Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Upstream 28: Shall We Gather at the River? (Monday, June 12, Minija River near Vabalai)

We wake to a hard rain slapping against our tent.  Hoping for better weather to greet the day, we try going back to bed several times, but in the end we can't outsleep the storm.  So I cook up a quick breakfast, daven in the tent, and we push out into the river around 10:30.

It rains, on and off, for most of the day.  Over the course of just a few hours of paddling, the river widens and deepens significantly.  The small, intimate stream where we launched yesterday has become a significant estuary, emerging from the forest into open countryside.  It now resembles the Neris on our opening stretch from Vilna to Kovno.  Closing the circle, as it were, finishing as we began.  All rivers flow to the sea, says Ecclesiastes, yet the sea is never full.  The ocean may not overflow, but its tributaries certainly expand as they draw near to fill it.

Philosopher and ecologist Kathleen Dean Moore writes about this in her book Great Tide Rising:

Contrast the growth pattern of aspen trees, the dusty yellow trunk dividing into branches into twigs into leaders and leaves, with the growth pattern of streams.  Tiny rills in the shadows of snowfields join streams that join waterfalls that gather in rivers that flow through gravel plains to the one great sea.  Why do trees endlessly divide but rivers eternally gather?

Rivers gather: water, people, culture.


The psalmist wrote: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so does my soul long for you, Eternal One."

Shall we gather at the river?  


We enjoy a damp lunch in a lovely spot, by a graceful footbridge over the Minija.  I walk across, a little jittery as I always get on high cable bridges, singing Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's mantra Gesher Tza'ar m'od to calm my nerves.  All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is to not be too afraid. . . 


I learn--or, more accurately, re-learn--an important lesson today.

I have always preached that the journey is more important than the destination.  A pilgrim strives to live fully in the moment, rather than constantly wondering, "Are we there yet?" This wisdom is deeply embedded in the Torah.  Even if one accepts, literally, the Exodus narrative of over a million Israelites leaving Egypt, we could have easily walked from there to Israel in just a few weeks.  So why does the desert crossing take four decades?  Our forty years in the wilderness are all about the journey, about the formation of a people.  Along the way, at Sinai, God tells Moses, "Go up on the mountain and be there."  Physically-speaking, this is redundant.  Where else would Moses be?  But as a metaphor for mindfulness, it is spot on.  The Holy One is asking Moshe Rabbeynu to be fully present, mentally and spiritually, to model for us, the Jewish people, a path of attentiveness and gratitude.

I forgot this wisdom today.

I spend way too much of our time on the river expecting to make it to the Nemunas Delta, anticipating our imminent arrival at the Sea.  Indeed, I even book accommodations for tonight at an ornithological research center in Vente, where the river empties into the Curonian Lagoon.  These plans prove wildly overambitious and grossly premature.  We are not going to make it nearly that far. My fervent hope and intense desire to reach the Delta only make the day a miserable slog--not on account of the actual level of difficulty so much as the dashed expectations.  The ongoing rain and headwinds don't help but even when the weather clears, around 4:00, I'm still wretched and cantankerous, because instead of enjoying the river, the scenery, and the sunshine--all of which are truly lovely--I'm too busy muttering to myself over our lack of progress.

Lesson learned, again.  Now, to take it to heart. . . 


We finally set up camp, exhausted, at 7:30.  Rosa cooks lentils and rice, which warm both the stomach and the spirit.  We crawl wearily into the tent for an early bedtime.  Rain is expected all night and all day tomorrow. After that, we hope, clearing.


To reinforce today's lesson in mindfulness, I'm reading Dr. Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook's book, Pilgrimage: The Sacred Art--Journey to the Center of the Heart.  She reminds me of the Talmud's injunction: "God wants the heart."  Then she adds:

What most distinguishes the sacred art of pilgrimage from a tourist trip or hiking expedition, as beneficial as these are, is the characteristic inward journey, a turning of one's heart to the Divine with the expectation of transformation on every level of being along the way. . . . Even in relative solitude a pilgrim is always in relationship--with the self, with the Divine, with the natural environment, and with those they leave behind.


How much, and how consistently, have I offered up my heart on this journey?

Not enough.  Perhaps I am, as usual, too caught up in my head.   Too much thinking, not enough feeling.  Maybe I should spend less time in solitary pursuits like this one--writing--and more time sharing and listening and just being fully present and attentive with Rosa.  

God wants my heart.  If this journey does not prove transformative, it will not be the pilgrimage that it might have become.  

Still, I remind myself, transformation happens slowly, and continues after the physical journey's end. I do not want to be too quick or condemnatory in judging myself.


Shall we gather at the river?

So asks the old African-American spiritual.  It continues:

Soon we'll reach the silver river
Soon our pilgrimage will cease
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

It's no surprise that I love this hymn.  Shall we gather at the river?  Yes!  Where better to come together?  The river is our life, our dreams and failings and potential transformation.  It is, like this journey, bustling and blessed with community.  Our pilgrimage takes a village.  It takes a river.

Yes, soon our pilgrimage will cease.  In the hymn, this line is a poignant metaphor for our mortality, a reminder of this life's precious little time before we  cross over Jordan to whatever comes next.  For Rosa and me, the words are also quite literally accurate: our expedition is nearing its end.  The river will cease at the Sea.  

So once again, bedtime reminder to self: Stop looking downstream and enjoy the river, here and now. 

Each bend.  Each meander.  

The Sea will bring its own blessings and challenges, in due time.

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