More like rivers

Sunset on Mud Island, Aug 27 2011, Memphis, Tennessee Photo by SportsandHistoryReader521 CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunset on Mud Island, Aug 27 2011, Memphis, Tennessee
Photo by SportsandHistoryReader521 CC BY-SA 3.0

“At the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books.”Norman Maclean

Jeff and I spent the first four years of our marriage in Memphis, Tennessee, while he attended dental school there.  I loved the city for many reasons, but what I loved most was the Mississippi River.  The downtown skyline went right to the river’s edge where it stopped abruptly, with lovely parks on the banks offering expansive views of the waterfront.

I had little experience with rivers of any size, but even so, I could see that the wide, steadily flowing river in front of me was exceptional.  What impressed me most was how relentlessly it moved; I had heard talk of rivers as slowly winding along, but this one always appeared to move faster than I expected.  I had never seen anything so immense travel so smoothly.  The ocean moves in waves, but as the legendary song says, “that old man river just keeps rolling along.”

When I read Maclean’s words about life being more like a river than a book, I thought of the Mississippi as I used to see it from Memphis.  So many adjectives come to mind that underscore the truth of Maclean’s observation: mighty, unceasing, changing, often beautiful, sometimes hard to contain.  Just as we can never step in the same river twice, it is impossible to arrest the forward motion of our lives, no matter how ideal we might find our present circumstances.

When we are young, we imagine that life will have a familiar narrative such as we have read in stories: a well-defined beginning, middle and end, with a fairly predictable outcome, notwithstanding a few plot twists here and there.  We think of ourselves as owning our lives, as we might own a book, holding it in our hands, finishing one chapter and beginning another when we choose.

How much more apt is the image of being swept along, moving a great distance in a relatively short time, traveling in one direction, never to return to the territory that lies behind.  The force of a river can be destructive, but throughout history, rivers have given birth to cities and civilizations, providing life-sustaining water that nourishes even as it erodes.

None of us can see what lies around the bend.  But the views are breathtaking, in every direction we look.  Today, I wish you time to enjoy the journey, and loyal traveling companions who share the joys and sorrows.

One year ago today:

A fascinating vitality


  1. Good morning, Julia! This morning’s blog was especially meaningful for me today. Having been laid off over a year ago, working in three different places in the country …. A year ago, I never would have imagined that someone named Kate from New Hampshire would be driving me home from my minor surgery today. The river flows on, and the views are so interesting.
    Growing up north of Minneapolis, my best friend, Gail, and I lived three miles apart. She lived on the Mississippi, and I lived three miles downstream, with just a vacant lot between our house and the river. Many summer Sunday afternoons found us floating from her house to mine, in a fiberglass canoe. Sometimes we’d stop at Island #7 and picnic, or jump off the rope swing. Sheila’s parents wouldn’t let Sheila or her sibs anywhere near the river (they were 1/2 mile upstream from me). Gailie and her brothers used to jump on large ice floes in the spring when the river was breaking up, and ride downstream! Crazy! My dad once caught me wading back from the island (for some reason, we were allowed to canoe, but not swim in the river). I had to show him that it was so shallow that August that I could wade back without getting my shorts wet, to prevent getting grounded (“no, really, Dad, it’s safe!”) Because you’d never know where there might be an undercurrent. Once Gailie and I swamped the canoe, just for fun. That’s when we found out that the fiberglass hadn’t been completely sealed. Ew, were we prickly!
    A few years later, one of Sheila’s brothers drowned in the river. Her mother must have feared that for years, and then it happened. They sold off the land between their house and the river.
    And every spring there are families of ducks.
    Yes, life is the Mississippi. Powerful, dangerous, teaming with life (especially minnows!) and yet beautiful, beckoning us to come and play.

    • Susan, I appreciate your sharing these powerful memories with us. Isn’t it sad that the family whose children were forbidden to enjoy the river ended up being the ones to suffer a tragedy? Perhaps it was especially menacing where their house was situated, or maybe the mystique of the forbidden simply became too much to resist. When I read about you and your friend canoeing to each other’s homes, it called up idyllic images from Stuart Little. How wonderful that you had such a great childhood playground! I really enjoyed readinng about your adventures. I think as a parent I would prefer canoes to swimming, unless there was a life preserver involved with the swimming as well as the boating. Even if you capsize, at least the boat is there for a potential floatation device.

