On Rivers and Memories

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” — Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

“So I go back to a pew, preacher, and a choir

singing ’bout God, brimstone and fire

and the smell of Sunday chicken after church” — Kenny Chesney, “I Go Back”

“Get out my machete and battle with time once again.” — Jack Johnson, “Home”

Georgia has been good to me. My soul has found rest walking in her red clay, and I’ve met with the Divine in the shadows of oaks. I’ve whispered secrets to her trees, and I like to believe that, at times, they’ve returned the favor. The Georgia wind, with her scent of pine, has breathed life in me, and her rivers and lakes have refreshed my bones. I remember that time I hugged a tree along the Chattahoochee, because something within me ached to touch and be touched. The bark against my bare hands and arms, I felt a sensation that I hadn’t felt in months, and while I continue to touch and be touched by trees (especially in the Pacific Northwest), there is a certain magic and mystery that only comes with the skin of another being pressed against yours. Maybe I need trees and people. I remember having my first kiss just a few miles from the Alabama border, and being opened to a world of wonder and mystery and grace and terror that even to this day I have a hard time navigating, and maybe always will. And I remember those countless mornings I spent on a porch, listening to the songs and sermons of birds while I wrestled with an ancient and wrinkled text sitting on my lap, a text that continues to both haunt and whisper to me, or perhaps it is better to say that the Spirit I occasionally meet in that messy text continues to haunt and whisper to me.

Maybe there’s something going on here. Maybe there really is someone speaking through all of this, through all of the humdrum and boredom and loneliness that often pervades my life.

I remember the first time I was naked with a girl, and we both laughed afterwards when, playing through her Bluetooth speaker, a Casting Crowns song came on. She wanted to change it, but I felt that the irony of an early 2000’s worship song playing after two college kids just hooked up in a dorm room was the epitome of grace. Like, damn. There is something funny and profound and wonderful and sacred and maybe even slightly annoying about listening to a song talk about your sins being cast as far as the east is from the west, while you lie with nothing on but the covers, and she’s running late to band practice and you’re gonna miss work, and you know damn well that this is probably it, that nothing will ever become of your time together, but you’re just trying to drown out the flood of shame with another kiss. If I had a cigarette, I would’ve smoked it.

What if nothing and no one is ever actually lost? What if God is to be found in all those seemingly “godless” memories? What if I could look at my life in a non-dualistic way, and see the grace and love of God permeate throughout it all? To live in such a way that I am present to the reality of the One through whom all things are made? Brother Lawrence called it “practicing the presence of God,” and some today call it “embodiment.” Either way, it’s the same.

I remember being 13 years old, and spending the summer in my bedroom, because I discovered that thing that all thirteen year old boys discover, and suddenly having no desire to go ride my bike or run through the woods. And I remember being 14, a year later, and telling my dad I did not want to go see the Grand Canyon, and I had no excuse for it, but my pubescent body had an excuse, and dammit, I missed out on going to the Grand Canyon because my 14 year old self would rather masturbate than go look at the wonder and glory of a canyon carved by a river “from the basement of time,” to quote Maclean. I’ve still never seen that canyon, and now my dad and I are in different states and each have our own schedules, and I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but there’s an ache within me to make up for that time lost, if time indeed was lost, if it is indeed possible to lose time.

And I remember high school freshman year, where I spent a total of four times hanging out with a friend, the same friend, Nick. Four times. One year. That was it, that was all my social interaction, and the rest of that time was spent playing video games or throwing a tomahawk at trees in my backyard, or doing that other thing, and man, I can still feel in my body all the social anxiety and discomfort and unease and loneliness and fear that I felt. I hate that my body knows those feelings so well. And each time I feel them again, it is not one feeling in one space of time but the culmination of years of the same feeling, and it hurts, oh God does it hurt.

But despite all this pain, and the ways in which I so easily internalize it all and condemn myself, I know that vulnerability is the way to go, that it is the only path of healing for myself and others. To paraphrase Andy Squyres, to be human is not a curse. Narrow is the road to life, and I think that is only because the road to life is the road of love, and all too often we’d rather condemn ourselves and others rather than live a life of endless compassion and mercy and grace and kindness to all, including ourselves. And shit, man, if vulnerability is the pathway to love, no wonder we all tend to much rather prefer the wider road.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Seattle, sipping on a latte with almond milk, while I watch the Emerald City’s prime attraction — rain. My eyes wander to the drops of water pooling in a puddle just outside the window, but my mind drifts to these guys I overhear, maybe a decade or two my senior, discussing Alan Jackson. I pause my music to eavesdrop, and these three guys in the back of this third wave coffee shop, grinding coffee beans and packing orders, are reminiscing on the summer of ’94. A summer which, at least for one of them, involved a lake and a girl and Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee. “

And they start singing the chorus, about how “way down yonder on the Chattahoochee // it gets hotter than a hoochie coochie,” and I wonder if they realize just how accurate that song is, that yes, Georgia is so damn very hot, and the Chattahoochee is the epitome of a redneck summer, and that walking through its sand really can add some years to your life because it makes you feel like a damn kid again. I wonder if they know that.

And of course, they don’t know that I’ve hugged a tree by the Chattahoochee before, or that I kissed a girl just a few miles from it, and that even though I don’t smoke, I really wish I would’ve had a cigarette when she ended things with me and told me that all I wanted was sex, because it took me months to work through the shame and condemnation I felt, and my asthma would’ve hated it but maybe a long drag would’ve been good for me.

And now I’m listening to Jack Johnson, listening to him sing about a girl and surfing and making banana pancakes and searching for wisdom and smoking weed with Willie Nelson. And I don’t really relate to much of that, but it doesn’t matter much anyways because it brings a peace and comfort that is hard to come by these days. And I start to think about growing up and growing old, and all these shameful yet real memories that sometimes haunt me and sometimes surprise me, and I imagine myself taking a nap on a fallen tree along the shore of the Puget Sound, just like I did last week, only this time I’m not 22 but 42 or 62, and maybe I’ve got a wife and some kids, or maybe I’m divorced, or maybe all I’ve got is a dog, but I’m allergic to dogs so maybe I don’t, but I’m laying there with my eyes closed and a smile on my face, thinking about all the time that has passed and all the time that has passed through me, and I’ve finally learned to be at peace with all the shit I’ve done or have yet to do, and then I’m taken back to the Chattahoochee, and now I’m 72 or 82, and eventually it’s all merged into one and God is all in all and I’m able to see the humble glory of God in both the humdrum and hustle and bustle that has been my life, and everything in between, and a river runs through it.

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