The River

We float down the James on tubes for hours in the late, Virginian summer as it is dying out gracefully.  It reminds me of lukewarm lake days in Michigan when I was young– warm, protracted, endless, dusky evenings–riotous with fireflies as we jumped off the slippery, mossy dock.  I like to think I’m still young, because I can recall those memories and emotions flooding back so easily with the sight, or smell, or music in my ear of something familiar.  That cool, tingling, summer rain on my bare skin that brought steam and heat out from the pavement as we twirled our faces upward in a washing.  They are like a film reel in fast motion–this life of past tense but still sententious.  The truth is I am to turn 37 this year.  I know I will recall and see myself young when I remember my 37th year, but today I feel age as my daughters near high school so swiftly.  It was not so long ago that they were swaddled in our arms and I inhaled their skin scent.

The water is tepid and trickles softly.  The sun shovels into our flesh and reddens the surface, beckoning my amber freckles out in thousands. As always happens with sun on water it plunges, bottomless, into our layers without feeling.   Elongated tree roots dredge the riverbank, intertwining hook and peg within one another.  They look like gnarled fingers, knuckles holding steadfastly to one another like lovers in old age.  I take a profound breath inward and hold it… these tree roots make me pause in my conversation with my dear friend. Dead stop.  I close my eyes taut and forthwith hold my palm over my face; I melt those tree roots into my soul with purpose.  I actually see them lengthen, intertwine, and hear them tighten down like rope stretching tight and screw down into my brain’s sulci folds where I hope they can never leave me, stapled to my soul.

I begin to envision how to write, to paragraph this majesty.  Trees and buried roots into earth are like a grounding for me.  As John Steinbeck and Wendell Berry write of the bowels of earth, I grasp them in my very marrow and life blood.  I dip and bob along the river with words pinging and cascading over me like a piano gliding through scales to retrieve from my mind’s eye.  I descend to the water and drink deeply.  Cryptic persuasion.  Mystery.

The hot breeze pulls the postponed summer and green leaves from the branches; they swirl over the talking, ripple water that skids the mossy rocks, poking their arches above the aqueous surface.  My warm tube lulls and rocks on shallow, mineral-gold boulders just under the surface.  And the sound of water splashes and plays like our laughter and shrieks as we twirl and balance and crash, drifting under the concrete bridge and the blue sky full of cloud.  We float for hours, laying back with our eyes closed beneath our sunshades.  I get so hot I remove my shirt and float in my underclothes, the sun and vitamin D enlivening dewy skin.   In between silence we talk and splash and kick our legs in the river, aurulent and dark, like late summer dying but dying joyfully.   The deep roots dig into its water life blood for survival and the trees shade the banks surrounded by dusty, red dirt.  The sunlight flickers and illuminates in waves and I squint to see.

Dear sun and water and tree and earth, you wake me, jolt me severely, and my heart violently ricochets into my throat…I sit up onto my elbows in my tube and pay attention as if I am in high church looking at stained glass, signing the cross, bowing my head, and hearing doxology.  Jesus baptized and the spirit dove descends and I am here alive, but what He did then matters now.  He walked on the water and calmed the storm.  It calls to me loudly, yells at me…and I remember alive after years of rest, and sleep, and healing in the safety of my bedclothes, and fire hearth as water now plunges over me in the historic James River of the Virginia Piedmont.

I remember back to that summer spent riding  four-wheelers on the edges of the golden cornfields late into the evening, the buzz of crickets as the sun sunk below the horizon. Please, please, give me more than I was living; in tears and working long hours I pleaded.  How are these innocent things like worry and doubt forgiven when they were worked out in distraction?  Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, I pray before the Eucharist.

The next summer we were driving north on 9th street up to W. Main and he suddenly turned left at the traffic light toward the Lake.  It has been twenty years and I cannot recall what we talked about on the drive, but the freshwater waves were cool to the touch of our ankles.  We pulled an old, unzipped sleeping bag out of the car and laid it on the hard sand after the tide had gone out, and he pulled my face close and asked me if I would marry him.  This man, whom I had fallen in love with a year before, was asking me to be his forever and I never even hesitated for a second.  We had written to one another  over months, he leaving me long letters after late nights at the restaurant and third shifts at the hotel that he stuffed under my windshield wiper.  And I would sneak responses to his Grand Prix, two writers invoking faith and love and hope to awaken, a language only deciphered by one another.  He told me once after we were married that we were soul persons.

In a world of self-love and expression, it is absurd to say out loud on this page and to the critical world that I am not my whole self without my husband, that we are two fragmented versions of one.

Who am I to say such things?  How do I always know that I am intertwined with this person forever until death, when I am not even in my middle ages?  But it is so.  Cryptic persuasion.  Mystery. 

These sacred things whisper to me each night, their melody in my ear like an orchestra from God, this legacy we live.  It haunts me to excitement.