      • Hi Julia, I thought the same things about why that happened in my friend Sheila’s family, and my theory goes with your temptation theory. Also, since they didn’t have experience with the river (I learned to fish and canoe from my daddy) there may have also been the lack of experience, and maybe panic. We were told that if you get caught in an under current or undertow, hold your breath, mind your head, swim perpendicular to the pull, and eventually you’ll come up. I never had to try it, thankfully.
        On another note as an update, my minor surgery yesterday went just fine, and Kate stayed the whole seven hours (I do not understand how something so simple can take all day!), and we got to know each other much better, and spent a lot of that time laughing. She seems more like a friend now than just “someone from church.” I feel so blessed and grateful.

        • I am so happy that your surgery went well and is now over! Thanks to Kate for being with you. Now you have a sister who is closer for what you endured together. Re: medical care and the question of why things take so long, we have learned the great unwritten laws:
          1. Everything will take much longer than you expect;
          2. 90% of patient time spent in “health care” settings is spent waiting;
          3. Patients and families are assumed to have unlimited time to spend waiting, even when pain and suffering is involved
          4. Notwithstanding 1-3 above, there is always time for paperwork and this will be prioritized.

          Can you tell I’m feeling especially cynical today?

          I think your point is well made re: an ounce of preparation beats a pound of avoidance. I cannot begin to imagine what this family must still be going through as a result of the tragedy.

  2. singleseatfighterpilot

    I know Memphis, and I know rivers; perhaps you’d entertain a far different perspective: In my opinion The Tennessee is an immensley more beautiful river – more like the Kenai of Alaska, just as one of its tributaries – The Russian River – is more like Maclean’s Montana rivers, or the north Georgia rivers.
    Some blind men encounter an elephant. You know the allegory – one says an elephant is like a tree trunk, one a spear, one a rope, one a fan, etc.
    To some a river is relentless and massive, as they are swept along in inevitability. Norman Maclean found they were often capable of being waded. (I quoted Norman in a recent blog about our little brother.) If one wades a swift current, he is exhilarated (particularly if it is 58 degrees).
    As odd as it may sound, I hated being “land-locked” in Memphis! The only water for hundreds of miles, in any direction, was a muddy, tepid, Yellow-Fever-producing, leviathan, ever oppresive with its attendant humidiy (often above 80 percent). Much is said here about the allure and beauty of the oceans, and I whole-heartedly agree. And yet, the widows of the crew of the Andrea Gail, lost in the “perfect storm” of 1991, probably have a different perspective.
    That which is waded and enjoyed by some, is thought of as threatening and dangerous by others. You read a book – you like it. Someone else reads the same book, and is repulsed. (Though only a short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a classic example of a repulsive tale to me.) In that ALL rivers are ever-changing, and as you masterfully observed, “we can never step in the same river twice”, they are better than books — and most readers here love books.

    • You’re right that I have a different idea of the Tennessee. I have a very vague memory of swimming there (in North Alabama), and I recall it as very muddy and yukky if some got in my mouth, which of course it did. Re: Memphis, I did think it strange that such a flat, mostly unwatered expanse would have a huge Naval base there. Still not sure why it does. So yes, it’s all a matter of one’s personal experiences and perceptions. Re:the story you cite, I think it’s a masterpiece, though not my favorite of hers. I think the reader is meant to be repulsed by it, and by the haunting line near the end: “She would of been a good woman, if it had been someone there to shoot her each moment of her life.” Sad as it may seem, we are all too inclined to base our own ideas of morality, religion or any other desired state on just such notions of punitive control. A hard truth, but then a lot of truths are, and that’s what O’Connor was so peerless at illuminating.

      • Though there are a few Civil Service jobs still in Millington, there is no Navy base there any longer. (Perhaps the Pentagon came around to your way of thinking 😉

        • I’m not sure it’s the Pentagon that comes up with such things. Judging by the past several years, there may be nothing but civil service jobs anywhere in America pretty soon. Or maybe that’s just the impression I get from living in the DC area. 😀

  3. Julia, such a moving devotional today. Just what I needed. My life does seem more like a river rolling and rolling along. Sometimes I’m clinging to a log for a lifeline. Jesus is always there to lift me up. Thank you for such beautiful images.

    • Cherie, I’m so happy you found it helpful! I hope your week has been easier than ours has. I’m hanging onto the other end of that same log, but like you I know He’s there with the life preserver when we find ourselves “going down for the last time.” Love and prayers to you and Ron.

  4. Sheila

    Julia, the photo and the quote certainly do compliment each other. I visited Bill when he was in naval training at Millington in 1968 and we drove over to the edge of the Mississippi River. It really was an exceptional experience, as I had never seen such a huge river either. I’m glad to have seen it then, as we have never been back to that area. I so hope that you are having a good week. 🙂

    • Sheila, I had forgotten about Bill having been at Millington. This week has been really rough so far, but I keep hoping for a turnaround. The good news from Matt’s cardiologist has been a bright spot, however. Thanks for being here so faithfully with us!

