“Let the river
Let the river run.
Let the water
Let the water fall.
Flow down off the mountain
and into the sea.
Let the river run its course.”
~ Mike Peters and The Alarm, Let the River Run its Course
Among those who ask for my help with their studies, there are many whose fascination with history is combined with grieving the passage of time. One person that comes to mind exemplifies this sentiment, which draws together a true spirit of inquiry with a kind of desperate regret over the consequences of societal change. “Why was that place torn down?” “Why don’t people do this, or that, anymore?” Looking at old photographs that have advertisement signs on diners, I hear, “why are meals so much more expensive now?” Such inquiries know no age limitations; I’m hearing questions like this from age groups not commonly associated with such sentiments. It’s a nostalgia for a past not even experienced. “Why isn’t that place the same as it was before?” What a wondrous question, indeed. Of course, there are deliverable and practical answers. Economics and inflation. Buildings that weaken, relocations, and misbegotten destruction called “urban renewal.” I hear myself explain why some place or thing is no longer as it was- or where it had been- trying not to sound oddly parental or pessimistic.
Indeed, I myself am not without my own sentimental streak- which I’ve unwittingly had since childhood. And surely the passage of time is the natural course of living and witnessing the years we each have known. Well aware of these things, and capable of conveying the rational answers, there do remain those quiet moments when I wonder at the rapid movement of time- and also notice myself wishing to retrieve it. Oh, and don’t we see this all around us: costly efforts to try to arrest, avert, or reverse the by-products of time. Many want to find what they feel they’ve lost, even with the fervor of a self-imposed desperation. Such pressures are fed by the ways communication technology and research are becoming more instantaneous. But we must beware not to focus on mirages which are superficial representations of what we think we seek. The mythical Dr. Faustus sold off his life’s blessings and burned his eternity in exchange for an unfortunate backward turn of the clock. Though a fable, so stark a tragedy gives us an allegory that directly connects the idea of selling oneself out in pursuit of what can never be possessed. Inevitably the only constructive thing to do is to come to terms, both reluctantly and gratefully, with the flow of years and seasons. The easiest course is to work with the continuum of our selves and the world around us, and not to be consumed in resisting friction.
When we embark upon a retrieval of what is past, our steps navigate a diverted direction from the course of reality. What might resemble a retracing of paths is something more like a reconstruction upon shifting sands. We may have harbored yearnings for what has passed, but the past is not a home that waits for us. I can think of occasions in which I have returned to places that had deep impressions from long ago. After the first understanding of my disorienting comparison between past connotations and a kind of present benignity, there are occasions I’ll return even just to test that spirit of transformation. One might say we are our own context, especially when streets seem suddenly narrower, distances shorter, and our intuitive responses at ease. If things appear different, perhaps indeed they are. And if we recognize our own changes, surely those people and places we have known surely do not remain as they are etched in our impressions. Our natural attempts and our subsequent reconciliations are reminders of the constant transition of our lives themselves, which were created to evolve and be open to advancement. Was it really so good, back then? After all, we do selectively visit our pasts. Still further, does the past miss anyone? In the harmony of accepting, and not resisting, comes the reminder that in the momentary heaviness of letting go of what is already buried by layers of time, there is also a buoyant liberation of unknown prospects that await.
While pondering these questions and ideas over the past week, I’ve wanted to write these thoughts along a river- and here I am perched upon a riverbank. Textured ripples pass across my line of sight in an unending scroll of calligraphic strokes and words. Not as the receding and advancing tides I know along the ocean, but a single-direction flow. Barely a quarter-mile upriver, there are falls which feed this present breadth- with rapids unrelenting and constant as the passage of time. I remember, as a twelve-year-old, looking with wonder at mountain waterfalls, telling myself that “it never shuts down,” city kid that I was. I imagined the voluminous torrents going night and day through every season, “always on and never running out.” This amazed me.
The late-summer brings me to especially recall continuities and returns. This time of the year has always felt more like a new year’s threshold to me. The Hebraic calendar draws together times of reflective reckoning with the observance of a new year of seasons. Part of that introspection includes an actual casting of bread upon moving waters, known as Taschlikh which means “you will cast away.” In a heart’s movement of trust, we can release those symbolic fragments and watch them disappear along the streaming conduits of the earth. This tradition echoes the words of Micah, who expressed how our souls are cleansed with reconciliation as God casts our sins into the farthest irretrievable depths to be remembered no more. For me, it is also a casting away of regrets, a gesture of unburdening, and a choosing away from what obstructs me from what is holy. At this bend in the river, it is for me to jettison what I do not need, so that I can make room for what is life-giving. Those bread morsels are not insignificant, humble as they may be, disappearing past the overhanging willows and reminding me that to truly gain my life I must let it go. My role is more a steward’s than an owner’s. It is for me to navigate the tides of time, and not to be consumed with resisting the currents by deviating or freezing the waters. The river itself is a sign of continuity, as well as a conduit from mountains to sea. It is solidity in fluidity, and as I write it is visible to me that in the faithful consistency of prayer, silts of excess are washed away.