Each time that I felt dirt under my fingernails,

the rush of salt water as I plunged the board under the waves paddling out to surf,

standing on summit of the Rockies feeling the wind whip through my thin tshirt, cascading my body,

the spray of Colorado whitewater and the grip of the oar,

smelled vanilla pipe tobacco as it curled around his face,

drove across country, stopping to refuel, smelling the hot pavement and wiping the smudge from tired eyes,

stepped across slippery mountain rocks grasping hands and shouldering packs,

puffed hot breath into my frozen fingers after brushing snow from the windshield,

gulped my breath in prayer at the plane’s takeoff and forced myself to look out the window,

sat translucent in the sunset on the ridge in the dark,

hiked to pitch tent and camp, and hot ration soup over the fire,

heard the rustle of bears and the howl of wolves in the middle of the night,

pulled into gas stops while sleeping on bench seats and leaning on shoulders for comfort,

drew stick figures while others scrawled notes in the empty space of our math books,

chalk dust and pencils, the boys wearing ties for game day,

tipping that supple, new ball just over the net for side out,

sand showering a halo as the buggie skids and swerves and we scream,

driving further and further, talking with my dad the way we always did,

dressing up for boys and holding hands tight,

my mother’s hands over folds of fabric, sewing my wedding gown,

playing street hockey with taped sticks, blasting pucks against concrete,

riding rollercoasters in the hot summer- hours long lines before squeezing eyes shut and feeling the drop in the stomach,

listening to the lisp of speech in my daughter that melts me, those little girls who stole me with their play pretend and singing,

standing with my husband and holding his hand and feeling grateful and strong as we read psalms at the microphone at Grandpa’s funeral,

speeding through cornfields on fourwheelers, hanging on tight around waist and laughing,

all those letters—letters that poured love to me and our future that were wedged under door handles and wiper blades awaiting me after work,

Preparing the fishing lines for slippery, descaled, gutted, and grilled fish over charcoal with my dear father in law,

Tasting cinnamon almonds mixed with the smell of burnt rubber and cigarettes at the race track,

Working out sadness through words scribbled furiously,

Soaking in the Florida sunshine on bicycles over the boardwalk,

Sparkle and patent leather everything in ninth grade,

Ice cream in bed and PS4 videogames in our college apartment, then working late into the night on term papers,

Wrapped in the Tennesse Smokies and heartache photobooths downtown, stores full of oddities and interests,

Riding subways and clutching pennies and the railing as we ascended the Statue in New York,

Walking through floods of Bears’ gear in Chicago, the World Series at Wrigley, hailing uber cabs late into the night,

Sliding my palms across wet walls, chilled by cold cavern breezes in Kentucky,

Rhythmically rocking on my sick grandma’s lap–she is pat, pat, patting my back,

Sleeping in the hot, sticky Impala with melted crayon on the dash, dad plunges a coathanger for keys down the elevator shaft after sunburns and sunwashed hair,

starfish and lobster in Maine before gravel ripped my knee open,

chips and cards and chinking at the casino tables,

sprinting from home to first base after contacting ball to bat, my arms vibrating and legs swift,

a family parade and fireworks on the freshwater bay and bikerides through the woodland trails and singing with the uncles, cheese curds and the yearly fish boil,

driving to the tiny library with Ingrid Michaelson singing in my ears and cows braying in my sight and sun hot in July,

crystal ice trees and a light snowfall, and mittens for warm, the defroster cranked high to melt the ice,

driving the girls to the barn, observing them brush, and feed, and care for horses,

sitting in the grassy outfield behind the house, watching game after game each summer, just beyond my backyard,

locker combos, and shaving cream fights in grassy lawns on the last day of middle school,

dropping eggs from the roof with our science teacher and marching out Civil War battles around West,

sitting in a whitewashed chapel filled with bare, wooden pews, surrounded by gravestones and singing Holy, Holy, Holy in unison,

oboe reed dipped in water to soften while scrubbing white shoes clean for performance, hooking arms with my best, dear friend of those years who did not forsake me,

words and verses pouring in by memory, reciting over and over and over, branding my soul when I wore ponytails and friendship bracelets,

boat tubing bumpily over rivulets along the following propeller, sipping drinks seated on the hot vinyl seats and sunglasses,

the sway of the boat below deck in the night, the daytime sails pulling us out to the dolphins,

rubbing my hands over old, vintage, wooden drawers with Grandma, sanding off ages of stain,

smelling the books, always smelling the words and the pages,

black and white photographs of young, and pure, and free,

winding through the wooded road with my best friend smelling of coconut suntan oil and lipgloss singing country with the radio,

my son searching for me at night, holding me tight and curling into my lap,

pouring warm rain in Virginia spring sprinting into air-conditioned theaters with popcorn and soda,

and there is more.

More of these moments that come in waves- moments happening in present time, but are extensions of what has come before and what will be.

Much more of this life that leads me.  Music, and language, and art that burrows so deep it aches into the soul.  This charging river flows continually through me, changing and articulating and teaching.  And it brought me to my marriage and to my children and then taught me gratefulness in my heritage.  This covenant and Baptism, they never escape me, but rather resurrect me.

Does marriage resurrect?  Ah, now that is a marvelous beauty to behold.

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