Friday, August 17, 2012

Rivers and Me

Tonight I was part of a panel talking about rivers. This is the presentation I delivered. I have posted bits and pieces of it here before, but thought some might enjoy reading the full copy.


I am a person of rivers.

I grew up in Kentucky, a few miles from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. If you've read Huck Finn, you know the nearby spot of Cairo, Illinois.

For those of us born to rivers, they are life itself. We speak of them reverently. We fear them. We cherish them. We are drawn to them by a force we cannot comprehend but have no choice but to obey. They flow through our souls. They define us.

We go to the river for strength, for guidance, for solace. We cannot possibly find our way in the world without returning to the river periodically. It beckons to us. We cannot deny its call. We learn at a young age that there's no point in even trying. Not that we want to anyway. The river knows when we are away from it too long. It summons us home.

We gather at the riverside for family celebrations, baptisms, and catharsis. We have rituals, public and private, that are carried out only on those banks.

We learn early the river is dangerous, with currents that take grown men under and let them resurface again only when the life is gone from them. Stories swirl of men who were good swimmers heading to the river one morning to fish, and never coming home again. But that's not reason enough to keep his brother from going the next day. The mystery draws us.

Hindus believe confluences are holy. Those of us born to rivers know that to be true. The river has power we cannot begin to understand. We humble ourselves at its shores.

We take our cares, our worries, our sins we confess to no one, and dump them into the river - metaphorically and literally. We surrender the jewelry from men we no longer love to the currents. We give the left-over love to the waves, to rid ourselves of it, so we can love another. We cleanse our minds by walking along the shoreline, letting the sound of water carry away errant thoughts and feelings. Like love, the river may be dangerous, but it's ever enticing as well.

The confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers is a place I return to when I've lost my way in the world. I have said prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of entreatment from the same spot. I have sought direction and consolation. I will do so as long as I walk on the Earth.

I can't give you the river. I can't even explain its attraction for those of us born to it. It is a constant - our true north. The river demands our attention. And we give it. We have no choice.

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