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Planks on the Dock: An Afternoon at Portage Lakes State Park

All week, I’d been thinking about Portage Lakes State Park as a “plank on the dock,” but nothing specific was coming to mind. My deadline looming, I prayed: God, what do YOU want me to write about?

The Lakes have a special place in my heart, and I thought I might find a family to interview, or a couple of kids fishing. That would make for a nice human interest piece — or one big fish story — but it would get the job done.

Aware that my column has never been about “getting the job done” — it’s about providing a “voice” for parents — I was also aware that “the voice” felt silent. Still, I grabbed my notebook, my camera and a few Patch pens and magnets (for the fine people I was determined to meet) and headed out on faith.

When I saw a solitary doe grazing in a clearing beside the road, and she hid herself among the brush before I could get my camera positioned, I should have known the day would not go according to my plan (sketchy as it was). The Good Book says that “God's ways are not our ways.” And that, I’ve learned, is a good thing.

Intrigued by an arrow toward the “Kid Zone,” I turned to find a barricade next to a sign that read: “Kids Zone Always Open, Gate Closed for Your Safety, No Vehicles Beyond this Point.” I walked through, anticipating the families I was sure to meet in a place with such a fun name.

I found brightly colored artwork on the blacktop, foursquare courts, a giant tic-tac-toe board, a tetherball area, a swingset … and not one kid. The entire area was abandoned on an otherwise sunny day.  

I sat at a picnic table and imagined kids racing their bikes around the circle at the end of the road where “start” and “finish” lines were permanently painted. I saw them all around me, yet they moved silently and in slow motion, as if a part of some far-off memory or dream.

A real-life-young-couple strolled past me, settling behind me on the swings, laughing. I imagined them a few years down the road, pushing the baby swing instead. It would be here sooner than they knew.

Then, I didn’t hear them. I never saw them leave, but I turned to find the swings empty again, because life is like that.   

How quickly seasons come and go, and we are strangely taken by surprise.

In the “Kid Zone,” there is a maze, white lines painted on blacktop. I thought, “This is for kids. How easy it will be. I’ll be able to look at the big picture and see right where to go.”

But as I walked, carefully between the lines, I discovered the task wasn’t quite so easy. In places where I thought I’d find smooth passage, I came to dead ends. The apparent “goal” was to reach painted figures of kids playing soccer (two separate figures). As I got further into the maze, I realized that the “kid” I was trying to reach was completely closed off.

Walled in by lines, there seemed no way to reach him. The other figure, on the other hand, was more accessible.   

Sometimes parenting feels like a complex labyrinth that we can barely negotiate. We follow one path only to discover that it did not lead where we’d hoped. We try another and find a dead end — or lines drawn for us that we can’t seem to erase.

Sometimes a child feels completely closed off, but we know he’s there. Beyond the walls, behind the lines. Sometimes we find him by stepping over the lines others have drawn for us. Sometimes we have to simply wait for him to come out of his walled-off place.

In those times, parenting feels lonely. Even for those whose children have another parent who loves them just as dearly, even if that parent is our partner, parenting still has its difficult seasons and moments we feel as though we might not be able to find our way past.  

Near my picnic table, a lone tiger-lily desperately held her bloom, past its peak. Still beautiful, she looked fearful of drying up and toppling off her stem.

Did she know that when one bloom dies, it makes way for another? In a new season — one in which there is sure to be beauty?

Sometimes we have to wait past our own timing for the new blooms ...

My sisters are older than I. Through their children, I have often lived vicariously as a parent, knowing what was coming down the pike with my own. When my nieces and nephews began to fly on their own, I began to sense what it must feel like when the nest seems empty.

The end of the dock is nearer than we think.

In some ways, I have been keenly aware of this concept, from the time my children were infants. In the middle of the night, nursing my daughter, weary from lack of sleep, I would settle into the rocking chair, breathing in her presence, knowing that the season was fleeting, praising God from Whom all blessings flow.     

I love my children more than life itself. Sometimes they don’t acknowledge that love or seem completely unaware of it, but in their mother’s heart of hearts, she is never without them. I am far from perfect as a person or as a parent, but my love for my children is passionate and fierce and so deep that it often hurts. I appreciate them every, every moment.

Life sometimes takes us by surprise; seasons change with an unexpected wind. Storms blind our visibility in the parenting labyrinth, but we put one foot in front of the other and walk (or we G.I. Joe-crawl when necessary). 

Sometimes all we can do is look up and pray.

Before I left the park, I drove to the end of the road, where I found water.  

Children romped on the jungle-gym. A dad played Frisbee with his kids, a girl flew her kite on the beach. Families were swimming. A grandmother and her 2-year-old granddaughter and their 14-year-old dog were enjoying a picnic. 

I found an empty dock that seemed a little too short, but nearby, two boys stood fishing.

I took a deep breath, tucked my Patch pens into my back pocket and headed for the car. I hadn’t interviewed a soul, but somehow, I’d found my voice.    

Note: Portage Lakes State Park is located at 5031 Manchester Road, Akron, and has five miles of hiking trails leading to woodland and marsh areas. The Akron Astronomy Club operates a small observatory on the grounds, where visitors can also enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, a skate park, playgrounds, picnic shelters and, of course, “The Kid Zone.”     

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