Small Wonders: Floating on the proverbial river

Did you see it this week? That sudden, violent collision of summer into fall? I couldn't look away, it was so disturbing.

A day after swimming with the kids and painting sunscreen on them with a roller, I opened the front door and was overcome with gloom. Walking down the driveway, I was smothered in gray, moist air. We'd been transported to Portland overnight.

Next to the newspaper on the sidewalk was a dried worm. He must have come out last night to lounge on the warm concrete, but couldn't make it back to the safety of grass in time. Ants were dissecting him, carrying away microscopic bits.

After dropping the kids off at school, I sat down to get some writing done; put my mind to what I should tell you this week. Religion again? I don't have the energy this week, maybe next. The kids? No, just did that. Local politics? Nah. We've got other columnists better suited for that. Lindsay Lohan? No, she's behaving herself.

I sat there paralyzed, looking past the computer screen and out into the muted day, unable muster a creative thought. Every sentence started, but failed to find root. I couldn't get rid of the clouds.

Don't get me wrong. I love the cooler weather. I'm not myself until I pull out the flannel shirts each year. Nothing warms my soul so much as winter days with the rumor of foghorns and ship bells somewhere off in the distance; the equivalent of train whistles far away on a summer's night. But this was just too sudden for me. Sorrows, like estranged, unsavory relatives, arrived for a party I didn't want to attend.

It felt like the better parts of me were being carried off by ants.

Only one thing to do. Head for the river.

There's a river that runs through our collective backyards; it starts as clandestine springs somewhere atop a mountain to the north. It ends south, past the glass and metal and concrete, in an ocean we can't see from here. Its banks are steep and paved by men, as is its riverbed.

But it is a river, make no mistake. It runs past schools and ranches, by power plants, soccer fields and playgrounds; alongside freeways and warehouses. Past buildings that will be long gone as she still wanders through the lives of our children, and their children.

Runoff it's called, the water that flows through this river. An appropriate word, runoff, for the things we no longer want; the things we can't bear to look at again. Let the current take it all away. The river is polluted and murky, but it can't be killed. Nor can the life it sustains.

Chains of lush islands rise among the urban sprawl, oases of palm, elm and bamboo; blossoms of tall grass, marshweed and moss. All bend with the wind and the flow of water, pointing to the inevitable end.

Great blue heron and snowy egret stand motionless on crooked legs waiting to strike at some glimmering below the surface. Ducks and geese, coot and teal congregate around every bend, delighting in their river home. The leaves have already begun to brown and fall along the path. Too soon. But I can no more stop them than stop this river from flowing.

Why this fog? Why these clouds? All was going so well, and yet …Where are my answers?

There's a place along the river we're told not to pass. Though I can see the uncluttered path beyond, the signs on the fence say the path is closed. And yet, nothing prevents us from going around that fence. The signs tell us not to proceed. But they look away, begging us to disobey.

I do. And I see what's been hidden.

The islands and the forests downriver are so dense, two, maybe three stories high. Concrete gives way to real riverbed. Freeways and warehouses are replaced by neighborhoods and rail yards. Small rapids here, serene pools there. Silent in places where the trees are thick and the river hidden. So loud elsewhere it drowns out the other river, of cars, helicopters, sirens and low rumbling of trains.

Graffiti everywhere, the screams of misguided youth. But also a reminder that others have been here before me, and will be here when I'm gone. Look just right, through squinted eyes, and this could be a tributary to the Amazon or Nile. Widen your gaze and you know exactly where you are. The city of angels.

There's an old man with his walker making the long, painful trek from his home just a block away. He sits under the shade of a birch tree watching the waters run. He can see the river's end.

And a boy, not more than 5 years old, with his father. They sit on the bank of a calm stretch with fishing poles pointed in the air, antennae seeking signals of life.

Strike.

In silent shock, the boy grabs his rod as dad cheers. Judging from his father's excitement, this must be the boy's first fish. The good father rejoices more in his children's joy than his own. They stare in wonder at what he'd just pulled from the river.

Now I remember that boy.

What we cast into the river disappears, only to come back in form of rain atop some far off mountain. But what we pull from the river, those are our miracles.

PATRICK CANEDAY can be reached on Facebook, at http://www.patrickcaneday.com and patrickcaneday@gmail.com.

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