A small child is looking at me. I’m at a “Wake up Santa” event with my grandchildren and a small child is looking at me expectantly. She’s perhaps six or seven with eyes as wide as her smile. I think she has confused me with someone else so I look away. But her eyes refuse not to be met. I look back.
She has something in her hand that she wants to give to me. I take it from her hand and her eyes and smile widen, if that is even possible. The gift is a Santa bingo card. Children play bingo behind me and perhaps she thinks I might want to play. I thank her and she turns away, satisfied the gift has been received. A gift of pure generosity, given without the merest expectation of anything in return.
I live in Driftless Wisconsin, a topographical gift of chiseled cliffs and furrowed valleys carved from time itself. Winter peels away all the ornaments of summer and gives us the unadorned shape of the land. Snowcapped branches offer strong horizontal strokes of white. Honeysuckle defies winter with splatterings of green. Yet the landscape prevails, barren and beautiful; every curve and blemish visible.
If summer brings the party, winter imposes sobriety. Winter brings clarity to Driftless Wisconsin. Every ridge line becomes visible, just as the margins of our own life become evident in the bitter cold. All things are known by their true nature, even as we come to know them through three layers of clothing.
What we give each other without expectations, what nature gives us without the asking; remain the most precious gifts of this season.
I’m on a business trip into the back country of Driftless Wisconsin near Cashton, a rippling landscape where the roads don’t quite know what direction to head next. The Driftless topography imposes a new geometry on the senses and straight lines are simply not part of its vocabulary.
Amish children, wrapped in black jackets and capes and topped with bonnets and straw hats – minimal protection against the sub-freezing temperatures – smile and wave as I pass. Two young girls play hopscotch on the road’s graveled shoulder. Two young boys take a shortcut across a corn-stubbled field.
The children wave regardless if I wave back. Gratitude seems to fill their way of life. I feel as the recipient of an uplifting gift, offered as such with their hands raised high in the air.
Farmers in Driftless Wisconsin still wave from the tops of their tractors and smile as if they knew something we don’t. And of course they do. Getting up before the hint of sunrise to milk the cows and planting fields well past the curtain of dusk gives them a certain understanding of the unbreakable bond we have with the land.
My three-year-old grandson, destined to be a fifth-generation farmer, feels cheated if you don’t exchange fist bumps with him when leaving.
We turn to young eyes and young hands this time of year to understand what is important. Christmas time pulls back the covers and we are left with the unadorned gratitude of life. And of family and friends. Small children can teach us this; in Driftless Wisconsin.