlightened Ebenezer-a man who, in the days and years following his darkest night, "went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows; and found that everything could yield him pleasure."

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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