In the faith tradition I grew up in, there’s the concept of water washing away sin. Being dunked in the water is a public profession of faith and symbolizes a cleansing. We used to go to the river for that ritual, and I liked those Sunday afternoon baptisms. I, however, was baptized in a clean, antiseptic “baptismal pool.” Well, at least we were told it was cleaner. In reality the Ohio River might have been a better option. I have always wished I had been baptized in the river.
It’s ironic that although I grew up within miles of the Ohio and Mississippi, and went by boat in the backwater many times, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in the river water. It’s odd, really. I go visit the confluence of the rivers every time I return to Kentucky, but I can’t recall ever wading into them, or even dipping a toe in.
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. Many of us, including me, have family histories that include stories of men who were good swimmers heading out to the river one morning to fish, and not coming home again. But that’s not reason enough to keep his brother from going the next day. The mystery draws us near.
We all know those currents carry away things other than men, too. 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 letting the waves that lap at the shore carry away our errant thoughts and feelings. Like love, the river may be dangerous, but it’s ever enticing as well.
The river draws us back again and again. Even if we don’t enter it, we are compelled to go pay our respects. It’s a constant, a place we go to for reorienting ourselves. We may be afraid to dip a toe into it, but the river demands our attention nonetheless. And we give it. We have no choice.
In 2001, I gave pieces of driftwood I gathered at the river to some friends with the following piece I wrote.
I am a person of rivers.
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.
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 both again as long as I walk upon this Earth.
I gathered this driftwood on an April Day of 2001 with the idea of sharing it with a few special friends at Christmastime. I had no idea then how profoundly changed I would be by the end of this year. My life will never be the same as it was that day.
I can’t give you the river. I can’t even explain its attraction for those of us born to it. But I want to share with you a small token of it. May this driftwood encourage you to visit what restores you.
I hope the holidays are a time of joy for you and yours this Christmas.
Music you might want to enjoy while thinking about rivers:
The Decemberists “Down by the Water”