Thursday, July 24, 2014

The River

Two nights ago I woke up to the gentle motion of the river's current lifting and lowering my body. My feet pressed firmly against the tightly inflated tube of our raft and I sat up.  The hot dry canyon air lingered from another sweltering day on the river, waiting to cool until just before sunrise.  I reached out in the darkness and was surprised to feel the rough grit of sandstone against my fingers.  We must have drifted in the night, I thought. We are pressed against a cliff. A moment of panic filled me, and I glanced up searching for the reassuring light of vivid stars or the spotlight full moon from our previous nights on the river.  But the night was only black.  I looked more fervently trying to maneuver beyond whatever overhang was obstructing my view, but I only found more darkness and complete stillness.

Gradually dim horizontal stripes illuminated the wall behind me. My hand moved up the canyon wall and as it did the grit beneath my fingers became smooth.  The lines of light rested on my hand, and the heavy-duty waterproof tube beneath my feet began to feel soft and fuzzy. I could hear the faint sound of an engine approaching as the light intensified.  I turned to look at the source of the light and began to see the familiar angles of my bedroom window, the framed photo of Jonah on my dresser, and the wool Pendleton blanket beneath my feet.  A car sped by outside, the light disappeared, and I found myself alone, crouched on the edge of my bed feeling completely disoriented.

In the morning the feeling lingered. I couldn't help but wonder why my subconscious mind remained on the river.  Jordan and I just returned from a 10-day commercial river trip working as unpaid crew through the Grand Canyon.  It was majestic and exciting.  But I have never spent a vacation working so hard.  Each day we woke up at 5:00 am as the night sky faded into dawn.  We made breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 30 people amid blowing sand and blazing heat.  We cleaned dishes and moved the groover (toilet).  Twice a day we loaded and unloaded cots, chairs, bags, tables, and dutch ovens.  We baked in the sun and watched our fingers turn to prunes after hours of torrential rain. We held tight through 8 days of rapids and felt our skin harden and peel in the dry heat of the canyon.  We fell asleep each night, creating makeshift beds across the hard metal frames of the raft. On our final day as we motored off the river towards Lake Mead my body was ready to come home. My muscles ached, and my face was ravaged, but my heart and mind could have stayed much longer.

The day we launched on the river was July 14th.  It would have been Jonah's 4th birthday.  In the past I have found joy and peace in sharing this day with everyone I know.  I have felt that the power of collective memory and mass observance would carry me through and make Jonah's short life more meaningful.  It has meant a lot to me to know that people still remember him and think of him.  But this year was different.  Instead of posting on Facebook or writing on this blog I sat next to my husband in the sandy quiet beauty of Redwall Cavern.  As people milled around and took photos we talked quietly about our little boy, and wondered what kind of 4 year old he would be.  We said how much we missed him and love him and then returned to the river.  It was a simple conversation in a beautiful place shared with the only person who loves Jonah exactly the way I do. And it felt like enough to me.

I recognize now that the river provided a much needed escape from my daily struggles.  A place where few people knew my story and my heartache; where I could remain anonymous amongst the rapids. A place where I could lay in solitude beneath endless layers of stars and satellites and simply contemplate their beauty until sleep took precedence.   A place where doctors appointments and life's trials faded behind more basic needs like food and shelter and safety.  I found as I immersed myself in the canyon I was forced into the present moment. My thoughts stayed in the stretch of river that laid before me, with no anticipation of what would come around each bend.  I lost any sense of time or sequence or obligation.  I surrendered to the experience, disconnected, and let the river carry me.  It felt like the purest form of freedom.  A freedom that is not easily forgotten or abandoned.

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me 
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.