Robert Robinson

Man is like to vanity:

 his days are as a shadow

 that passeth away.—Psa. 144.4

I wake and lay watching weak morning light grow strong against the window shade. Light bands inch across the carpet, forming shadowy patterns that transport me to a long-ago morning on my grandfather’s farm in Michigan. I half expect to smell coffee, beacon, and potato cakes wafting from his kitchen. I enjoy the memory.

Shadows are a time machine for me, turning the strange into the once familiar, bringing to mind the people, places, and things of my youth. In the waning light of summer, soft fall colors mix with flickering shadows of dry, rustling leaves and carry me to a time of crisp autumn apples, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and Notre Dame Football on the radio. It’s a carefree place. It’s third “n” eight, and warm, delicious aromas drift through the house from the kitchen where my mother is cooking Virginia ham, biscuits, and redeye gravy. Smoke from my father’s cigarette is layered to the ceiling in the living room. The newspaper whispers as he hands me the funnies.

Sometimes the way light plays in the alpine summer haze takes me back to the hills of my great-aunt’s farm and the smells of fresh cut hay and roses, smells I no longer smell after years of sucking welding smoke dulled my senses. Maybe that’s why shadow and light trigger memories now.

Shadows often take me to Saturday—not a specific Saturday, just Saturday. Saturdays were happy days in my youth. There were mornings spent watching cartoons and long afternoons spent roaming field and wood, exploring old barns where I climbed to the lofts and fought epic sea battles. There were hills to climb, where I lay in tall grass with my dog, Sheba, and watched faces form in the clouds. Saturdays were good.

Alone in the mountains, the strobe effect of flickering lightshows in the cool shade of aspen and pine tricks my mind. I suppose I’m more susceptible to the phenomenon up there, where I’m relaxed, and worries of the present have been left on the flats. Suddenly I’m in great-grandmother’s living room in Indiana, drinking a root-beer float, watching As The World Turns. I don’t find that strange. I enjoy it when memories flood in to overwhelm the present. Maybe it’s because I find the present strange.

Thirty years ago, strange circumstances led me to a strange place, but the once strange now seems familiar. What I now find strange is the people and places I’m transported back to by shadow and light no longer exist, and it’s hard to believe they ever did. Yet, those places seem more real than the stranger in the mirror.

There’s a BBC sitcom I like to watch. At the end of the show, the credits roll across a dining room table mottled in light and shadow. Long shadows stretch across the soft-beige wall and warm brown table, forming patterns that remind me of home. It’s a wonderment, as I’ve never been to England, never sat at a table set in the manner of English aristocracy. Still, it feels comforting and homey. I get the same feelings watching shadows of windblown tree branches dance on a wall—safety, comfort, home.


Time moves slow now that I’ve retired. Just as it moved slow when I was a child waiting to grow up. I have time to notice shadows now, and they take me to when I had time. After adulthood, time raced along unchecked. Rapid-fire events punctuated by making a living, forming and screwing up relationships, and fighting various demons for possession of my soul made time short. Now those struggles are nearly over, and time is long again. I’m able to take my time fishing, time that seemed compressed a few years ago. It doesn’t bother me to sit on a log and watch trout rise and not cast to them. They’ll be there when I’m ready. And if I don’t cast, that’s okay, too. It doesn’t bother me to wait for the mayfly sitting on my knee to dry its wings, or to spend an hour watching a dipper dive for nymphs.

The common denominator then is time. We don’t know how much we have. And I don’t know what I’d do with the time if I knew the hour of my death. Would I spend the time doing good, or would I let the rough edge drag and go fishing? When we think we don’t have time, we’re right. We don’t have time to do some things, but we don’t have time not to do others.


The trail winds through a small stand of aspen ahead. It’s a favorite spot. In the cool shade, shadow and light shimmer, blessing me with memories of a time and place before life’s pain, sin, and guilt. Beneath the trembling quakies, I sit and think about what was and what could have been. I wonder what I’d change if I could go back and if the changes would make any difference. If I could go back and change all the “what ifs,” perhaps I’d be left with nothing to “what if” about. Maybe I’m locked in on some predetermined path and never had a free-will choice in the first place—maybe it was a set up.

Under the quakies, I sit in lush grass where silver-dollar shadows dance and carry me to a time of no worries, a time before heart attacks and doctor bills, a time when my only concern was getting caught licking the butter. Memories flirt with changing light till I’m not sure they’re real, of real places, of real people. Maybe life is a trembling shadow, a figment of God’s imagination as intangible as the shadows that take me to those places of my youth, places peopled by those once loved, places that flicker with the shadows, staying just out of reach.

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