love child

{Nightswimming was Map’s first dark milk, and crafted from the first cocoa beans I truly fell in love with. and by in love I mean all-in, head-over-heels, and not looking back. can a chocolate be an ode to the wild love-and-friend-filled days beside a river? sure hope so. }

Here is what drowning feels like. You go under, the water a sudden hand-slap across your mouth that sticks; you cannot scream. It is dark. And quiet; in retrospect there is no sound, hearing evidently a tree falling in the hereafter forest. It is not like when you were a kid and you blew your breath out in a tornado of bubbles so you could plummet all sixty pounds of yourself to the pool bottom before your best pal Bobby Staub, cheeks puffed and pink lips pursed, his hair crazy-like waving above his very strangely white face. In the movies there is lots of thrashing and waving, cries of help; but that is so untrue, so the movies version with the drama that in real life is only apparent later. Later, when you close your eyes and you see how you wanted to breathe but could not, the way you wanted to scream Not now, not this day, but the brute river’s hand on your mouth. How it snuck up from behind before you could grab it, poke your fingers into the eyes of circumstance, bad luck, karma, wrong place at the right time, the big ticker in the sky hoisting your number up: in the movies, sometimes a tricky director's angle from below of feet kicking, or the silent icky version, like The Piano: unemotional, serene, postmodern drowning.


Personally I am not all that keen on the silent version.  While I’m under I am having a very loud conversation, me talking back to the river and in no uncertain terms. I learned early on it is an argument best won with my mouth shut. It usually starts with a simple What the heck. More than once You gotta be kidding as if the question some introspective delete key that can take it all back, erase the awful unedited truth or maybe spin it in a different and Please dear god less eventful direction, one without the paperwork and hand-wringing. I have heard myself, on occasion, think this: Not today. Maybe fate out there listening and me hoping for some existential Oops, sorry, wrong number, and not mine up after all. But then a resonating silence that follows the unanswered question, a whiteout of water and thought melded into one tiny whirling dervish swim for my life.


The first time I fell out of a boat I careened downriver with no clue how to get to shore. Let me say right now I was miles beyond clueless because I did not have even the teensiest inkling that I really and most definitely actually needed to get to shore, and that I should really and most definitely be doing everything I could to get to shore. I was the new kid on the rocky river block, naïve enough that it had simply not occurred to me, despite those helpful pre-trip safety talks by the hunky guides in their faded lifejackets when they told us how to float in the correct whitewater position (on our back feet first) that I could or even might, fall out of a boat, and if I did, just how serious that would be. We were there for the adventure! The thrill! The whitewater! We weren't there for some downer of an idea like going under and never coming back. What I knew about whitewater came from a Daniel Boone episode when I was maybe seven and the brave Boone washing down a creek and of course, he got out at the end and was fine. And no, it seems that the Frontier log ride at Disney does not count. What I knew was that I could swim, but I wasn't thinking that far merrily down the stream.  People were blah-blah-blahing about rapids and safety and I was looking at the trees, the strange piles of gear, those burly boys, and wondering how I could talk my way into a job.


It was raining, the kind of rain that makes a river rise and the guides giddy and nervous, sends the expedition manager to whistle up his trusty hound into the pickup's front seat and drive down to check the river gauge three times in a half hour, and the customers to grumble about being wet before the first rapid. We were all wearing rag wool and billowing mildewy school bus yellow ponchos, which, if we did end up in the river, would balloon around our face and entangle our arms and not hasten a speedy recovery. The river was deer tail flashes of white froth spinning foamy swirls, a churning, molten torrent licking the sky. It had the dirt smell that high water has, more mud and grit than river, and when I did eventually fall in that smell became everything the river was that day.


We were in the big Section IV boats, shiny black Rubbercrafters the guides called RC's. The boats held five or six paddlers plus a guide who sat on one side in the back, steering and calling commands. I was riding on the back left side opposite the guide, in the trainee’s seat, my feet cold stumps in stiff wool socks and the clear rubber fisherman’s sandals that river guides wore back in those pre-Teva days. Somebody was talking about Deliverance being filmed on the river and somebody else said Ain’t you got a purty mouth and I started reciting a James Dickey poem from my southern lit class and then it all went black.


I opened my eyes to a guide named Lamar with his hands up my shorts attempting to find, he assured me with a half-shy, half-the-better-to-eat-you-with-my-dear grin, the pulse of my femoral artery. Lamar was from South Carolina so when he said femoral it sounded more like female. He was a handsome old-timer of the river probably the ripe old age of thirty. When you are just shy of twenty-one thirty might as well be eighty: it is out there in the end zone of adulthood and parents, professors, people with jobs and checking accounts who give you a funny look when you tell them I want to be a river guide, who remind you about things like grad school and reality and student loan repayment plans. Lamar was wiry, blonde in a steely Nordic way, but mountain man in a plaid flannel-shirted crooked smile way. He was a wise and nimble kayaker with a soft laugh that slid the scales between hardscrabble Appalachian upbringing to the vague nether regions of river hippiedom: life as a river rat meant nobody was going to shove you off the front porch out of some inbred meanness, all the while your co-workers with their middle class nonchalance loading kayaks atop the hand-me-down family Volvo had no clue what it meant at age five if you wanted something to eat for breakfast you went outside and shot it out of a tree. He was safety kayaker on our trip and had yanked me out of the river, rescued me from being trapped under the boat that held me pinned underwater and smashed against a rock.


