The river

Scenes from a double life

I have commented previously that I am a believer without ritual. This is not something that I am fond of admitting. From my youth, I have prayed and meditated. I still can rattle off Catholic prayers on command in three languages. When I am forced to read the Biblical Psalms, say, in church, their poetry and sense of devotion move me, in spite of not being moved by the god who they praise and accuse, beg and glorify. There is a hole there, but I must admit, it has been there for some years, even during the many of the years when I was still a believer in the Christian god. It’s as if I lost my voice after a lifetime of singing; my heart has fallen silent, only darkness covers the upper vault of my soul.

So I went down to the river, alone, for it to speak to me. Not that I expect it to say anything, not that it “owes” me anything. If I learned anything as a believer, it is that God owes us nothing. Insert here instead Wild Nature or the Wild God of the World, and the principle remains the same. The first thing a mature believer comes to realize is that his needs are not the needs of the Whole: sentiment is as fleeting as a summer storm once the sun emerges. Indeed, like the hot sun hitting a moist Earth, often a sentiment of consolation gives way to worse despair. I have been here many times. It is not about the ecstasy of the special moment, but what you do after it has departed. One must continue to live.

This land is sculpted by the waters. The waters threaten it, they threaten to cover where I am sitting now, typing the words you read. It is as if we live on a floating garden, one that we try to trim meticulously. Yet it continues to be overgrown, and little by little, the waters rise. They strike against the artificial shore, a shore that wants to be marsh, a street that wants to be swamp, a pavement that wants to be mud impassible to the human foot. And the rains come and race toward the sea like an anxious lover toward the embrace of the Beloved. People long gone lived here for thousands of years, but in many ways, their cultures, their comings and goings, were as dynamic as the waters. We know little of them because they lived upon the waters, and the waters wiped their tracks away. Then more people came and the water wiped them away. And soon we will be wiped away…

“Heraclitus said that we can’t step in the same river twice.” This was the first lesson in philosophy I taught my eldest daughter, all of five years old. I taught it to her sitting in the river while I splashed with her. “Everything flows,” as Heraclitus stated in another fragment. Plato and Aristotle would come along and try to found their philosophy on firmer things, on that treasure in Heaven (or in our heads) “where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Alas, the world moved too quickly even for the Platonic Ideas or Aristotelian Categories. Time took other philosophies and pulled them apart with the centrifugal force of moving steel and plastic. Only Heraclitus remains, staring at the river…

Not too far from that river, another girl drowned. It was the same story: I came to the clearing, and saw the river gushing with water flowing from North to South. I hesitated concerning whether I should plunge in the river that day, but I walked on into the forest. The sister river where the girl drowned was probably equally ferocious. Of course, as a father, I have been swimming in this river with my children since they were small. Seeing one of them drift off with the irresistible current is a recurring nightmarish vision. “Don’t go too far, stay close!” is something I shout to the children as I feel the current pushing them away from me. But that is really the dilemma, is it not? We are pushed away from each other, perhaps it has always been like that. Is not all of our misery merely a fight against this other misery: the misery of time passing, of separation and uncertainty? We try mightily to hold back the river, to prevent loved ones from drifting away, we destroy the most beautiful things, including ourselves, to do this… But we forget that the human isn’t much. It is like the driftwood caught in the river current, or, more accurately, the bottles and plastic scrap being pushed downriver by the torrential rains. The human isn’t much, just another piece of debris pushed toward the sea by the forces that civilization unleashed on the world…

I went into the river anyway. It was cold at first. I am not a good swimmer. I grew up in a place where rivers are rare, and rivers with fast currents rarer. Nevertheless, I tried my strength against the river. I swam with the current and against it. I was alone, I felt naked without my children. I must have been a strange sight to the few bathers gathered along the shore. I held my hand up to the current and felt the displaced water rush around it. This was force, this was power. Something that could push me as if I were small and insignificant. I held up the water to my face in reverence.

I sat on the shore and heard the thunder in the distance. It was like a response to the call of the river. A call and response, an inhuman counterpoint of water flowing above and below. I fell silent, completely silent, without thought. Yes, this was prayer. Not the prayer one utters, or that one memorizes at the nagging behest of one’s mother. Not a prayer you extract from your heart on your knees out of some obligation of piety. This was the silence that cuts one in half, deeply: the hum of the waters, the low rumble in the distance, a sheet of gray rain getting closer. This is the meaning of prayer: not the prayer that you recite, but the wordless utterances of the Inhuman that pray you. It is the realization that one is merely a syllable in a psalm that has been prayed since the beginning of Time, a hymn that will never cease, because the Unknowble is eternal and ever-passing away. It prays me, and I realize that I am nothing, but I have the seed of everything within, even if it is not mine.

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