May 11, 2013

Down River

"Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night."  -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

I grew up near the river where the bamboo was thick like a jungle forest. When the breeze blew it would lift a layer of chilled air off the surface of the jade water and send it wafting up the steep bank, bladed-leaves shuddering in its wake. Living on the river, you can close your eyes and tell the distance between you and the water because you know how it smells, how it feels the closer you get to it.

And in the bamboo you could imagine you were anywhere. And on the banks of the river, you could watch the water flow and wonder where it would end up, who and what it would touch on the way.  Upriver was no real mystery -- it came from the lake above the dam and sometimes that's where you went to swim.  There was no mystery there. In this world all water comes from that source, but the mystique is downriver.  The water runs to the mighty Mississippi where Mark Twain was a steamboat pilot. And from there it roils south to the ocean to become a little piece of the whole wide world, the water that touches every shore of every exotic continent.

When I was twelve I begged my mother to buy me Encyclopedia Brittanicas from a salesman who came to the door.  I knew she didn't want to.  We couldn't afford them, but I could not give up the thought that all that knowledge would walk out my door in the hands of the tired man in his brown suit.

And so, sensing my hunger, and possibly hoping the books would help me make something of myself she signed a contract, paid a downpayment and I was allowed to keep the book he brought as a sample. The rest would arrive by mail.

The following year the Brittanicas gathered dust as I hankered for a boy who made my heart beat in my chest like a caged beast. The blood in my veins tingled in anticipation of seeing him and every sensation was a symptom of a certain and impending death. I'm not sure I ever even spoke to that boy, but to this day I remember his shiny handsomeness, the strong jaw, the broad shoulders. I remember the sharp ache of wanting but not getting.

Then, years later, the river was at my back.  I left it behind to discover what the city had to offer with its lights and fast pace.  The slow beat of natural living was replaced by the white noise of urban life, the hubbub of choosing from a menu of seemingly limitless choices, the excitement of acquisition, experimentation, the challenge of overcoming.  The sinking sensation of failure and loss.

Finally, if I wanted, I had the power to dispell the clutching sense of yearning by getting what I wanted.  I had tools, I had means.  Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes not and that was the year I discovered that the opposite of yearning was sadness or, sometimes, despair.

I remember lying on a couch staring up at the ceiling, tears running, wetting my ears, my neck.  I remember the deep sense of loss and my brain spinning trying to figure out how to fix the brokenness, to rebuild the core that felt crumpled up on the inside.

Eventually I tackled it.  And it was the first of many massive emotional construction jobs -- building, demolishing, rebuilding, remodeling. Each time I left one home in sadness I comforted myself with reminders of the joy I felt when I was there, of the things I learned... a laundry list of life skills and talents developed in tandem with someone who was now leaving, now gone.  Or who I had drawn away from.  Had someone with a magic wand come and offered to take the pain away along with the memory of this past I would have declined. Experience was my Encyclopedia Brittanica.

To this day I still find that better than the oxygen-sucking sensation of yearning.  That bitch cuts like a knife, deep and bloody, and I have never mastered the fix for it.

But I am back by the river, having flowed in a circle like the water does, back again to watch the sun sparkle off green water, my gaze always, always pointed downstream to where the water runs.