As the month of October draws to a close, so does my little anniversary series, Flashback.
All month long, I’ve been interspersing my current work with some of my favorite throwback posts — all in celebration of alpha // whiskey // foxtrot’s one-year anniversary. This is one of two last posts I’ll be sharing with you from a//w//f’s inception. It’s a special one – brimming ideas that still challenge me twelve months later.
Enjoy — and let’s go hunting for a little redemption together. ❤
Yesterday, I went down to the river to think.
Rivers are good for thinking, like trails are good for thinking. But while a trail, with its steady upward climb, always seems to lead me toward something — a revelation, a sense-making moment — rivers are about what’s washing away.
The Roanoke River winds quick and green through this town. It flows in loops and whorls past parks and greenways, then curls close to kiss the edge of Old Southwest. From there, it zags east. Seaward.
If you were following the river just a little ways past the city itself, you’d come to an old dam with what looks like a sand-colored stone house perched atop. Just a little farther and the river would dip beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway, the bridge of the highway floating high, high above.
Now come to the river from a different angle. From the parkway itself. Drive until you reach the bridge, and pull your car over into a narrow slice of parking lot just at the edge of the ravine.
Walk down the trail to the water.
It’s a quiet river, but like all rivers, it speaks:
Let it go.
Yesterday, I walked down that path as stormclouds gathered above.
I stared up at the bridge looming high and white above me. In this light, its tall supports reminded me, somehow, of gothic flying buttresses.
It was just an overpass in the woods, but for a moment it felt like a roadside cathedral.
I climbed down the rocks where water rested in pools, like tiny mirrors full of sky. I sat down at the river’s edge. Watched its greenness furl past.
Water under the bridge.
And I thought about how the water passes under the bridge and flows away. Flows away, but it does not disappear.
The water surges toward the sea. Freezes into ice. Sublimates into cloud, settles as frost, as dew.
And maybe this is what redemption means: not an erasure, but a transfiguration.
The water that once nearly drowned us falls later as rain, and greens the earth.
We walk out into the rainstorm with faces and palms upturned, and drink.
I waited by the water until my heart begin to release what it needed to release.
I waited until a wind kicked up, coming through the trees. Until the clouds opened.
Back inside my car, I watched the rain run down my windshield, silver and gleaming. And I began to believe that the water under the bridge could be transformed into something beautiful. That I might make it beautiful.
Which is what a river does.
And what Art does.
And what the Divine does.
I went home, and I wrote.
Two weeks ago, it rains.
It rains all day, in a solid sheet: hard rain that hammers the earth, needles it in divots…
Water fills ditches.
This is the first day.
On the second day, it rains harder. Water fills basements, pouring through every crack and split seam. In cars, sunroofs and convertible tops leak, the water pooling on the floorboards. Doors swell in their frames and stick fast.
And then the third day comes, and the rain doesn’t stop.
In a river town, when the water rises, things fray like a bad marriage. For awhile, the troubles are just obnoxious: the kind of benign complaints you’d share with a girlfriend over a glass of wine. You call a plumber. You run a box fan over the wet carpet. But after awhile, as things worsen, the air of trouble saturates the atmosphere of the whole house — the whole town. Those closest to the river stay, though perhaps they should go. They stay because they love their homes, and — yes — they love the river.
But on the third day something happens to the river, and suddenly it is not what it was. It is solid; muscled; hard; fast; cruel. It rips tree limbs from the bank and rakes them downstream, where they claw the undersides of bridges.
And now you can sense something violent coming, the way the wife of a certain kind of man anticipates the solid smack of the fist to the door, the sudden shatter of glass in the night.
She sees it coming, and she packs a bag.
And this is the point at which the worst should happen: the flash flood. The dam break…
But it doesn’t.
Because on Wednesday morning — almost four days since the rain began — I wake to clear sky. The clouds scud past and suddenly there’s warm air — even sun!
I almost can’t believe it.
At lunchtime, I drive the Xterra into Salem, park and walk down the path that runs parallel to the river. Everywhere I look, I can see evidence of where the river crested its banks.
I can see shredded guardrails on the bridge…
A picnic table at the park, snarled in debris…
I find a flowerpot jammed between two fence rails, a park bench crowned with driftwood…
But even still: the sky is blue, and faultlessly clear. The temperature rises to 74 degrees, so that by the time I walk back to my car, I am sweating in my boots.
