All this summer I’ve carried on an open love affair with the Deerfield River. It is my ritual every weekday afternoon to go to a secluded woodsy spot where I am often the only visitor. When alone, I glide naked into the river luxuriating in the dissolution of boundaries, the loosening of constraint.
The Deerfield flows freely, the Deerfield is crystalline and the Deerfield is icy cold. At last, my mind stops its chatter, every fiber of my body is attune to its refreshing sparkle. It takes several rounds of vigorous breathing before I am ready to plunge and on the long exhale, the bite of cold dissolves into a surrender as sensual as any I have known.
I’ve come to know the river well. In the center, the current tends to be strong, but with well-timed effort I can escape the tug and reach the other side. The river teaches me when to resist and when to go with the flow. On the other bank, there are billion-year-old rocks with perfect contours for lying in the sun. If I tarry too long or get too intimate with sunlight, the river will feel a tad slighted: the return plunge into the water will be even more bracing than before.
I can bring my sorrow to the river. On tense or frustrated or grieving days, I fit my pelvis into a rocky cradle in the shallow part and let the rapids wash it all away. The Deerfield River has the grace to reconnect me with optimism, to restore me to a deep chill – every time.
When I seek a longer journey I will go a few miles upstream with an inflated tire tube. The meandering river carries me down, sometimes peacefully, sometimes demanding that I negotiate a path through rushing water studded with rocks. Oftimes the river lulls me to inner stillness, showing me how the water, the sky, the fauna, my breath are all one.
Other times the river is chatty, bubbling over the puzzle of a separate self. If the river is composed of different flowing waters every day, even every few minutes, can it still be identified as this river? Might there be no such thing at all as a particular river, only constantly changing water occupying a pre-existent space? It is both liberating and disturbing to think I am in love with a non-entity. Someone assures me that indeed it is the river that pre-exists its bed; it comes into being with the intention to carve itself a path through the land. (A geologist friend tells me the river has the innate wisdom to break its momentum by weaving its way through 2,3 curves before leveling out in a flood plane.) But before it can shape the land to its desires, it wisely conforms to the existing contours.
I come daily to commune with the river, to witness how it keeps flowing on with no thought for its own disappearance into some larger body of water. I want to learn from its fearlessness around loss of self when it inevitably merges with the sea.
Thus the summer passes until the day of the hurricane. They are obliged to open a dam a few miles north in Vermont and the Deerfield is over-run. She rises nearly fifteen feet in a turgid uproar, racing along with a foaming fury that rips out everything in its path. Along with my neighbors I rush to the banks where the river runs through our little town and stand aghast at her wrath. As she roars through our village she floods riverside stores, batters the ramparts of our bridges and tears a house up from its foundations, sweeping it downstream. The rush… the roar… the debris… someone spots a dead cow, someone else sees a twisted car, we all gasp at gas canisters and giant uprooted trees. We hope the Bridge of Flowers, the pride of our village will be spared; a ways down stream, a damaged sewage treatment plant dumps its raw waste into our already abused waters.
In the aftermath, folks seem to be blaming the river for its violent eruption. There is real concern for the underwater pipes carrying our drinking water, for lost property and washed out roads in the wake of her terrible temper. Have they forgotten how the rain and floodwaters overwhelmed her? Don’t they realize how her swelling saved our northern neighbors from an even worse fate? She was invaded, goaded, desecrated and polluted. How can folks be blaming the sorely abused river for the havoc she has inevitably wreaked in turn?
I know what it is to be pushed beyond what can be contained, to overflow with anger, to lose all moorings and then languish unforgiven for the fall-out of my wrath.
On this Shabbat I walk down to my secluded spot. The once rocky beach is covered with a fine sand. Everywhere trees are uprooted and mangled. The river is quieter now but she is dirty brown, fetid with unfamiliar waste. She has lost her sparkle, she is too exhausted to play. I am fully clothed, the river is sick and cannot wash away my sorrow. I keep a vigil by her side. Unable to think of a Jewish prayer appropriate to the healing of violated rivers, I sing a song I remember from the Grateful Dead – going home, going home, by the waterside I will rest my bones, listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.