… Drenched

“Oh, Eeyore, you are wet!” said Piglet, feeling him. Eeyore shook himself, and asked somebody to explain to Piglet what happened when you had been inside a river for quite a long time.” ~ A.A. Milne

If water drips off you when you’ve been inside a river for quite a long time, then here’s the question I’m playing with:

What’s pouring from you when you’ve been inside your life for quite a long time?

~~

Here’s what we know about water:

Water runs through a river, shaping it.

The river’s assembly of bed-banks-floodplain is not just some random handy container giving water a place to flow. The river — that particularly-shaped earthen body  — is formed BY the water as it follows gravity‘s pull to a sea. That’s why each river is just the right size and shape for its flow.

So the question becomes:

What flows through your life, shaping it?

Moderation may not be

Play my new game! Rank these eight rivers in order of moderation. Go ahead; I will wait.

1Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland. 2Stream Type B... somewhere in my great-grandparents' homeland of Norwegia

3Stream Type C -- Blue River, Colorado 4Stream Type D

5StreamType E: Meandering. 6Stream Type F -- Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona

7 8

So, looking back at your ranking decisions, what were your criteria?

Most people instinctively do not choose #1 as the most moderate: so steep and fast and wildly beautiful.

Number 7 is usually eliminated for sheer rawness, as is #4.

Here are  other  common responses:

Number 8 looks too complicated to be considered moderate.

Number 6 looks rather… something. Way down there? But on the other hand it looks kind of under control, so maybe it’s moderate.

Number 2 — very exciting and fun! But that’s not what we associate with moderate.

Maybe #3 is the moderation star — seems so classic, after all.

Or #5 — meandering along like a river “should.”

Before I reveal the hydrological answer, let me throw in an extra credit question: which river do you think is the most stable?

And just for interest, though there is no such thing as an ugly river, what is your favorite in terms of beauty — right this moment?

ANSWERS:

Fluvial geomorphologists look at rivers in terms of four basic characteristics:

    • entrenchment (when flood waters come, an entrenched river stays in its channel and gets deeper — as opposed to spreading way out),
    • width-to-depth ratio (relatively “wide and shallow” vs “narrow and deep”),
    • sinuosity (how curvy is the channel?), and
    • slope.

Only one of the above eight river types is moderate in all those areas: #2.

Surprised?

Moderation is not the same as slow (#5) nor does it go with a classic workhorse beauty (#3). It’s not isolated and independent like #6.

The most moderate river type is the one we call “rapids.” It’s the one river runners flock to. It’s fun — not boring even in low flow and not full out terrifying even in high flow. It interacts with its surroundings — getting somewhat wider in a flood and definitely benefiting from nice stream side vegetation — but doesn’t dominate the neighbors (by overflowing at the slightest increase in its energy) or completely depend on them (a little over-grazing or watershed paving won’t reduce its banks to raw smithereens).

As for the most stable* river type? Yes: also the rapids. Moderation may not be…

At least it may not be what we thought it was.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of — or inordinately obsessed with in any way. But for sure it’s not dull. It’s vital and engaging.

No, it’s not the only way to be well. What I love about rivers is that any type can be stable (well, except one.. and it can be healed), and they’re all gorgeous — even the immoderates. Even the moderates.

I invite you to take the “What Stream Type Are You?” quiz to investigate your own nature (“for now”… because, thankfully, rivers/we are always changing) and consider tips for maintaining your own particular beauty. Meanwhile, my wish for you (from John O’Donohue’s poem Fluent) is that you may continue to:

“live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of [your] own unfolding.”

* I define stable as resilient when insulted. (For a river, an insult can be: big change in flow/energy, either up or down; big change in the river’s sediment/load, either more or less; alteration in width or depth or slope/speed, like someone digs a hole in the river or fills it or tramples down the bank or narrows up the edges; or interference with the flood plain, reducing the amount of area a river can use for overflow. Um, does it amaze you how EACH ONE OF THESE IS A METAPHOR FOR OUR HUMAN LIVES?! I know. Me too.)

