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I often imagine life as a river and myself in a boat of my own making, floating on it. I don’t picture a sailboat, having no experience of one, but a small boat that glides with the current and can be paddled. I don’t imagine a single river, but a vast network, far more than I could ever explore in this lifetime. Sometimes it’s a river of water, sometimes a river of stars. Sometimes it’s a river of green moss carving a path through thick forest. Sometimes it’s an air-borne river of leaves and feathers and pieces of sky.
Sometimes it’s a river of stone.
The thing about rivers is they take me where they take me. I can paddle and steer, but whatever river I’m on at any given moment is a living thing in itself. I’m not its master and it doesn’t ask me where I want to go.
Of course, I don’t have to surrender to this kind of movement. I can refuse to make a boat in the first place, refuse to learn how, refuse to try. I can take a short cut and buy a premade boat or jump in someone else’s boat. If I do manage to create a boat, I can still make my way to the shore at any point and stop.
I can always throw myself out of the boat, too … but then I’ll never find out where the river is taking me.
I can also fight with the current.
I know a lot about this.
In the last few days, I’ve been floating on a river of stone.
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Stone is very, very, v…e…r…y slow. Oh, it moves, in the deep foundations of life. It shifts and compresses, slips, breaks down, heats and cools. It tells an old, old story, whole volumes of which are faded and weathered into illegibility, or hidden so well I know I’ll never read them. Now and then, though, a period of grace arrives in which I inadvertently enter a river of stone and have an opportunity, which I reject, avoid and try to escape, to hear whispers of stone stories.
During these times, others on the river are out of sight and out of hearing. My calls echo back to
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me off stone canyons and cliffs. I reach out for another in my sleep and wake with bloody knuckles. On the river of stone others do not respond. They don’t follow through. They don’t keep their word. My password doesn’t work. I can’t log on. There is no clarification or confirmation. I’m alone, in my little boat, and I feel adrift and forgotten, unseen and unheard, left behind.
The river of stone tells me a story of foundations, of beginnings, of layers of time and events, of family and tribe. My agenda, my insistence on movement and progress, my puny frustration with things not done, make less impression than a fragile-winged dragonfly that flung itself into the stone’s embrace uncounted aeons ago and flies now forever in the river of stone.
The river of stone is inexorable. It forces me to slow down. It provides me with no distraction and no easy entertainment. Creativity falls into sleep from which I cannot wake it. Those tasks and activities I call “productive” cease. Frantically, I paddle my boat, one side, then the other, until my hands are bloody blistered and my shoulders are a block of pain. All the old demons in my head leap into life, jeering and heckling, joining hands in gleeful celebration, and they have their way with me because I’m trapped in a river of stone.
I accomplish nothing on a list. I write no pages. Plans fall through. I wait too long to walk, and then it rains. Dirty dishes sit on the counter. All I want to do is get lost in an old familiar book — if only I could stay awake long enough!
Then, gradually, frustration, panic and fear exhaust themselves and lie down to rest. I rediscover the beauty of emptiness. I begin to see veins and gems and stardust in the stone around me. I remember the difference between doing and being, and the delicate balance they must maintain. The stone speaks to me of strength, of endurance, of centering and grounding. I give myself to the pause in communication and creative work. I put down the paddle, the oar, stretch out in the boat and rest, dreaming of stone-lipped wells refilling with spring water, dreaming of a spray of words leaping off waves or trailing behind stars in a river ahead, dreaming of friends whose faces I haven’t yet seen and broken connection repaired.
I doze, rocked in a cradle of stone. I rest, floating on a river of rock. I sink into the slow, deep, stony heartbeat in the center of all things, imagine inhalations and exhalations, each lasting 100,000 years.
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I surrender to the river of stone, and in doing so I float out of it.
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In old stories, a crossroad is always a magical place of power and choice. You never know who you might meet at a crossroad. Perhaps a lean, handsome peddler will draw up a cart and spread his wares. Other travelers may appear. Elders may linger there with wisdom under their tongues. Crossroads are not always identified by neat, straightforward lettered signs, but portents, omens and intuitive signs abound. A dismally croaking raven, a snake in the dust or a fleeting glimpse of a fox all have a message at a crossroad.
I rarely miss posting weekly, but last week I did. I succumbed to a virulent upper respiratory virus and for a few days had no choice but to down tools and lie low. Simply breathing occupied all my attention and energy. I cancelled plans and obligations, abandoned my ‘to accomplish’ list and let go of my self-expectations.
This was frustrating, as it was the week in which I intended to transition effortlessly from my old job to new possibilities, witness the smooth closing of the sale of my property in Colorado, and generally navigate these significant endings and beginnings seamlessly, elegantly, confidently and without mess.
Instead, I emptied two boxes of Kleenex, coughed as though ready for an end-stage TB ward, achieved a spectacularly sore and chapped mouth and nose, drank liters of fluid with the inevitable day and night result of continually needing to pee, and tried to sleep in a sitting position to facilitate breathing through my clogged airway.
Instead of transitioning smoothly into new work, I canceled one opportunity and didn’t follow up on others. I worried about money instead.
The sale of my house did occur, but a day late due to unexpected last minute paperwork that needed to be signed and notarized and sent from Maine back to Colorado. My renters have been unable to find a new place, the buyer (now owner) is moving into a trailer because her old house also sold and her new house still has renters in it, and I need urgently to return to Colorado and retrieve the rest of my possessions from the property.
In short, nothing about my internal, physical or external reality has been seamless, elegant, confident or without mess. In fact, there’s been quite a bit of mess, from sodden Kleenex to tangled feelings.
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None of this really surprised me. I’ve never yet been really miserably ill without a significant emotional event of some kind at the onset. I might not admit my distress intellectually, but the truth will out physically. Unacknowledged feelings eventually reach such proportions they demand my attention, one way or the other. All of my pretty plans didn’t allow for any space in which to pause, reflect, feel and be with how things are.
So, I got sick.
I resigned myself to the inevitable, did what I could for my symptoms, reread all my old Mary Stewart books (so comforting, and no brain required), dozed, and thought about intersections, endings and beginnings, suspended activity and crossroads.
I have a tendency to view my experience through a lens of metaphor and symbol, and suspended activity has been much in my mind for the last five years. The Hanged Man is a Tarot card with just that meaning, and my first book is named after it.
The Hanged Man is a card many people fear, although generally the figure depicted hangs upside down from one leg, apparently perfectly relaxed and comfortable and even smiling, depending on the deck. The card illustrates that place in life we’re all familiar with between one thing and another, just like the crossroad. Events converge and intersect. Meetings and partings take place. We suddenly come to the end of a road and it’s necessary to choose a new one.
I’ve never been good at pausing. I can accept change, but I expect myself to adjust and adapt instantly and effortlessly, no pause required. I don’t want to hang around (if you’ll pardon the pun) and think about what’s over or what I’d like to begin. I want to get a grip and move on. Now!
This is a shame, and all the old stories and archetypes tell us it’s counterproductive. Crossroads are sacred ground, filled with resting places, old altars and tilted gravestones. The leaves on trees growing at crossroads whisper all the prayers and petitions they’ve heard. At crossroads we lay out cards, cast runes and yarrow stalks, interpret dreams, drum, dance and call on our intuition and faith for guidance. A crossroad is a place to linger, honoring where we’ve been and considering a way forward, or sideways, or perhaps even retracing our steps for a second time before we go on.
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A crossroad deserves an offering of our presence and patience. It’s only in suspended activity that we access our deepest intuition and wisdom, only then when we begin to gain full understanding. Loss takes time to put to rest. Hopes and dreams need time to grow. Intuition can’t speak unless we’re quiet, and guidance can’t find us if we’re not still.
I’m writing this out on our deck in the sun. I can hear water running into the pond. The phoebe, back for another summer, is perched in her favorite spot on the barn roof, bobbing her tail and hunting for insects. Wonder of wonders, there’s not a box of Kleenex at my elbow! Not only that, but I’m breathing through my nose. Things are looking up.
Before me is a new week. I’ve sort of given up on the seamless and elegant thing. It hasn’t been fun to be sick, but I’m grateful I was forced to pause. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything except wasting time and blowing my nose, but I see now I needed to hang by one leg and just be for a little while. I needed to consider what’s ending, and how I feel about it, and what direction I want to go now. I needed to spend some time wandering in my graveyard, remembering what’s laid to rest there. It was important to revisit my hopes and dreams, check in with my intuition and take time to wonder what will happen next.
At this point I’ve decided to be content with lingering at this crossroad. When it’s time to go on from here, I’ll know. In the meantime, this is a good place. Maybe a peddler is even now on his way to meet me, or an old crone in a hooded cloak will come in the dark morning hours with an enigmatic message showing me the way forward. Who knows?
Now that this is written, perhaps I’ll go find the tree from which the Hanged Man is suspended and see what’s on his mind today.
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except where otherwise noted