It’s far too hot to hike. Portland is having one of its moderately awful summer heat waves, and although it’s a perfectly good Wednesday afternoon and I’m restless, at least 15 Fahrenheit degrees bristle between me and a pleasant stroll around the bay.
So I’ll sit here inside where it’s cool, and sip another glass of this rich, briny white wine. It’s from a region called Entre-Deux-Mers, which is French for Can’t-Go-Wrong. An Entre-Deux-Mers occupies one of those cool green bottles I can purchase at random without worry, without the slightest knowledge of who made it or what year the grapes matured. I love a wine that makes itself so easy to select.
In fact, the name means “between two tides.” Although literally it means “between two seas.” Both of the “seas” in question are tidal areas of a large river though, so I prefer the first translation. One source argues that the name derives from the French word for tide instead of that for sea, but I don’t know enough French to confirm or deny. Here’s what I know: between two tides is exactly where I stand.
Midsummers each year, I wade and swim and play with my family in “my” river, a serpentine-green vein of pure memory gold flowing from the Klamath mountains to the California coastline. It’s “mine” because I grew up loving it; I don’t remember life without its tides singing in my blood. Their version of an ebb is when I manage not to miss my homing place for a few days at a time. It’s just after I leave each year that their spring tide hits: the difference between presence and absence echoes and magnifies my emotional life for hours, days, or if we’re talking about this year, weeks.
I live many hours by car north of my river. And three minutes on foot from another. The Willamette River, with Portland, Oregon piled on either side, has defined my daily life at least as much as my own inner tide. I enjoy its weather-moderating effects, and track its seasonal surges. I cross the street to greet it nearly every day. I did that this morning at sunrise, in the cool of the day. I launch a kayak into the Willamette sometimes, but rarely do I wade or swim. We’re not familiar enough for that.
Several times now, it’s come out of my mouth out of season: “I think I’ll walk down to my river.” The first time, I didn’t even notice right off. Now I’m wise to it. The Willamette wants to flow in my veins, too, perhaps. Is there room? Are we serious about each other? If I am home here, always and all the way, will I begin to lose the other?
I’m recently free of a deeply exhausting professional situation. It’s too tiring to explain, so I use shorthand: it was The Multijob. Part Two. Freedom from this self-made ball and chain is heaven – I think. In truth it’s hard to be sure: I haven’t quite absorbed that extra hours exist in the day. Nearly every day!
Yesterday Jeremiah sent me a text while I was at work. He does that every day, but for the past few months it’s been grocery requests and reminders of love – just the necessaries. This one was different, not least because it sparked a 5 minute conversation, during which I made a joke. I can tell by his reaction how normal that isn’t: “Holy shit, you’re back!”
He couldn’t see it, but I was beaming in reply. Right then, I cracked the code. I typed back: “I’m fun again!”
After work, I opened my personal laptop and caught up with an out-of-state friend on Facebook. That’s nothing you’d have seen me doing on the regular for the past half a year. Then I emailed another friend about the camping plans we’ve been talking vague circles around. I texted two more, just to talk about how I’m reading Hamilton: The Revolution, and how much we all love that musical. For the first time in months, I didn’t feel harassed by the need to do these things. They didn’t feel like a need; they felt like something I could do to touch base with the people I love.
“I’m fun again” turns out to mean something more precise. A better translation is “I have space in my heart to enjoy the existence of others.” And to contribute to it. I’ve been a taker most of this year – contributing money to my household and building my career, sure, but washing up at the end of every day with little left to spend on the human relationships that make life what it ought to be. That’s not a river I want to ride anymore.
This kind of time used to be normal; now it’s a luxury. Though I can already feel it sliding into routine. I want to keep it wrapped up, a gift I can wonder at, and steer by the miracle of its being. But of course you have to open your gifts, or you miss the other half of the point.
The other river in the earth-cradle that holds Portland lends itself so easily to superlatives, you stop noticing when people use them. The mighty Columbia absorbs all praise of her grandeur with serene indifference. Humans standing on her banks or riding her swells or crossing her on the 205 bridge can hardly help themselves. If they could, I’d worry maybe they’re too deeply freighted with their version of The Multijob.
Between them, the Columbia and the Willamette define this region in every imaginable way. They anchored the first people here, offering food and transportation, and they continue that gift today. Their breath cools our mornings. Our roads and freeways trace their courses, and their most recent names adorn businesses and non-profit organizations across the metro. Literally between them, you’ll find half of Portland. This close to their mouths, they’re both tidal, a pull you can feel subtly from a kayak, mainly when you turn around and stop paddling against it.
As I have done to the rest of my friends, I’ve neglected our rivers these past months. We’ve seen each other – a carefully planned Saturday morning hike, fiercely guarded dawn walks on weekdays – but I’ve been so in need of them on those visits that I forgot they need me too. Of course they don’t, in the sense that they’ll outlive us all, but in this age of human dominance, isn’t it right to choose our actions with those we may hurt in mind?
I try to offer our rivers the gift of recognition: that they are people, too, and I see them. It’s a hard thought to hold. Easy when you’re stunned by their beauty; water through clumsy fingers when you’re fighting the day as it comes. Other than offering my work on the land that surrounds them, I don’t really know how to hold it. If you know, tell me. Tell everyone.
If you’ve ever hiked an area without cleared trails, you’ll hear what I’m about to say in your gut. Finding a path is hard work. Especially one back to where you should have been going in the first place.
I once took the wrong trail several miles into the Eastern Sierra. My father and I had started a bit late in the day, but we weren’t going far; noon was alright to lock the car and edge into the wilderness. We understood our error too late for an easy afternoon in camp. I glanced at the sun, immovable except in the appointed direction. I hitched my pack for a long haul, at speed.
Dad set his pack down. With his eyes, he quizzed the map and then the sun, then the landscape, with measured deliberation. Then he pointed east, and poked the map in my direction. “If we go that way about 100 yards, we’ll strike this trail. See?” I saw the neat dashes on the map, but the territory it told lay invisible on the other side of untracked forest. He was offering something like a miracle to me in that moment: miles and hours less than my out-of-shape back had resigned itself to walking only moments ago. I was dubious, but unwilling to call it out. One hundred yards doesn’t sound far – until you’re wayfinding in a wild wooded mountain range.
Dad’s a Navy-trained navigator, though; other folks have weathered riskier situations on his say-so. I’d have been hopelessly lost without the path to guide me, but I had a human compass. We struck the trail where he said we would. We made it to camp with hours to spare.
I have needed my father to find my way through this present time of trial as well. My father, my mother, my husband, my extended family and my dearest friends. Like the rivers, they cradle me, and like the rivers, I have neglected them for months in my own struggle. Like the rivers, they have given without reserve, and never asked of me more than I could return.
It’s harder than it sounds, letting go of a lifestyle you’ve created. Mine offered what? – power, maybe. Earning power, and the pure validation of being wanted for what I could do. So I thought “is it really so bad?” – even when I knew it had eaten me alive.
There are better paths to the person I want to be. As I navigate back to myself, my overgrown creation pulls at my legs, sucking the sand beneath my feet and leaving me unsteady in my course. The way home is densely wooded, and the choosing of the path is my own. But I have so many compasses to steer by.