  5. LB

    Julia, this is lovely! Rivers are truly an analogy for life. Adventurerous, worrisome, peaceful, exhilerating, rocky, smooth …
    I’m heading out today on a bike trip. Sort of a “get back on the horse” trip. Very excited! and as your post says, I will enjoy the journey and am hoping for no mishaps!
    Check out my lastest post (speaking of water). XO

    • LB, thanks for the tip about your post — such wonderful photos and like you, I enjoy the coast whether it’s beach weather or not. Jeff and I have had such fun exploring that area in the very brief times we’ve spent there. Right across the Coleman Bridge from Yorktown, so close and yet so far. It amazes me how faraway a relatively close place can seem. Good luck on being “back in the saddle again – best wishes and prayers for a safe and happy time!

  6. “loyal travel companions’…beautifully said.

    • Thank you! 🙂

  7. raynard

    Julia as I read 2 things came to mind. 1 I’m going to send you a copy of a blog I just got finished writing , tell me what you think.( I posted to FB and know you never mentioned being on it. 2 you just reminded me of that Billy Joel song and video ‘River of Dreams”( I love the video and got the song on my tablet via Spotify.. Getting ready to do afternoon shift in a few. Be blessed

    • Raynard, I’ll look for your post in my email, which I hope to get to later today. Thanks for sending it. “River of Dreams” is one of a very few of Billy Joel’s songs from that particular era that I like. For the most part I think his late 70’s work is best but I do like that song. I just got Jeff a subscription to MLB.TV and if that doesn’t help him get used to the digital world, nothing will!

  8. Julia,
    Love your essay today. Especially your line about we may see ourselves as owning ourselves, as we would own a book, holding it in our hands, finishing one chapter and beginnig another when we choose.

    I can see myself as that book. However, it belongs to an author other than me; who holds the book, of me, in His hands. He patiently waits as I make my choices and can see the completion of the last chapter; and how the story may end. He hopes my choices will bring the story to the end He has written for me.

    • Thank you Alan! It’s great to know that book is being written by the author of life itself. What may feel like an unknown journey to us will indeed have a happy ending if we keep the faith. We don’t know what it will be, but we don’t really need to know anyway. I’ve read this author before and I always like how he ties things up. 😀

  9. Jack

    I’ve duck hunted the stretch between Vicksburg and Greenville, MS in my early 20’s through about 40. We took crazy risk, learned big lessons in our youthful foolishness about riding the river in the pre-dawn hours, currents, rising water, changing winds, falling temps, the value of preparing, the perils of not. Everyone I know that hunted that way has had many more than one scrape with disaster; none still expose themself to the joys and risks of that grand(est) adventure.

    Here’s how dangerous, and how beautiful it was: I dared not tell my wife for fear she’d try to put a stop to it. We still own the boat though, so look out retirement years!

    • Jack, you were smart not to tell your wife! I would have tried to stop it too. I wish you many SAFE moonlit retirement cruises!

  10. Michael

    My only knowledge of the Mississippi comes from Twain and his classic works. Growing up on the Columbia River in S.W. Washington -there must be many parallels. Unfortunately, there is only a small section of the Columbia that is free flowing- since most of it has been dammed. The river now seems more like a giant lake. The Columbia is crazy huge- over a mile wide in several sections. And the Columbia does have several Paddle Boat cruises out of Portland.
    It has also fostered song such as, “Roll on Mighty Columbia.” As kids we much preferred the local lakes and above all the ocean 90 miles away. The Columbia River Barr at the river’s mouth is a roller coaster for the Charter boats, and a wild ride for intrepid fisher people in small boats. A couple of years ago, a group of conservationists, floated down the Columbia backwards from the Dalles dam 90 miles East. This to commemorate and honor the journey of all baby salmon fry on their yearly pilgrimage to the sea. Kind of bizarre. And then to think that Lewis and Clark only deemed the salmon they encountered on their journey, as fit food only for the dogs, the men much preferring buffalo or elk.
    That is also on my bucket list to follow the Lewis and Clark trail from Missouri back. Lewis and Clark and also the Hudson’s Bay company put an indelible mark on many places close to my childhood home.
    Still -“A River Runs Through it” is one of my favorite books of all time.