“… a trembling that is all delight.”

Have you ever seen an ugly river? No. Even the most eroding or channelized streams — those considered unstable or unnatural by hydrology standards — are beautiful. I’ve seen homes sited to capture a view of a head-cut, calendars featuring photos of streams so channelized they would make a fluvial geomorphologist weep. AND they’re beautiful anyway.

Objectively, a particular river reach may be damaged. But…

But objective definitions of beauty — like those based on proportion, symmetry, or the golden ratio — have been suspect as far back as 600 BC when Saphho considered “the most beautiful sights the dark world offers” and famously concluded “I say its whatever you love best.”

What’s your beauty sense?

Do you, like Sappho, find that what you love is what you consider beautiful? Kant added two more options when he noted that beauty triggers not only:

  • a loving response but also/or
  • pleasurable response [if you think this is the key then you’d get along with Locke who thought pleasure was THE origin of beauty], and/or
  • profound response.

Still these beg the question of WHY a particular thing triggers such a response. Or maybe the question is HOW.

G.E. Moore tried to get super-practical when he decided that we consider something beautiful when it is a necessary element in something which is good.

But then what is “good?”

And surely the “profound” calls for something more cosmic. Or intimate. Happily — to satisfy my desire for both at once — along comes Alexander Nehamas. In Only a Promise of Beauty he specifies that beauty is “not to be regarded as an instantaneously apprehensible feature ” but rather as:

an invitation to further experiences, a way that things invite us in… to explore, interpret... Beautiful things don’t stand aloof but direct our attention and our desire… they quicken the sense of life, giving it a new shape and direction.”

The river is right in front of us — available, open, transparent. We can wade, dive, swim, or float submerged in its channel, yet, the next morning, the river invites us once more.The same is true of beautiful art, beautiful music, and our beautiful beloveds. That sparking of our own vitality helps explain how:

“This is the spirit that Beauty must ever induce: wonderment, a delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight.”

~ Plotinus

Running dry

“Can your rivers tell me what to do when I have dried up? ~ SS”

Dear SS,

I know you, and I see you, and — although I know it’s scary to feel that empty flowless parch — I am not worried about you. Because here’s what I see of your life: your honed love for clear thinking; your crisp, lush edges developed by years of doing work you value; and your large, even ability to rest when need be. That makes you like a river: you have a foundation, edges, and a floodplain.

Remember that a river channel — just like a life as shapely as yours — requires, and therefore proves, the existence of perennial flow.

When desert dwellers are hiking and happen upon a dry river, they know not to camp in the nice clean channel because it for sure will flow again. And it could be that very night — no matter the season. You will flow again too. I guarantee it.

Until then what should you do? Nothing. Or whatever you want. It doesn’t matter that much.

(Other than don’t give up and think you’re NOT a river. And let’s hope others don’t forget your long-term power and camp out in the middle of your life! But if they do, oh well — you’ll get yourself cleaned out during spring runoff. <insert semi-evil giggle>

And as you while away the time, I hope you re-read a short linkage of the beautiful words of Albert Szent-Gyorgi and the Tao Te Ching here.)

Your energy will return no matter what you do. No need to worry — although you can if you want. Even worrying won’t keep your flow away. So don’t worry if you worry, ok? I won’t. X

… kindness creating

Last week I got a chance to watch my friend out there amongst it all, and I couldn’t look away. I’m not sure I have ever seen such straight up kindness in action. I can’t really describe it.

My friend wasn’t exactly beaming the kindness into people. But almost. Nor taking everyone in. But kind of.

I saw it was more like an interconnection.

Like a meandering E-type or Da-type stream enjoying its floodplain.

Most of all, I saw that being kind is creative.

Like how a whole valley is fed by a stream energizing and  its accepting.

This is heart. And it makes mine glad.

… More Body than Water

“Life is water dancing to the tune of solids.”

~ Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

A river isn’t always wet.  In the high desert of my childhood, most of our streams “ran dry” for a good part of the year.  My brother and I loved them.

