“I am a rock. I am an island... a rock feels no pain, an island never cries,” ~ Paul Simon
Yet we ache to interact and share, it’s what makes us human. Which, despite all the “keep independent from govt. overreach” rhetoric being tossed about, I think may unconsciously underlie why the protocol of isolation is so hard for us to put in practice. Partly my personal response of the last few months has been to try and listen more, absorb, rather than express. I’m fortunate in that being a visual artist, taking a retreat and taking things in is a familiar technique. Still I’m struggling to change my interpersonal habits; to learn through practice how “sharing space” in which I only listen and offer no view, something I’ve never been great at doing.
We all (hopefully) are looking to find healthy ways to adapt and cope to challenges that don’t harm others. I’m in less of a crucible, less frustrated than many, so I can chill by walking, reading, gardening, or biking. In warm weather I especially prefer floats on the river. Maybe it’s because I’m aware of my habits that the shift into a less-peopled environment. As an introvert I feel less pressured; it “speaks” more softly. moves more slowly, feels more steady. It’s not static — things keep moving on the river (including me and my humble tube, without any effort). And changes occur along the waterway from season to season, weekly, daily, even around the next bend. Occasionally it’s dramatic, like sudden storms, or our recent floods. But most of the time, I feel like I get to take my time and recognize the shifts. I can spot the rock poking up and raise my rear end to avoid injury. Isn’t that part of what we all crave — time to adapt to change with the least pain? But that’s written by someone choosing to float, not being shoved into rapids.
Along the stretch of river through my neighborhood, many banks are punctuated by boulders. The large ones are rarely moved, even after the incredible power of the floodwaters beating against them. Because the currents usher me past, only by taking the same route repeatedly (and snapping photos) do I start to really see them. Funny how that works. Like when people have to repeat something over and over in order for it finally to “sink in” and for them to be heard.
Many of these great hunks of stone seem totally inert at a glance, yet to me they have a presence. Looking closer, they host vibrant mini-ecosystems, worlds unto themselves. Vines and saplings and mature trees that have seen decades interweave. Almost like our little neighborhoods. Over many years, trees may steadily wrap their roots around the stoic stones, in a contradiction of both accepting the tough circumstances and yet gaining support against the inevitable floods. It’s a slow intertwining of lives and life. Wondrous and fascinating and beautiful and deserving our attention. Just like those often-overlooked neighborhoods, perhaps tough but teeming with life. Trying to grow, slowly changing, and holding on through terrible storms. Still, sometimes trees that spent generations gaining a foothold get washed away in one unforecast storm. Some are stunted and never reach full potential. Some lives end, the energy they embodied transferred into other forms, contributing to the lives to come...
Once in a great while, the old seemingly solid rocks break apart and give way.
This Roanoke River that I’ve come to so appreciate doesn’t have a birthday—Buddhists might say nothing does, we all are in, and only a part of, a larger ever-unfolding process. But because I’m also within and part of this literal-minded, discreet object-identifying culture, having pondered these ancient stones, I asked some experts about the age of the river. A “safe” guess is the Roanoke River has been flowing at least 100,000 years, its basic path possibly a million... !
Imagine, or try to, that water has rippled and splashed against this stone day after day for thousands upon thousands of years! Beyond trees and plants, how many millions of critters, multi-legged crustaceans, multi-colored flies, winged beetles, butterflies, and birds, slick amphibians, slimy snails, slippery fish, alighted here? What sticky pads, hoofs, paws, claws, even toes or hands have briefly steadied a life on this very rock, contributed to this unmarked but remarkably fertile island?
The waters urge us all forward. So how do I begin to mesh this millennial history with our millennials and the multi-generational troubles of our times? I’m not sure. Floating is a good practice in humility (and in keeping quiet) in that rocks and rivers don’t much care whether I utter a word. I don’t want to pretend I have solutions, nor do I want to disregard history. I want to know the context of this river path, and the road where we are and what has been. For sure we need to get better at sharing our vessels, knowledge, and resources. And our love.
My dear friend and mentor Charlie Brouwer just posted about some of his sculptures and referred to learning to row his grandpa’s boat as a child, where he “first experienced going forward by looking back.”
We can’t stop life’s flow but I hope we can try to help each other guide our shared vessels from crashing against more rocks, especially ones we’ve hit before. I know that making the space to BE, wherever that is for each of us—alone on a river, hanging with our kin, being creative, engaging in conversation with a friend, tending a garden, laboring responsibly at whatever task, waving at a child, petting a dog or stroking a cat, making eye contact and sharing smiling eyes with a masked stranger can all be ways to recharge and reconnect.
In addition to the river, I so appreciate all my friends who help me grow. I don’t want to arrogantly float through those seemingly uninteresting places in my city or neighborhood anymore. I want to slow down and really see people in all their varied circumstances; talk less, look with softer eyes, listen more deeply, discover new things, hopefully learn. I don’t have quick solutions, but I do know it feels right to be aware, to try to listen carefully, and experience each place and moment with a full and open heart.