As I walked to the bridge where I put in, my path crossed a toad, then a bit further a skink; signs I was headed where I needed, I thought to myself. It was a delight to set into the currents again, see old trees in a new season, and be quickly swept away with the familiar bridge growing smaller in the distance. I leaned back, heard a vertebrae make a satisfying “Crack” and extended my worn arms spread-eagle so my fingertips touched the water in my version of a dead-man’s inner tube float. For several moments I watched river and land and sky meet upside down and roll along like a surreal film as the top of my head touched the water and my mind let go.
Yet given the circumstances in this moment in America, where so much seems a-jumble, I couldn’t entirely let go. I’ve been trying to keep caught up, but have felt caught—uncertain what I can contribute to the community conversation, even my own community’s conversations, these days I’m mostly reading and trying to listen. I try to empathize but am very aware my “white” experience will never relate deeply to the experience of being “black” in America. I get that we use these terms in differing ways: for some the concept of “race” is real and defined by skin color; nor do I want to remove someone’s sense of identity; but I admit I hate using these words: race. black. white. To me they are vague generalizing labels that often seem to encourage more of the same. In an ideal world, if we must “specify” I’d rather people identify by “culture” — idk whether that means ethnicity or geography or interests or even neighborhoods, but I like how these feel more specific to me than an abstract skin-color. Still, I know we’re obliged to first work through this moment by listening to those who have been and are still being abused. And I am very grateful for those courageously protesting, imperfectly aiming for a better society. It’s hard for any of us to take all this in, on the heels of a pandemic, and isolation; between these issues and our sadly inflammatory POTUS, my head has often felt very full lately.
Fortunately, since the river is so full, I didn’t have to concern myself with usual floating issues, like bumping my rear end; the only attention required, due to the swiftness of the current, was the potential to ram tree limbs, random debris, or roots that been “planted” anew by the recent flood. Although lush spring greenery abounds, the banks were dusty gray fairly high up from the recent sediment-filled high waters. Scraps of our cultural debris hung randomly everywhere, even high in the trees. The trees mostly looked a bit tired. I know it will all recover and that such things actually replenish and renew the natural buffering strip, but it was a good reminder traveling along the heart of what was the flood ground zero, seeing how everything here was severely stressed and ravaged a few weeks ago. Sure many folks are feeling similar in 2020. The waters were refreshing and are settling down, but in several areas they still are a bit choppy.
I didn’t come across many critters, the most conspicuous, perhaps fittingly, were the wise pair of ravens that hang out under the Main St. / Elm Ave. Bridge. They made their presence known, or raucously announced mine. I DID come across far more people than I normally encountered last fall. There were several dipping in or on the banks, a few in vessels, and so many folks fishing from the bridge where I pull out I had to stop myself by grabbing the bridge ceiling and slow my way under to avoid being hooked when I popped out. But then the currents were so strong I couldn’t navigate dismounting and had to let the waters carry me a bit further before climbing out a steep bank. All of which obliged I walk a bit extra along the Greenway.
As I was pulling out, a pair of young men passing in a canoe asked if I needed a hand and when I “no thanked” them, they wished me a good evening, calling me “sir” which tickled me, especially given my floating uniform. Once up on the bank, I immediately noticed the concrete greenway planters, which two weeks ago had literally been underwater and flushed out, but were already refilled with blooming flowers and neatly mulched by our stalwart city work crews. Then, like a string of multi-cultural lights, an array of human vignettes kept glowing before me as I walked the 1/4 mile of Greenway toward home.
I startled a pair of rainbow-haired teens, as I emerged unannounced from the river, who then laughed aloud and were just as soon again jabbering away to each other (despite their earbuds) as only teen girls can. On the bridge, I came upon an imposingly large brown-skinned man, his female partner, and two wide-eyed girls. His large hands delicately maneuvered two toy fishing poles and one real one, the girls climbing all over him each eagerly wanting to be the first to catch a fish. On the other lane of the bridge, a dark-haired, olive-skinned 20-something, (Hispanic?) fellow, heavy on the tats, with slicked back black hair and a neatly cropped beard, was proudly foisting up 4-5 good-sized fish to his female friend, a heavyset woman of Asian heritage. Just then a grizzled red-faced older man, wearing a cap that appeared to have survived well past his wife’s imploring he throw it away, determinedly jogged by. A middle-aged woman whose hair perfectly matched her dogs’ fur, smiled as it pulled her past me, both unaware (thankfully) of the source of my grin.
A lean, too-heavily-clothed for 90 degrees, disheveled but polite teen on some sort of one-wheeled board contraption zipped by with heavy-thunking metal music, swerved around me, and waved at this lanky late-fifties dude with a rubber inner-tube over his shoulder. A few more steps and a stunning woman and her adolescent son (who I would guess were from a north African culture) shared a knowing and beguiling smile as my conspicuous passing interrupted their privately teasing each other. A red-haired youngish Mom with her break your heart itty-bitty “just learning to walk” strawberry blonde pigtailed daughter straddled the center curb between greenway lanes. I’m sure it was their pair of bicycles I saw next, as one was under 16“ high, the size you might see a clown ride in the circus, except it was festooned with pink training wheels. As I walked off the Greenway, a young woman who seemed of Middle Eastern descent, sat on the edge lacing up her roller blades.
Somehow, the spotlights hit the terrible deeds and overshadow the too-often missed daily noble deeds and intentions of so many — in healthcare, environmental activism, social justice, the basic integrity of dutiful, fair and good public servants of all stripes, and millions of acts of genuine kindness. The river banks are tired but they’re pushing new sprouts and roots and they’ll recover. As always she guides me when I pay attention. Maybe that’s why so many of us are flocking toward these natural havens. We may be frustrated and have so much hard work ahead and feel worn and tired too, but despite the powerful current of challenges we face, the simple sweetness of witnessing people of all colors peaceably interacting along our democratizing Roanoke River Greenway during these oft confusing times was more inspiring and eloquently hopeful than any commentary or ideas I can offer.