They were our superhighways, free of brush and full of stories:  tracks and scat, pottery shards, and, most clearly, the stream’s own contours, for the bare river revealed every contour of the last spring runoff.  We could see how deep the it ran by looking at bank heights, how fast it flowed by gauging the rock sizes in its bed, how wide it sprawled by tracing debris settled on the floodplain.  The river divulged all this – without water.

For even without water, you recognize a river. You see this assembly – bed, banks, and floodplain  – and know it as the body of a river.  It’s hard to envision what a river could look like without those bones.

Water alone, as Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi proclaimed, is “the Hub of Life.. its mater and matrix, mother and medium.”  Yet this essential ingredient can’t live as a river – moving earth, supporting elephants and mayflies, flowing to the sea – without a container.  Even a Hub needs shape to engage with its power:

We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space

that makes it livable.

We work with being,

but non-being is what we use.

~ Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching

translated by Stephen Mitchell

Your life assembles itself the same way a river does, with the same three elements.

The bed of your being may be a favorite hobby.  Or it may be your loved ones, your spiritual practice, your vocation – there is no right or wrong foundation as long as your thinking is clear and clean.  Streams are dominated variously by bedrock, cobbles, gravel, sand, silt, clay.  In fact one waterway may ply each of these in different reaches of its singular journey.

But no matter what your life is made of, you must have banks to define your edges.  Don’t worry, they’ll not completely or irrevocably limit you:  a healthy river’s annual peak-flow overtops its banks in one out of every two or three years.  Nor must you run clear out to your edges on a daily basis:  much of the year,  a river’s low flow occupies only a small sub-channel.  What the stream banks define, and hence allow, is the channel’s full-on, working flow.  Similarly, without edges, your own working energy can never achieve a depth sufficient to power your life.

So then, how do you create the stream banks of your being?  River banks rise above the bed on each side.  The river accomplishes this fortunate structure not by erecting little walls to separate it from the world, but rather by carving a place for itself, down into its very foundation.  By keeping to its work – moving sediment – the river naturally finds itself sheltered in a channel of precisely the right shape for its needs.  Your life’s work, your passionate calling, does the same favor for you.

The final physical component of your life as a river is your floodplain, that rich flat adjacent to the stream banks.  When a river overflows those banks, the channel current continues raging onward, but the water that escapes immediately spreads out, losing depth and therefore velocity.  Floodwater is not fast.  This relatively slow, less powerful water can carry only smaller sediment onto the floodplain.  As it spreads further and loses yet more speed, the floodwater drops its fine material, building the floodplain with increasingly level, increasingly nutrient-laden soil — perfect for sprouting and growing the seeds that each river bears and sows right along with its sediment.

A floodplain is the river’s most precious contribution to the natural world.  For some river types, like the steep, straight mountain brook, a narrow shelf is sufficient floodplain.  For others, like the gently sloping, meandering meadow stream, an entire valley is at its service.  No matter the floodplain’s natural size, its abundance creates a singularly magical, diverse ecology.

You do this too.  When you exceed your regular capacity, you are “spread thin.”  Something has to give and it does, and in slowing down and dropping some of your load, you inundate and seed a lush, level haven that sustains not only you but those around you.  Savor your place of ease in times of overflow.

~

What flows through every river, and what flows through each of us, is energy.  Water energy.  Soul energy.  Its power manifests most fully when that energy constructs and inhabits its own unique presence:  an exquisitely carved foundation, happily defined edges, and a waiting refuge for the inevitable overflow.

This reality you create is recognizable even when you’re running dry.  It is your solace in the middle of an empty day or an empty life.  For just as a river channel requires, and therefore proves, the existence of perennial flow, so too the very form of your life means your spirit will flow again… like water dancing to the tune of a grassy stream bank.

Stream Type Tips

In response to your requests — thank you for the feedback! — I’m working on a table that summarizes all eight Stream Types, along with their strengths, vulnerabilities, and tips for how to thrive. You can find the new page here. Any comments you want to send me will be welcomed! And if you want to take the short “What Stream Type Are You?” Personality Quiz, it’s here.