Archive for February, 2015


Lumina/No Diving


My pleasure still is to follow the stream, to walk along its banks in the right direction, in the direction of the flowing water…. I can’t sit beside a brook without falling into a deep reverie, without seeing once again my happiness…. The stream doesn’t have to be ours; the water doesn’t have to be ours. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring. – Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams, as quoted in Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama


When I was eight years old, I used to spend a lot of time in the woods behind our house, especially after a snow. The snow never lasted long, and as it melted it flowed down to where the landscape leveled off to its lowest point. There the snowmelt gathered and began to forge a path, as best it could, toward the proper creek on the far border of our property. There were many impediments to its flow. The path it took was littered with leaves, fallen branches, tree roots, rocks. So I would act as an engineer, following the flow until it reached a block and pooled. I moved branches, dug out leaves that clogged the passage, whatever it took to relieve the pressure and send the water forward. It was mesmerizing to watch as a small gout of cold, pearly water was freed from some hindrance and rushed forward, with more speed, until it was thwarted again and needed my assistance.

Like Gaston Bachelard, I am happy whenever I see water moving forward.


In February 2008, we got 6″ of snow overnight in St. Louis. After a day spent inside, we decided to go to Forest Park on Saturday afternoon and watch the sledding down the big hill in front of the art museum. We had heard that this was a popular place to go when it snowed, as there was a wide, sweeping hill descending in front of the statue of King Louis IX on horseback, who gave silent encouragement to those taking the plunge. People slid downhill using every sort of conveyance—plastic trays, curved-front toboggans, slices of cardboard, Flexible Flyers, and snowboards. One group had replaced the wheels on a bicycle with skis; this contraption flew downhill smoothly and with great speed. Three girls stacked themselves on one toboggan like a sandwich and rode down. On another, the dad was stretched out on his belly and a little boy sat upright on his back. Several small boys built up humps of snow that sent them airborne when hit at precisely the right angle. There was an area filled with abandoned sledding vehicles, including a pretty good-sized kid’s swimming pool and an ironing board with no legs. A lost and found area had been created, where bright hats, scarves, and mittens hung on the branches of trees and shrubs, dripping and adding to a cobweb of rivulets that flowed downward toward the foot of the hill, where they were absorbed by a row of hay bales meant to prevent the sledders from sailing into the road.


Sir Walter Raleigh did not believe in following the natural flow of water. Simon Schama describes Raleigh’s ill-fated voyages up the Orinoco in search of El Dorado, during which Raleigh concluded that to follow the flow of a river was to head toward civilization, while the attempt to navigate upstream was an attempt to return to Eden. He must have believed that if he could have mastered the Orinoco, if he’d been able to proceed past the cascade that thundered over steep, black rock, he would have reached the throne of God. Schama concludes: “To fight a way upstream, [Raleigh] now realized, was to pursue a sacred mystery.”

Anymore all of life seems to be a fight upstream, through various hazards and perils. Yet I seldom get the sense that I’m approaching closer to a sacred mystery.


My friend Ruby’s daughter was baptized at the age of 7 in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ—a full-immersion denomination. This was probably in the 1970s. “She said she wanted to be the first person baptized that day,” Ruby told me, “and I thought how nice it was that at least one of my children was so devout. Then she told me why—said she didn’t want those other people’s sins washing off on her.”


Ernesto told me that scientists have confirmed that there was once water on the moon. “Do you know what would be good made with water from the moon?” he asked.

“Moonshine!” I said, quite pleased with myself.

“No. Moon water would be good for washing down moon pies.”


On Mother’s Day Sunday we carried a table down by the pond and spent the afternoon there, fishing and eating dessert and sailing my dad’s remote-control sailboat. (The Christmas that my dad got the sailboat, he tried it out while maintaining security in the event of a malfunction: He tied a fishing line to the boat and had one of the grandchildren work the fishing pole, feeding out line and then reeling it back as needed while the sailboat circumnavigated the pond.) That Mother’s Day I caught two fish and got a tick, so I won the impromptu fishing tournament. My nephew Clark was the runner-up. He caught two fish but didn’t have a tick. It was the tick that put me over the top.


May 2013 was a drizmal month. The early weeks were gray, cloudy, spitting rain, and no more than 57 degrees. One week we had a particularly violent rainstorm, during which our friend Wanda left her umbrella on the front porch, and it blew away. Wanda fretted about her umbrella, and even ventured outside to look for it as soon as the rain eased off. She didn’t find it in the front yard, or the back or side yards, so she gave it up as lost. It was probably wedged half-open in the ditch, which roared with rainwater. Having given up on the umbrella, she fretted about their American flag, which she feared would be torn to shreds as it popped in the wind and driving rain. She sent her husband, Marvin, out to get the flag and bring it inside. To Wanda’s surprise and delight, Marvin returned with both the flag and her umbrella. “I don’t know why in the hell you didn’t see that umbrella,” Marvin said. Usually he’s mild-mannered and polite, but he was feeling stressed that day. “Maybe because I didn’t go to hell to look for it,” Wanda replied.


