Life is a river that you are baptized in, anointed in its holy waters from the cradle to the grave. It teaches you first to learn, and then to teach before you simply melt away and become part of its flow, part of its fertile silt. It is a lonely river if you never have any one to pass your knowledge of shoals, rapids, falls, calms, pools, and life on to. With each step into it, with each inch towards its relentlessly speeding current, you find out more about yourself and the river, even if that next step is on your tip toes. When you are younger, time moves slowly because you are at the rivers edge, as you get older it moves more quickly because you are further out into its currents. At fifty, I can still see the shore but I can also feel the rivers strong pull as I round this bend and look towards the next.
At birth, I was dipped in playfully at the bank by my parents, as I grew older they held my hand as I tottered into water muddied by my awkward foot falls to investigate eddies, and pools with crayfish in them. They watched as I took my first solo steps and wound up plopping down butt first in the water, sometimes crying sometimes laughing. These were my early years, where my parents were with, by me, looking over me, allowing me to drink at the rivers edge, but were careful not to let me slip in, not to let time run away with me too quickly.
Growing older, I waded further into the river but always with my parents’ knowledge of where I was going, where I would be. The river flowed a little faster for me, the pull of it a little stronger. I saw fish swimming about my feet in the shallows. I felt invincible as I flew over the sun splashed water on a rope swing, laughing and howling with friends, both scared and exhilarated. Life passed about, or we passed through it, sometimes it is impossible to tell. In the hubris of my youth, I believed the river was my own and that I would know it from headwaters to sea.
Knowledge of mind grew, comfort with body gained, insecurities of whom I was and what I would do with my life churned and swirled not unlike the river itself. The river had broadened and its current strengthened. I went off to college, feeling only a tenuous life line to home as I waded out further still with toes blindly groping for safe foot falls. I made friends, I established identity, the river for the moment did not seem so frightening, and my life line slowly rotted in the stream as all such lines must.
The river took me from my home, and gave me to the mountains and to the west. My parents and family were still strong within me, but I was chest deep and heading for rapids, my life was my own and I had to learn to swim or sink on my own. As my first brief marriage tumbled through white water and rocks ending in divorce, my hand grasped reflexively for my mommy’s and daddy’s grip at he waters edge. They were there in spirit and gave me all the love and encouragement I could want, but ultimately I had to keep myself afloat.
The rapids changed into a long meandering stretch where I could rest myself, cool in the waters, and bask in the sun. Far from family, bounded by far reaching prairie to the east and ragged mountains to the west, I was the better off for what I had been through, I found more of myself. I found likes and dislikes; I found life in friends, and life in people I could help (which in turn helped me).
The river only began to speed again when I met Jean-Marie, and her three incredible children. No longer was I alone in the river, Jean-Marie floated beside me. We watched over the children as they took their own tentative steps from the banks, their own daring dives from tire swings. The river seemed easier to manage with love and companionship, held less fear of self when there are children to watch over and guide on their own river’s journey.
It has not been a lazy river since then, friends and family have passed, children have gone through rough patches, the marriage itself has gone through rapids, but with each other to cling to there was less of a chance of drowning and with each mishap and heartache and insult to our lives, having each other has kept us from sinking. I don’t mean to say that there were no slow spots, because there have been many, there will be many more. I will enjoy the ease of floating down them, hugging my wife to me as we smile and laugh.
When I look to the bank now, I see our children wading into the deeper faster water, I see our grandchildren look for fish and play on the tire swing. I am both joyous and afraid. I know some of what the river can do, some of what it can bring. I cannot change its course, I can only go with it and watch out for the one’s I love as best I can ultimately knowing how they handle the rapids and the white water is up to them.
Turning fifty has not been the plunge over the falls that some have warned me of, but it is humbling to go back and look at the winding river, to see its length and breadth and know that I am only looking at a tiny part of a bigger picture, a world river, a flow of time and souls that began longer ago than my memory can process, and will not reach its end at the sea until a time my imagination cannot conceive of.