Live Like a River
My life to date had been a clumsy, misguided affair with more loose ends and missed opportunities than I cared to think about. Prodded by my husband, I put on my old brown leather coat and drove down to the river. "For goodness' sake, Annie! Why don't you go down there and take a walk? Maybe it will inspire you." Maybe it will swallow me, I thought hopefully. His delivery was the same as usual—part suggestion, part command—but the exasperation was new. Maybe if I just slip in and get carried away with the current, no one will notice. At least I'd have a couple days of peace and quiet to myself. The effort of getting dressed for the early winter weather and climbing into the car threatened to overwhelm me, but somehow I managed. Now, as I walked slowly down the track toward the bank, the thick mud sucked at the soles of my shoes. I felt terrible—tired, depressed, utterly unmotivated. Yeah, sure—go for a walk, that fixes everything. Anger burned behind my eyes as I recalled my husband's glib suggestion. What the hell did he know about anything? What the hell did he know about me?! I stopped, my fists and jaws clenched, my breath steaming in the cold, dry air.
Go home, silly. This is no place to be.
When the doctor gave me the diagnosis three weeks before, I wasn't surprised. I'd felt lousy for months, but at least they'd finally put a name to the problem. It wasn't pretty. Now the fun began—samples and tests, consults with surgeons and advice from all quarters. That alone seemed enough to kill a person. I even had a New Age acquaintance suggest that I Embrace the Disease; I suggested she get herself a straightjacket. I was thinking of more and more clever ways to rid my life of people. I knew I was soon going to be a party of one if this kept up, but I couldn't find a reason to care.
Just keep walking...like you've got some other place to be...
I came to the old wood bench and sat down. Well, this is just fine. Everyone's worried about me dying and I'm worried about living. How's it go again? Oh, yeah: wake up, go to work, come home and do it all again tomorrow, for the rest of your life. I couldn't remember any details beyond that, let alone any interesting ones. Oh, yeah, the kids... Yes, they mattered to me, but how much? Enough to let myself be carved up, irradiated, chemically poisoned and then if I was lucky, partially resurrected? I squirmed hard on the bench. People were waiting for an answer. What did I want to do, they kept asking. I jumped up, ready to bolt. I hated the incessant pressure, the clock ticking down.
Walk girl, WALK—as if your life depends on it.
The path widened, now covered with leaves—large, five-pointed leaves, each the size of a small platter. I picked one up, turned it over and found no blemishes. It had fallen, yes, but still beautiful. Only in nature, I thought ruefully. I looked overhead and saw the tree's massive, arching branches stretching above me. Jewel green covered the trunk. I took off my gloves and pressed my hands into the moss; wet and very cold, it made me shiver from head to foot. At least my basic reflexes are still working, I thought; maybe there's hope yet. I heard the river moving swiftly up ahead, just out of sight.
C'mon, girl, a little farther won't hurt you.
The narrow, handmade bridge came into view and I felt my pulse quicken. It traversed a couple of small creeks that fed the river, with a wonderful view at the far end. I picked up my head and smiled, despite myself. Half way across I paused and leaned forward on the railing. It was the same height as the back of a church pew, but offered a much more rewarding view than any of the local churches. I knew—I'd tried them all. I reckoned the only difference between a shopping mall and a church was that at least at the mall you had a chance of getting what you came in for. With church, I always left empty handed.
Keep moving—it's just up ahead.
I came around the narrow bend and there he was, not 20 feet from me. A large, heavily muscled mule deer, staring right at me. The buck's brown eyes flashed a warning—I don't know what you're doing here, but this space is taken. While I counted ten points aloft, he pawed the ground and considered his next move. The end of rutting season, and I was on his turf. Having grown up in hunting country, I was under no illusion about the damage a well aimed, testosterone driven set of antlers could do. Judging from the scars he was sporting, he'd certainly seen his share of skirmishes. Momentarily mesmerized, I suddenly came to as he lowered his head in challenge. Let's see what you're made of, shall we? As he came at me, I did the only thing I could think of—I screamed and bolted for the far side of the nearest tree.
Did you say walk?! MOVE IT, honey!
With my shrieking, the deer shied, reared and leapt away from the path, noisily crashing through the heavy brush. Thanks to the jolt of adrenaline, I was now completely awake and panting, my back against the tree. Whoa, I really didn't need that this morning... As soon as the roar died down in my ears, I collected what was left of my wits and realized I had yet to get to the river. Slowly, my breathing eased. Should I keep going, or head back?
Right now it's a lot less far forward, than it is back...
Finishing the turn, the full expanse of the river met me like the countenance of an old friend. There were always subtle changes, of course, but the essence remained the same. I walked along and it splashed up in greeting. The river was running full and fast; it had rained a lot since my last visit. I looked down its length and noticed that a few hundred yards further along, an enormous tree had fallen and was blocking most of the river's course. Indignity flared. I'd never noticed that tree while it was standing—what was it doing blocking the river? Damn it! Isn't anything without problems, without complication?! As I continued toward the tree, the last of the afternoon sun glinted off the water with a renewed intensity and I gradually slowed to a stop, entranced by the flickering reflection. Strange new thoughts drifted through my mind, like falling leaves. Settling gently on the surface, they took on sparkling clarity: the tree is fine, Annie: so is the river. Don't you see? The dams all belong to you.
Hold on a second—you can finish the walk later.
Squatting down squinting in the light, I saw that the river was flowing smoothly under, over and around the tree. There was no stopping or backing up, no complaints, no protest. It just carried on peacefully being a river, huge new obstacle and all. I looked downstream and for the first time, wondered where it was headed. To a nearby lake? To the ocean? I closed my eyes and all at once felt the river's energy consume me, entreating me to join it. In my mind's eye, I saw the river far ahead merging, vanishing into the larger whole. There wasn't a trace of disappointment, fear or regret anywhere. It was complete and whole and the message was as clear as the water itself: You, too, can learn to live like a river. The idea of "going with the flow" had never meant anything to me, but now I knew exactly, momentarily, what it felt like to do just that. And I knew, beyond any doubt, it was the only way I wanted to live.
Time to go home, girl. You've walked a long way today.
The sun had set and the wind began to pick up, and with it, my spirits. On the ride home, I felt lighter than I had in months. The oppressive gloom of my life had been penetrated by a new glimmer of insight and with it, hope. A few minutes after I walked into the house, the phone rang. It was my husband. "So, how are you feeling? Did you manage to make it down to the river?" Oh, yeah—the river and I are just fine. And by the way—thanks for the suggestion.