Rivers and Relationships

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.” ~ Pooh’s Little Instruction Book inspired by A.A. Milne

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Henry David Thoreau wrote that “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” I wholly agree with Thoreau’s observation but I love a river! If a lake lets you measure the depth of your nature, it is a river that defines it. If a lake is the earth’s eye – her rivers are her voice.

Much of my childhood was shaped playing in the bends and under the bridges of Little Turtle creek in the heart of South Dakota. I watched her swell in the Spring rains, engulfing the old wooden bridge on the dirt road south of our farm. I watched her dwindle away- tired and subdued in summers when the heat and droughts took hold. Season after season I wandered there, inhaling the fragrant blossoms of the wild prairie roses wafting on the evening breeze. I tried my best to catch crawdads and build small rafts out of twigs and leaves. Mostly I listened. I would listen as the voice of the creek would gurgle and coo poetically beneath me while I watched from the iron rails of the bridge. The river was speaking life to the gentle rolling prairie hills. Speaking life – and peace – to me.

Since that time I have grown more and more fond of rivers. To my mind, there is nothing more blessed than the babble of a brook. Nothing is more calming than the cool caress of a creek on hot, dusty, bare feet or a dry spirit.

It is one thing to sit near a river or stream or to wade in and out of it or to fish from its banks. It is quite another to pledge yourself to her in the form of a canoe trip. I never perceived how very much like relating to people is like relating to a river until I went canoeing. Each time I set my canoe into the current of a new river, that “ka-sploosh” sound signals something in my heart: Anticipation. A tinge of worry. A commitment to trust. An understanding to cooperate. Hesitation. Decision. Exuberance. It’s all there, mixed up and churning like the waters in the path of my oar as I point the bow downstream and wait to see how the partnership will play out.

Rivers and Relationships: It’s a perfect metaphor actually. As I pause to consider it, God used it Himself in a book He wrote about a River of Life. New rivers and new relationships pose many questions. Will they be good to me? Will the current be strong or gentle? Can the river carry me and all my stuff or will I have to portage a lot? Will it be rocky underneath the waters – or smooth? You can never guess. One thing is certain though; once you “put in” there is no turning back. Only in the end will you be able to answer those questions. As the relationship between you and the river (or person, or God) evolves along its course you will find your nature being redefined and shaped. You will learn how much you can love and what you love most. You will discover the degree of respect you brought with you to the experience. Your fears will be uncovered. Before all is said and done, you might wonder to yourself, “Do I really need this?” But if you abandon her– will you return again? Will you love more than you fear?

I had to answer these questions for myself at the end of last summer. If canoeing is my metaphor for relationships then there are a lot of actual events that happened to me on rivers bearing an uncanny resemblance to my personal relationships.

I’ve sat on a lot of river banks pulling stickers out of my bare feet. Sometimes the river is possessive and she punishes you for trying to get out.

I’ve waded waist deep next to my canoe trying to sneak by a bull in the river, or around a log jam. Obstacles are almost a given.

I have lamented the prospect of endless portages, my heart sinking to the riverbed with each sickening grind of rocks or sand dragging my canoe to a standstill on the river bottom. In some relationships you end up doing all the work!

I have had to claw my way up the steep bank of a river, dazed and dehydrated, to walk half a mile through a desert and ask to be rescued. In utter exhaustion and with resignation I watched while a Native American cowboy, smoking a cigar, hauled my canoes out of a river, up a 15 foot embankment with a lariat rope. It wasn’t the rivers fault. I knew I couldn’t go any further. Sometimes you just aren’t aware what you are getting into.

I’ve been flipped out of my canoe by rivers. I’ve been run aground. I’ve cursed her coldness and her heat. Her shallowness and her unpredictability.

And I have tried to cut a lot of deals with God in my tent at night.

August 2007; Big Sioux River

“Dear God, Don’t you listen to the weather forecasts? It was supposed to be clear and mild tonight! Zero percent chance of precipitation. I checked on that before I left home! So why this sudden storm– (lightening bolt explodes a tree on the riverbank opposite of us) Wow that was close!!! You know I like thunder and lightening but this is insane. We’re going to die out here. I’m sure You noticed we are lying at the edge of the water next to a large metal canoe under a tall tree? Ok. That was disrespectful. I’m sorry. Please don’t smite us with lightening. I promise I’ll live better. I’m sorry for all of that stuff I said to You earlier about not meddling in my life. please meddle! Get us out of here alive and I’ll be more respectful?”

July 2007; Cheyenne River

“Dear God, Please forgive me for canoeing on the Cheyenne River. I know it’s July and it’s always warm, but 114 F? C’mon? There’s no shade out here! Yes, I suppose I did see all of the dead trees at the river’s edge before we put in. I’m so tired from portaging. Yes. I guess the water seemed a bit shallow and warm when we launched. I just thought it would get better once we got going. Remember earlier when the sand flies were tearing our skin off? Is that some kind of new plague? And now the wind is so violent it is flattening the sides of my tent into my face. If the wind wasn’t howling so, perhaps that other sound wouldn’t be so terrifying… what is that? Coyotes for one.. but something else. Another sound, like a woman screaming or crying is piercing the dark. I know it’s a mountain lion. Please get me out of this God-forsaken place! I’m sorry I’m so stubborn. I should have paid attention to the warning signs – the smell of burnt earth filled my nostrils when I stepped out of the Jeep this morning. I hesitated. But I should have turned back. I should have swallowed my pride and respected this land and this river more. I wasn’t prepared. Forgive my stupidity. Please get my children and I out of here safely? Please deliver us. Save our lives.”

