The River Runs Wide

‘River, river carry me on
Living river carry me on
River, river carry me on
To the place where I come from.’

- Peter Gabriel, Washing of the Water

Yesterday, Northern Wisconsin, I am loading a canoe on the back of a friend’s truck - on my to-do list for the summer, canoeing, kayaking, tubing, summer things. At heart I am a fall-winter-spring person, but I am learning to make the best of this season and in spite of or because of the heat there are small joys lurking everywhere: berries, popsicles, wildflowers, fireflies.

We drive to the launch and drop off our canoe. A group of teenagers is emptying out of a van into a half dozen canoes of their own, the shore echoes with their laughter. They sound carefree and happy, at a place where the unknown eclipses the known and possibility outweighs certainty.

8 miles further down the road we drop the truck off, drive my car back to the now-empty and quiet launch and push off into the river. I am more careful than I wish I were, afraid to get my sneakers wet, screaming when a dragonfly swoops in front of me. I am wearing a yellow life vest and I am worried that I look stupid, but I am also trying hard in general to get over my fear of looking stupid and that’s one reason I am doing something I don’t know how to do.

Watching someone paddle a canoe is peaceful and simple, paddling an actual canoe is much harder. Less an act of graceful floating and more the burning of shoulder blades, the rubbing birth of blisters, the aching of wrists, elbows. Slapping at the water seeking purchase and staring at the patch of river in front of me, it feels to me like if we do not pull ourselves forward then we will stay fixed and immobile.  

How far to the landing, another way of saying Are We There Yet, we are not even close, just getting started, maybe 1/20th of the way. The river and it’s banks are beautiful and green with white pine, red pine, oak, aspen, grasses and wildflowers, the water is clear and we see fish as large as my forearm swimming along the bottom. Eagle and osprey and waxwing arc overhead and their cries echo from the tall trees. The journey is beautiful but unrelenting - going upstream is a futile and impossible choice, and we are parked fully 9 miles downstream. And so we do the only thing we can do, which is to keep paddling.

At one point I lay down in the front of the canoe and I am surprised to see how quickly the clouds stream overhead.

6 miles later we stop to rest and pull up on a sandy bank, I flop down at the top of some wooden stairs, my arms and hands and shoulders thank me for the reprieve. My friend is in the water above her knees and calls for me to come in too. I roll up my pants and step in, she says, try to walk upstream! I do and I realize it is almost impossible, the current is so strong that it is almost like flying into a strong wind. Even walking back to the shore sideways, our legs scissor comically in front of themselves and we wind up 6 feet south of where we planned, laughing, smiling, the forgetting of self a rare boon, in the midst of all this beauty a gift within a gift.

After a brief rest we are back on the water, the sun is lower in the sky but still high enough to give warmth and light in the kindest of proportions. As we move downstream I realize I am looking less at the water in front of me and more at the shore, at how quickly and constantly we glide past. The memory of the tugging current is still fresh, that massive but gentle strength and perseverance, was that underneath me all the while.  

We are two-thirds of the way there, by now my impatience has dissolved and my tense, willful motions have softened into partnership both with my friend and with the river beneath us. An embarrassingly apt metaphor coalesces when I realize that guidance and patience alone would have eventually brought us to our landing place, that our self-effort works best when it is aligned and in concert with the known and unknown forces that direct and guide us to what in retrospect seemed inevitable.

I wish that lesson could sink in more deeply.

2 days later I am on my laptop booking shows, looking at a calendar that has me driving 10,000 miles in the next few months and then flying halfway across the world before the year is up. I take a break to make some coffee and see my reflection in a passing mirror, see the tiredness that sleep doesn’t seem to touch, feel the brief and penetrating sting of criticism, the slow erosion of worth. How I slap at those thoughts like mosquitos, how equally insidious and persistent they are, how much I yearn for some kind of constancy of mind and spirit, something to help make sense of the swirling eddy of confusion that I alternately occupy, create, observe, orbit. The seeking of peace some magnetic north, we are migrating geese, turning to face and find the earthly, ancestral echo of some heavenly answer, a ringing note muffled by the gossamer of worlds overlapping.

The memory of water, of current, the motion of clouds.