One night at 7:30 there was a tapping at the back door. Kent and Brenda were there, and they invited us to go fishing. So we put on our shoes and mosquito repellant and went. Kent and Ernesto sat on the tailgate of Brenda’s truck, and we bumped our way around the corner to the pond. The three white geese thought that we were there for their benefit, and they paraded in front of us as we fished, using night crawlers from WalMart. As soon as we threw a line in the water, a fish bit. We filled a bucket with small bream that Kent wanted to clear out of the pond, but none of us ever caught one of the big ones. Kent did pull in a good-sized bass, and Brenda did, too. I hooked a large fish that ultimately broke my line, and Kent had to tie a new hook on for me. As he did so, he said, “A year ago I couldn’t have seen well enough to tie this hook. That cataract surgery is a great thing. Wish they had something like it for ears.” When the bucket was so full that fish were able to leave it at will, we put the rods away.


…[A] giant with a hairy torso and a shaved head, with a copper ring in his nose and a heavy iron chain on his ankle, [watched] over a pirate chest. When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside, there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars.

…knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, José Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude


A bulletin board near the door of the Wolf River Outdoor Center held layers of announcements about whitewater rafting trips on rivers all over the country. One big blue flyer described a run down a river in West Virginia that was recommended for advanced kayakers because of all the holes, and standing waves, and whirlpools and other things that I’d never heard of. The last line of the flyer read: “Plug up your orifices and join us!”

It was about a twenty-minute ride by van from the Outdoor Center to the drop-off point. When we got there, we strapped on lifejackets and helmets, and listened to Eddie’s safety speech.

“This is not virtual reality, guys,” he said. “This is real reality, and the river can be dangerous. Of course, that’s what makes it so much fun, right? But bad things can happen, so listen up.

“First of all, in the event of an out-of-boat experience—also known as swimming—pick your feet up and float on your back until you get to a place where you can safely reach the bank. Keeping your feet up makes it harder for one of them to get wedged in the rocks, and your helmet will protect your fragile noggin.”

He gave us pointers on how to sit in the raft, and paddling, then he made us all sign a paper that I think promised we wouldn’t sue the Wolf River Outdoor Center if we died in the river. Then he described the course of the river, letting everyone know what to expect. “There’s a Class III rapid at the end of our run, just below the Center, called Washing Machine Falls. It’s called that because if you get trapped in the hole you’ll go through three cycles: agitate, rinse, and spin—not necessarily in that order. But never fear—before we get there, we’ll hit the bank and reconnoiter. There’s a good space, river right, to pull up the rafts, and we’ll all walk up the trail to get a look at the Falls so you’ll know what to expect before you go through them. At that point, if anybody doesn’t feel comfortable about proceeding, you can call it a day and walk down river to the final take-out point. That’s where we’ll meet the vans that will bring us back up here to the Center. If you elect to risk it, your picture will be taken by a trained professional with a clear view of the Falls, and you’ll have an oppor­tunity to purchase your photo when we return to the Center. So be sure and smile pretty.”

The ride started off tamely enough. We pushed off from shore, what Eddie called a “put-in.” Mine was the fourth raft to go in a group of six. Our goal was to keep the raft positioned in the smoothest part of the river at all times, so we had to stay alert and watch for rough spots, rocks, and debris. But there were stretches where the water was fairly uniform, and there weren’t many rocks. As we floated through those places, we could lift up our paddles and look around at the scenery, and I had time to be amazed at where I was, and what I was doing.

There was never much time to relax, though. And the rough sections were a lot of fun, with everybody in our raft yelling at everybody else to watch out and row left or right to avoid something scary. Eddie could be heard even above the noise of the river, shouting, “Flow with the river, children! Flow with the river!”

In spite of this excellent advice, our raft came to rest on top of a large pointy rock. The rock ended up smack in the middle of the underside of the raft, which formed four pockets hanging down around the rock. The girl in the outside rear corner floated almost nonchalantly out of her pocket. The rest of us watched, laughing like crazy, as she assumed a perfect man overboard position, with her feet sticking up. The expression on her face as she floated past was one of complete and utter disgust.

Eddie came up behind us in his raft, and talked us off the rock. Then we paddled downstream as fast as we could to where our castaway waited for us. She was standing in knee-deep water with her hands on her hips. When she climbed back in the raft, she splattered as much cold water on us as possible.

Later, we walked up the hill to the Outdoor Center, where I bought the photo of my group’s final descent through Washing Machine Falls. There we were, our raft bouncing up over the cascades of churning, vicious water. Four of our six paddles were in the air, everybody poised to row like crazy as soon as we hit water again. The camera caught me in my position at the front of the raft, looking straight downriver, with my mouth open and white sparks of water flying all around.

– Me, excerpt from a manuscript that lives in a drawer


When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. – Rumi

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