September 2007; Voyageurs National Park

“Dear God, I’m sorry to bug You about this again, but I’m sure I saw bear poop when we were hiking earlier. Could You please keep the bears out of our camp and away from my tent? I know earlier today my friend said “thank you” to Mother Nature for the beautiful day that we had. I thought it was a beautiful day too but I didn’t say thanks to You at all. That was rude. I’m sorry about that. Please keep the bears from bothering us and I promise I’ll be more grateful.”

After sharing my canoe misadventures with our neighbor, he laughed and shook his head in wonder and disbelief before telling me, “I don’t think God wants you to go canoeing.”

I thought about that for a while. It did seem like everything was against it. No canoeing?

I guess the rivers would still be there. I could see them and listen to their voices but not have to take the real risks. Relationships with rivers… well, relationships involve risk. Period. I knew what I wouldn’t miss but what would I miss?   What could I possibly not live without?

Sometimes I think it is the beauty that keeps me coming back for more. More often I think it is the suspense. Not knowing how things will turn out or what I will have in me to face the good and the bad is the essence of adventure.

How could I pass up the opportunity to share a moment of delight with my daughter as we turn a bend in the Vermillion river and set a herd of deer to flight? Oh how I would miss the beauty of fall leaves on the Cottonwood trees convening overhead, making a narrow tunnel where we paddled on Brule creek. There was also the majestic sight of a bald eagle as it soared effortlessly ahead of our canoe on the Big Sioux River. The surprise of witnessing the currents power as it reshaped the landscape right before our eyes when an entire river bank – ten feet high- broke off and fell into the river creating a tidal wave behind us that crashed on the opposite shore. There was the velvet dome of night sky arching overhead, bejeweled with stars that we pondered in silence while a driftwood fire kept the autumn chill out of the air. And as harsh as she was, there was no prettier sunrise than on the Cheyenne river: The glint of morning sun coloring her waters a shade of rose opulence scintillating into the rugged bluffs of the Reservation. I can’t imagine not having had the thrill of watching horses stampeding next to us on the high bluffs of the Cheyenne and curiously looking down at us as we played in a pool of water and ate our lunch. No, I could never believe that God didn’t want me to canoe. Nor could I believe that He would not want us to take the risks that relating involves. “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal… The only place outside Heaven where you can be safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” (C.S. Lewis)

In any instance when I choose to be safe rather than to let my heart risk loving someone that may or may not care for me, I have chosen a facet of hell. Following rivers has taught me that we choose our heavens and our hells right here. Right now. Every time we turn out back on someone who has wanted or needed our love because we were too afraid to work it out – we forfeit some part of heaven. How do we know what we have chosen so far?   Have we been patient, kind, forgiving, fair, honest, full of faith? Have we hoped, believed and endured ‘through every circumstance’? (NLT 1 Cor. 13:7)

In all of the relationships where I have loved and lost perhaps the blame falls to me. I know in every case it was because of some fear on my part that I drove them to finally “quit” me. I became their Cheyenne River. My heart was as cracked and parched as Little Turtle creek in a drought year.

I have struggled so much to be loved. Now I wish only that I had all that I needed inside me to be able to love without being loved in return. I would be braver. And more gentle. I would never give up. There’s no doubt that I could have tried harder to work things out. I’m not sure I could if the other person no longer wants things to work , but I did try to leave it open ended. Somehow I tried to communicate that a loss of relationship would break my heart. Sometimes with words and often in streams of tears, I have tried to say, “You’re beautiful – You’re amazing.” I wanted you to know it. I’m sorry if you didn’t. Song writer Patty Griffin wrote, “You can’t make somebody see, with the simple words you say — all their beauty that’s inside. Sometimes they just walk away…”

If they walk away, then there is nothing more, for this time, that can be done about it. I carry them in my heart though. My life, all my years and friendships stretch out before me like the twisting, winding ribbon of a great river. Indeed, each of our lives is a river; flowing into the river of Life and on still further into the great ocean of God’s mercy and grace. All things will become one. We will know all, be known by all, and be reconciled to all. Every voice will be joined in one chorus without fear. But we must “put in” here and now. Doing our best and striving towards that shining horizon.

“Each of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question, “We are willing to help Lord, but what – if anything – is needed?” though it’s true we can seldom help those closest to us.   Either we don’ t know what part of ourselves to give or more often than not the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely without complete understanding.” (from the movie, “A River Runs Through It”

“Maybe fear can vanish before love. Oh God, don’t let this love be denied. Cause I know the river is deep. I found out the currents are tricky. And I know that the river is wide and oh, the currents are strong. And I could lose every dream I dreamt that I could carry with me. But I will reach the other side. Please don’t let me have to wait too long.” (Rich Mullins~”The River”)

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