And I know, by then, that there are another three days of rain still ahead of us. The weatherman has told me this, but still, somehow, in the blue air, I believe it will be all right. The day feels like a space to rise to the surface and draw a long breath, and I do.
I breathe, and breathe, and I think about the dove with the olive branch, fluttering back to the ark. I think: all this mess is almost over. Almost, but not quite.
There is no rainbow yet, but for now, the olive branch is enough.
I am almost to my car when I find the crayfish: the tiny hard-shelled body hot against the asphalt. The beady eyes blinking in the light:
He does not belong here, and he knows it. He is dragging himself painfully along, wondering where the river has gone, and why he is out here ten feet from the road, baking in the sun.
I walk past him at first, but then suddenly my heart understands what he is and what is happening, and I go back. Ease him onto a flat stone and carry him back to the water.
I nestle him close to a wet stone and wish him well.
I think about him for three days, as the water churns up the banks again — rises but does not crest.
I wonder if he makes it through. If he survives.
((We can survive so much more than we think.))
And I understand, then, that it is not always in my power to give somebody the rainbow. Not always in my power to make the trouble end, or to push back the curtain on the sun.
But I can bear the olive branch — almost there. Almost.
I bear it for for you and for me, for displaced crayfish and lost souls:
The wounded and the weary and the weak.
I am standing here on the first clear day, promising you that while the rain’s not over yet, the sun — always — comes again.
Of this I am sure. ❤
I scramble down the trail to the ravine, feet sliding on loose rocks, camera balanced on one hip. When I catch my breath, I look up to see what I’ve come for: the river, twisting green in the sun.
This is the place I come to when I need to think about the Past — need the sensation of something rushing away, disappearing around a bend. Today, though, as I leap across a line of boulders near the river’s edge, the Past just won’t recede. A quiet hurt still lingers — as if dirty water washed over me and left a residue — and I can’t seem to scrub it from the gray matter.
Oh, mercy, I whisper:
Sometimes it seems like the only prayer I know.
It would be an easy mistake, whether you know me by my words or in everyday life, to misread my gentleness as a deeper form of goodness. To see me as the most shiny and unblemished sort of saint: sweet-faced. Sweet-voiced. White-frocked, well-dressed — eternally clean.
People make this mistake all the time.
But the truth is, if I’m a saint, I’m one with skinned knees and a dented halo — a sinner, stumbling drunkenly toward some holy glow. I’m a complicated creature, drawn toward complicated situations, with a penchant for getting lost … and when the Maker knit me together in my mother’s womb, he gave me the blessing and curse of a wandering heart and a ravenous mind.
Thank Heaven, he also made me a mouth to cry for mercy.
So I stand on the river’s edge, praying and shooting: white water, muscling through rapids. The light shattered like a mirror on the rocks.
Don’t let all this beauty fool you, I think. This is a dangerous place. Hikers have been swept to their deaths here, and the rangers have posted signs telling me so.
But my stubborn heart never could heed a warning. And besides: any place you go to hurl the hurt away from you is a place where you might be dragged under with it, if you don’t know when to let go.
On this day, the mercy comes as a flash of light at my feet. I look down and see where the river has pooled in the boulders. The pools have polished the stone smooth, and the water within is skinned with green moss.
I drop to my knees and adjust the lens. And I understand then, with this palmful of water in my viewfinder, that there are places in the heart where the past can get caught — where the hurt forms a pool. And who knows, then, how long it takes for such a wound to heal? For a hollow of water to evaporate into sky??
But. Even a moss-clouded pool reflects the sun, however faintly:
Even a scar is a wound that has healed, in its way…
I leap from the rocks to the sand. Walk toward where the river curves in a calmer stretch. My eyes hunt through the wreckage of old floods: bottles and broken glass. Tires. Twisted tree limbs.
And I’ll tell you: there is beauty everywhere, if you know how to look. If you have eyes trained by mercy.
I stand very still. I am waiting, I guess, for the sun to make its way down into these small pools. To turn them into flame.
I breathe — breathe — my fingertip tingling against the shutter button.
I’ll tell you a secret that every good sinner knows: