a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
GIVE IT TO THE RIVER
Our rafting guides on the Colorado River spoke of “the River “as one might the Almighty, with a respectful sense of its sacred power. Some of them had lost friends on the river or they themselves had capsized and been at the mercy of another kind of liquid gravity. Over the two weeks of camping and river rafting, we had all fallen into a kind of trance akin to worship. I was reading my waterlogged copy of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching in a new translation by Ursula LeGuin.
Water and Stone
What’s softest in the world
rushes and runs
Over what’s hardest in the world.
These pastel limestone canyons were so ancient there was no carbon dating them. Striated in lavender, rose, and green, the steep walls revealed the slow sculpting of glacial force, from Mesozoic layers down to the bottom of Paleozoic time. Edging the river was black, volcanic schist like the scrawling of a giant. “No one knows how old this stone is,” our guide said. “Older than anything human, that’s for sure.” Her eyes were hooded with reverence.
Those first days on the river we had spent looking upwards at the slim chasm of blue sky, like the suggestion of another world far above. But that gazing upwards soon gave way to keeping our eyes steadily here below, watching the water. It was always changing. One moment mesmerizingly flat like a lagoon reflecting the pastel purples and dark rose colors of the embracing canyon walls. The next minute, we descended into the frightening glory and roaring blur of whitewater as we hung in the air, almost upside down.
One day mid-rapids, mid-air, our river raft shot up at a perilous right angle to the roiling Colorado River. Stomachs lurching, we then dropped the height of three stories, splashing into the watery zigzag and turbulence of Lava Falls.
“Do we need to do a woman overboard drill?” our river guide shouted, leaning hard against her oars to keep our raft pointed straight through the churning, blood-red waters. I glanced around at everyone in my boat to do a quick head count. All eighteen us of were still attached to each other in our toboggan-like postures – a little human train of bodies wedged within each other’s legs. Our orange life preservers were soaked, our faces dazed and grinning, much the way chimpanzees grin when terrified.
Eighteen of us adventurers – mostly strangers to each other — had been rafting down the Colorado for two weeks, along with several elders, a young and adventurous family, “river rats,” as the repeat runners called themselves, and our stalwart crew. Lava Falls, the mightiest and most dangerous of all the rapids would be our last. Even our guides were uncharacteristically serious as they prepared us for this Number Five rapid.
“Sometimes we capsize at Lava Falls,” they had told us. “It happens to the best of us. If it happens to our boat, stay calm and swim toward the light. Sometimes if you’re sunk in a keeper, you can’t tell which way is up.”
A “keeper,” was their word for the sometimes fatal whirlpools that pull people and boats into them like a black hole. “A place of no return,” our guide said gravely.
“That’s what they always tell you when you die,” someone tried to make a joke of the warnings. “Go toward the light.”
“Good advice,” our guide said in a voice like a snapping turtle. Then she added more amiably, “All I’m saying is this is not Disneyland.”
Whether we were drifting lazily, bodies stretched out on pontoons to sunbathe or shivering in our bobsled positions as a chilly wave pummeled us, I kept my eyes on the woman who always perched in the front of the boat. She was our matriarch, Maude, and we had quit volunteering to sit in the bow and take the brunt of the river because Maude had so fully claimed this perilous place. At 70, she was the oldest and seemed too frail to take up this post – half-lookout scout, half sacrifice. Maude was the first to get dunked. She was also the first to see around the next bend to what awaited us all.
“I’m the elder,” she had explained simply. “I go before you.”
What she did not tell everyone, only a few of us, was that she was dying of kidney cancer. This was to be her last trip. She came to her beloved Colorado to “memorize the River so I can learn how to move between the worlds when my time comes.”
Time did not seem to exist here. Just the river. I could understand how Maude, as her own time grew near, wanted to be in a place that felt eternal. Sometimes the river was calm and sunlit; other times it was hard going, on and on. We just hoped to keep afloat, keep our heads up. Go toward the light.
“What I like about the river is that everything makes sense,” Maude had said, the night before we dared Lava Falls. “Perspective, you know.”
“Don’t sweat the small stuff?” someone ventured.
“Yeah, and you realize that you are in the presence of something much greater than yourself … call it God or nature.”
“Or, the river . . .” someone finished in a soft, dreamy voice.
That last night, as on all the nights before, we had made camp in the shelter of red rocks on the shore of the Colorado. We had all grown so accustomed to the river’s voice. Unlike the rhythmic rise and fall of ocean surf, it was a constant baritone, like the see-saw of huge, watery cellos. Fluid, but forceful. We bathed in the river daily, and our bodies were caked in the dry red of river mud. If some of us had started out this trip with tidy khaki, or primary colored shorts and tank tops, we all now appeared downright aboriginal in the monochrome of our rusty skin and clothes. Like creatures whose colors change to fit their habitat, we all now resembled the river.
It was even hard to tell who was old and who was young because our skin was sun-baked and layered with fine sand. Ageless, timeless, with no distractions from the world above. We had no cell phones, only one satellite phone for emergencies, no radios that worked this deep inside the canyon, and no computers or any other way to keep track of the doings of other humans. It wasn’t just “no politics, no religion,” it was close to “no people.” Except us. And we weren’t exactly people anymore. We belonged to the river. We were creatures who needed the shelter of stone, the comfort of an evening fire, the sustenance of the food we carried with us. We were more animals or early humans, who depended upon water for thirst, for travel, sometimes for burial.
In a way, Maude told us that last night, she was experiencing her own last rites, while she was still alive. Her husband and several of her family were on this river trip alongside her. “Who says you can’t take them with you?” Maude had teased.
She was comfortable talking about her imminent death. It was a done deal, matter-of-fact. The next rapids.
We whittled sticks for toasting tiny marshmallows over our fire. “This is my idea of heaven,” Maude said.
“S’mores?” someone asked with a laugh. “That’s heaven for a sweet tooth.”
“No,” Maude was serious. “Here, this river, this camp, this canyon. It’s the closest place to heaven that I know.”
Maybe it was the sugar, maybe it was the dread of Lava Falls the next day, maybe it was Maude as our guide to the beyond. Somehow we all got on the subject of the next world.
“What do you think heaven looks like?” a young man asked Maude. “I mean the heaven that’s after this earth?”
“Ah,” she smiled. In the firelight, her smooth face was ageless. “You’re assuming there is another heaven besides here.”
“Well, yeah, that’s what most people think, isn’t it?”
“And what do you think?” Maude asked the man. He was German, and we teased him that he was “travel-mad” because he had been almost everywhere we could name. He already had his next trip planned – to Ethiopia.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “But I like to plan and prepare for my trips.” His face lit up and he grinned. “Even my afterlife. I would like to know where I’m going. And what it looks like.”
“So you can pack?” our guide suggested.
“So I can know how to live,” he answered.
“Good idea,” Maude burst out laughing and took a few minutes to make an utterly perfect S’more. We all clapped at the luminous ooze of marshmallow between chocolate graham crackers. “But really,” she continued more thoughtfully, “how do you all imagine heaven?
“I think maybe it’s like a huge intergalactic train station,” the German traveler suggested. “You can decide which train to take and where. But perhaps someone puts you on the train you deserve to take.”
“Heaven is a giant, glittering city with no slums or poor people,” someone else said. “You can build your own house, work if you want to, and there is so much love no one ever feels lost.”
As the campfire itself glittered, we all leaned closer for warmth and to listen to one another. Most of us sat cross-legged now, sleeping bags wrapped around our shoulders. Beside us the river rushed by on its own way to eternity.
“What if there’s nothing?” an older man asked, his face a play of light and shadows from the fire. “I mean, if you just go back to being part of the cosmos. Not some individual soul, but some kind of consciousness that is absorbed into the whole?”
“Could be,” Maude nodded and rocked back and forth on her knees. She reached in and adjusted the wood, its white ashes disintegrating at her touch.
“I think heaven is a kind of school,” I offered, joining in the dialogue. “You review your life with guardians or guides and then wisely decide what lessons in your next life you’d like to understand.”
“Yeah, but what if you flunk out of heaven?” someone chimed in. “Do you believe in hell . . . like the worst detention hall ever?”
“I think heaven and hell are here,” another fire-tender answered. “And there are all sorts of prisons . . . or detention halls. Sometimes they are called religion.”
We fell quiet, letting the river talk. It occurred to me that we were in a kind of geological underworld and the Colorado was the River Styx ferrying us to our destinies. But this underworld, unlike Hades, was lush with life and beauty. Being here on the river was a vigorous meditation. Far above us was the world we had left behind, the “rim life,” as our guides called it, almost as an afterthought. Its busy distractions and demands seemed irrelevant here, even silly. No news. No possessions. If a nuclear bomb went off, we might not even know about it. We rarely even saw a plane zip by. We were a small tribe of travelers who belonged more to the river than ourselves, like the original dwellers, the anazazi, whose rough-hewn doorways stood sentry in the pink granite cliffs.
The novelist and poet Linda Hogan, who was also on this trip, seemed to have this in mind when she reminded us, “Native people believe that spirits can come back to watch over us and the earth.
In Seattle my desk looks out on the Salish Sea at the island birthplace of Chief Seattle, a nature preserve of ancient cedar. I remembered his words,
Our dead never forget the beautiful world
that gave them being.
They still love its winding rivers,
its great mountains, and its sequestered vales,
and they ever yearn in tenderest affection
over the lonely-hearted living
and often return to visit and comfort them.
Chief Seattle’s words echo the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva, or those enlightened beings who volunteer to return to this world to help others achieve wisdom and liberation. As we continued our late night dialogue imagining heaven, I was struck at how few people brought up any sense of Judgment Day, or punishment for earthly deeds. There were no circles of hell or limbo.
Someone did mention the “bardos” of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but not as chastisement, only as a kind of spiritual maze in which the soul struggles to find peace and clarity.
No one asked Maude how she imagined the afterlife, since she seemed closer to that mystery than we were. “Well,” she finally took her turn. “I may be in heaven before you . . . unless Lava Falls takes us all together. So I’ll go first and say this: I think the afterlife is a bright and powerful river that carries you anywhere in the universe you want to visit.”
“Like the Milky Way?”
We all smiled and lay back on our sleeping bags and stared up at the narrow slit of night sky far above. Most of us were sleeping under the stars with no tents. Luxuriating in the cool desert air, I gazed up, trying to figure out half a constellation visible between canyon cliffs. Was it the Pleiades?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
That last night of our Colorado River trip, I was so delighted to listen to people’s visions of the afterlife. Having this discussion with Maude, our matriarch, who would bravely go before us, was an honor. Her attitude was both practical and playful.
“I’m just so curious about what comes next,” Maude said as we all watched her face in the firelight. She smiled, “Sometimes I can almost glimpse it, just out of the corner of my eyes. But then, like a dream, it’s gone.”
“But what do you see, in just that glimpse?” the young German man asked. Possibly he was booking his travel there.
Maude paused, cocking her head as if listening more than seeing. We listened with her: The cascading roar of the river, the wispy breeze through tamarisk trees, and the delicate trill of a canyon wren. “Light,” she finally said very softly.
“A different light.”
We did not press her for more details. It was late and Lava Falls awaited us next morning.
“Time to turn in,” our river guide told us with the authority of a mother putting her wound-up children to bed. “No more talk of heaven now. We need to give our complete attention to the river.”
“Give it to the river,” we all echoed the motto that was our answer to almost everything here in the grandest of all canyons.
Dutifully, I lay in my sleeping bag drifting, my eyes wide open to memorize this slip of sky: there was the top of Cassiopeia and Orion’s Belt. I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I remembered the closest description of the afterlife that I had ever heard. It was from Rachel MacKenzie, my beloved first editor.
The last time I had said goodbye to Rachel in her New York apartment, I felt her spine actually shift as if she were already untethered to her body. Startled at her frailty, tears blurred my eyes. But Rachel shook her head and from her sick bed on the couch, she had motioned to me that it was all right to leave her. “But keep the door open when you go,” Rachel whispered in her delicate voice. “So I can listen to your footsteps on the way out.”
The night before she died, I had a dream that Rachel came to perch rather professionally at the end of my bed. She looked exactly as she had the last time I saw her: Luminous hair swept up in a bun, black glasses perched low on her nose, that familiar, faint smile as if she were pondering some kindly private observation.
“You?” I was so happy to see Rachel. In my dream, I sat up in bed. “Are you really here?”
“No,” Rachel answered softly. “I’m not. I’m in a different place.”
“Where? What’s it like? Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Rachel nodded thoughtfully. “And I want to tell you something important.”
“Where I am, there is still suffering.”Her expression was fiercely tender. “But . . . but you understand everything.”
And then she was gone. The next morning I got a call that Rachel had died from the congestive heart failure that had haunted her final years. To this day, I keep her last hand-written note to me framed on my desk. And sometimes Rachel still visits my dreams, as if to edit my life.
That last night in the Grand Canyon when I could not sleep, I found myself asking Rachel if she might consider being a guardian angel for our descent into Lava Falls. And we also had Maude with us.
As usual, Maude took her position in the bow of the boat. She was dressed for the dangerous occasion in her brilliant red slicker with a yellow rain hat tied under her chin. Along with the water sandals we all wore, she had added waterproof long nylon pants and clipped her fanny pack to her life preserver for easy access. Despite all the sensible gear, Maude had added Hopi silver earrings dangling spider-web turquoise stones. As our raft rose and fell in the increasing turbulence, Maude’s earrings made a little silver melody.
Sitting strapped to the boat behind Maude, I held onto the ropes on either side of me as if this river were a rodeo ride.
“Wahoooo!” we all hollered out loud as our raft hit the first rapids of Lava Falls.
These falls are legendary for their sideways gravitational pull. That is why our river guides had warned us that to avoid capsizing we had to veer to the right shore and sluice down along the shore.
Swept into this watery tornado, our raft first sank in a dizzying descent and then stood upright on its stern. We all shouted out in alarm as the boat spun around like a rubber top then sashayed vertically down the roiling red waves. The water might as well have been a trampoline as we bounced into mid-air and then free fell back into the rapids with a body-jolting splash.
Gripping the ropes for dear life I looked for Maude and saw that she had hooked her feet rodeo-style under the boat straps and was hollering. She threw out her arms to the cold, muddy water swamping us. “Hallelujah!” Maude sang out as a wave whomped her.
We all disappeared into a whirlpool that sucked us downward. We swirled underwater for what seemed hours, but was really only seconds, before the river spat us back up into the air. As we ascended back up into this world, Maude was still there riding point on our raft. We had not capsized. We rode the rapids.
Maude’s face was radiant as she cried out, “Isn’t this everything you always wanted?”
Brenda Peterson is a novelist and nature writer, author of 16 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year.” Her most recent book is a memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth just out from DaCapo Press. It was chosen by independent booksellers nationwide as an Indie Next “Top Pick.” Peterson’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Times, Utne Reader, Orion, and Oprah magazines. Since 1993 she has contributed commentary to her local NPR stations. She lives in Seattle on the Salish Sea. Visit her websites at: www.IWantToBeLeftBehind.com and www.literati.net/Peterson.