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World is shrinking while I am growing

Remember the old movie "The Incredible Shrinking Man"? You know, the one where the main character begins to get smaller and smaller for some unknown reason. In no time, his perspective changes. Bread crumbs became mountains. Insects are turned into monsters. He lives in a new world.

This year, my children have spread out as far west as Kansas, while some of my students have come from as far east as China. There was a time when I thought the world was quite a big place: a fantasy somewhere over Lake Erie. Distant lands. Fascinating cultures. Not now. It seems the global village has camped out on my doorstep, and there is no telling who might be knocking. The world is shrinking while I am growing.

Our maple trees are leafless. As I walk along the streets near my house, bare branches spread over my head. For all the world they seem like the arms of Mother Nature doing her best to shelter us all from the harsh winds of change and cold. Often I feel like I am walking through a painting. This is a sacred moment as the sunlight scatters along the branches. An ordinary side street becomes a Burchfield cathedral, complete with arches and spires formed by the architects of snow and wind.

The days are short; the nights are long. This is perfect for stargazing. Already I have spotted two meteorites streaking through the sky before 6 p.m. -- a personal record. On the darkest of nights, these exploding points of light are welcome reminders of the brighter days ahead.

Right overhead, the constellation Orion swings his hunter's club at some invisible prey. This evening, the planet Mars is dropping toward Lake Erie for a dip. A bright drop of blood in the zodiac. I shiver at the thought and remember the words of the poet Shelly: "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?"

Now there's a light wind pushing me along through a transformed landscape. The snow-covered ground seems to brighten the neighborhood ahead. White light rising. A closer look reveals a wealth of diamonds sparkling in the snow. Familiar houses are transformed by glistening icicles and marshmallow roofs. A light snow is repainting the trees every few minutes.

There is something comical about walking on an icy night. People are sliding along the sidewalk in slow motion, moving somewhere between balance and catastrophe. Perhaps this is a sign for the new year as we reach for our balance between delights and disasters unknown.

I am grateful for these long, quiet nights. They provide a chance to reflect and an opportunity to regain perspective. Standing in my back yard at the end of this evening, the world feels small and comfortable again.

As the neighborhood lights go on, it's easier to find direction through the dark up ahead. It's all a matter of perspective. The evening stars shine steady. On a clear night like this, I can simply look up and spread out my arms. The big dipper floats just within my reach. That's 400 light years, at least. Tonight, the whole universe is within my grasp.

Now, when I step back through my front door, the incredible world continues to shrink and Kansas doesn't seem so far away after all.

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Tom O'Malley, a teacher who lives in Buffalo, is grateful for the long, quiet nights of winter.