    • Michael, I remember thinking the Columbia River Basin was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. When I daydream about visiting that area again, that is what I picture in my mind. I must say, it is far prettier than the Mississippi in my opinion, though possibly somewhat less storied, at least among non-indigenous people. That would be quite an adventure to track Lewis and Clark. Meriwether Lewis, as you probably know, died a sad and somewhat mysterious death in the same area where Jeff grew up. Visiting the monument at the site of his death, I had the same sad and haunted feeling I got at Donner Pass. Both places add a somber tone to what is otherwise a gorgeous stretch of road.

      • This blog is probably not the best venue but . . .
        Having visited the Lewis memorial, near Hoenwald, TN many times, I am convinced he was the victim of highwaymen (which may have included Grinder, himself).

        • You have a lot of company in that opinion. One of the docents at Monticello mentioned having focused on Lewis and Clark as part of his emphasis in his studies at the University of Virginia. I immediately asked him: “How do you think Lewis died?” He said he thought it was suicide, which is certainly the majority opinion. I’ve never been able to be quite convinced of that, though. I have nothing to base it on except a deeply felt understanding (based in small part on my own experience) that the accomplishments of Lewis would have demanded a form of tenacity that is the opposite of a suicidal personality. From what little I have known of suicide, I’m convinced that almost all such cases (except for people suffering greatly from terminal illness) involve a true form of what is glibly called “temporary insanity.” I don’t know enough about Lewis to know whether he showed signs of such, but it seems too convenient an explanation for what could easily have been an all-too-common fate in those days. Perhaps if I ever make my way down to the end of my “black hole of to-be-read books” and get around to reading Undaunted Courage, I will know enough to form an educated opinion. Til then, though, my jury is still out on the question.

  11. Michael

    Your essay also reminds me of another great River story by Ken Kesey- “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Made into a movie of the same name with Henry Fonda and Paul Newman. Great story of grit, humor, tragedy, and dysfunctional family dynamics. Based again on Oregon landscapes, timber, rivers and marshland. Ken Kesey was also a son Of Oregon.

    • I had never heard of that book. I put it on my reminder list at the Paperback Swap (where I keep a list of books recommended by others). I never heard of the movie either, but anything with Henry Fonda and Paul Newman would surely be worth watching.

  12. Michael

    Your comment about going under for the last time also reminds me that a River can have a Baptismal function. With the act of “going under”, is the possibility of rebirth, new birth or resetting. In one movie scene I recall the act of surrender when the candidate falls backwards into the arms of the priest and sinks into and under the water. Perhaps in “going under” we can reenact our baptism- one more time. That would be my hope and prayer for you.

    • Michael, that’s a beautiful thought, it really is. Thank you for holding that prayer for me. I think our symbolic death and resurrection in baptism stays with us the rest of our lives. Like communion, it’s a seemingly humble and simple physical act, with far deeper significance. I appreciate your reminding me of that. I’ll try to call up that image the next time I feel as if I’m floundering in water that’s way over my head.

  13. Michael

    Thanks Julia. The movie scene is actually from the comedy -“Oh Brother Where art Thou” with one of your favorite actors of all time-George Clooney. The music is great with some old time Hymns included, but there was that river Baptismal scene. I have to check that out again.
    I think they now believe that Lewis was probably bi-polar. But yes -a sad ending. I grew up playing and fishing the east fork of the Lewis River in Clark county- Washington State. I went to Hudson’s Bay high school and went to McClouglin junior high. Our high school mascot was an Eagle and our nemesis school “Fort Vancouver” were the Trappers. So a little bit of history in my neck of the woods. Of course the Chinook Indians were there first and we do have a few -too few Indian names around like Yacolt and Chimmacum.

    • Michael, that movie was the closest I have come to actually liking old George. I loved the a cappella “shape-note” singing in that movie, which sparked a small revival of interest in that old form of gospel music. I was taught that form of singing at church when I was a child, and have never forgotten the solfège taught to me there in words sung to the tune of “Do-re-mi.” A cappella singing is a great foundation for any sort of music education.

      Re: Lewis – I actually know very little about him, though what little I have read does contain elements suggestive of bipolar disorder. However, being closely acquainted (through Matt) of how debilitating and limiting a condition it can be, I have a very hard time imagining Lewis being able to survive for very long on the frontier if he had a case of it that would be severe enough to bring on suicide. But we as a society have grown so fond of pathological labeling of essentially normal human traits (such as periodic melancholia) that I would have to read more about him to know whether I agree with the idea of bipolar disease and/or suicide. As with many heroes of history whose deaths are not completely explained, perhaps the mystery adds to the aura of greatness. It’s probably best that we will never know, though the speculation will continue, mostly because it’s interesting to wonder.

      Your childhood experiences sound delightful. I can imagine that the typical high school rivalry was even more fun for being set against the historic context.

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