I fell in love with him that instant, which lasted the ride back to the outpost and possibly sometime during a long shower when the thought occurred to me that I had no clue about what had happened or why, only that I wasn’t scared or sorry and not about on down the road or how; and not a single thought of how long. It was love, of the pure, distilled, ever-clear kind that makes you crawling-on-your-hands-and-knees drunk yet somehow intensely sane, dizzily happy and then keeled headfirst into the depths of longing that only a dark well of desire holds: Desire, that impish and incestuous love child of Crave and Something Missing, and before you know it, you're chasing something that keeps slipping through your fingers, hoping to hang on to it and keep it pouring through your soul. 


Poor Lamar. He kissed me but all I tasted was river.





sweet nothings.

Before chocolate there was me and a river, and then a baby making it a weird, if unwieldy, threesome. In a nutshell that would eventually become MAP, I did what I could do to to save myself from drowning: my version of not being able to breathe being a real life with real responsibilities and fewer nights under the stars tipping the tequila bottle of stories with other free-wheeling riverfolk, none of whom who'd had babies.  Or knew babies. The baby would sleep and I would swim for my life, mostly, across blank pages. 

I would start by looking out the window and try to see what I'd always seen. I was looking for seams of water glinting gold against afternoon Muav limestone gray, for a swath of sand big enough for all six boats and shade for the dinner crew, for that curve of rock river left just above Vasey's Paradise, river right. I'd look and peer, and write. One word, a hundred. A year later that view would become slightly hazy and appear as the kitchenette of a small gray hotel room; more looking as hard as I could, more words. Then, the dim wall of a basement with the inked words Owens Corning Owens Corning of the silver fiberglass insulation in endless repeat winking as I typed, stopped, looked up, looked down in what seemed my own endless repeat, while the baby chewed the desk leg and once, my favorite pink sandals. A map unfolded, re-folded, never in the same fold-lines twice, leading to a blue then bright yellow bedroom and walls of a marriage that faded. I looked up to a row of windows high enough above my desk they offered only a slender ellipse of clouds and on occasion, the wide open horizon of sky that smelled of sea, and the island I escaped us to. Baby was nine and wanted a telescope, I was still looking to find what was right under my nose,

It is not lost on me that a boat girl pining for what made her feel alive and real would think of being surrounded by water on all sides as an escape.

The lovely island became a desk plopped square in front of a window where the comings and goings of an urban street provided oil swirls of color to my (endless repeat) background of river, water, girl meets boat: the daily passings-by of Prairie Woman (bonnet and long skirt-clad, the wooden simple gifts sign lashed behind her bike seat); Music for the People Dude patrolling aboard his three-wheeler bike, boom box in tow bad tunes for all; the metal-footed bearded man we call Running Jihad always running and always with a look of running from; the skaters and tweakers, dog walkers and babies nodding in backpack perches.

The colors swirled but never quite mixed. It was home, and not home, a life in the here and now, just never there and the river, both comprised of rivulets gaining strength the further they go. I closed my eyes and on occasion opened for peeks of new life. I swam into and beyond many many pages. I changed direction (or three). More than once I thought motherhood was a drowning. More than once I was happier than I'd ever known possible. Always something in the distance waved a tiny white-frothed hand: Hello. It's me.

On the river we would explain the concept of self-rescue, what to do in case the boat flipped or someone fell out. Swim, I would tell my passengers, swim like hell. Don’t just float there. Practice self-rescue. Like hell I'd emphasize, once or twice for good measure.

I took my own advice. The baby was a sweet drowning. No, the baby was a wake up call that kicked my ass but it took many years and many words and lots of trips to the recycling bin with evidence that I was trying to get to that confluence, and always, a bend ahead in the distance and one worth pushing for. I used to think that having a child and thus, having to leave the river was a cause and effect, straightforward event. Baby came, no way to be a river guide (no baby on board in that world), ergo I had to leave the river. And if you've left anything before you wanted to or were ready or thought you had your shit together enough to cross the threshold and not look back, or at least, to look back and happily wave adios, then you know what I mean. The leaving is one thing. The hanging onto the rope for dear life, something else, and not always a means of self-rescue.

Maybe I am just too stubborn. Maybe I just loved every iota of that life and wasn't ready. Maybe my life would never be the same (read: as good as, as much fun, offer as much happiness). Maybe I was just swimming blind, or refusing to open my eyes. Or scared in a way I hadn't been in a long, long time. Maybe all of that.

Maybe it was time to see the surface from a different angle.

Which is what drowning or leaving or having the living daylights yanked out from under us does, the unnamable crossroads and confluences we never, not really, despite our best intentions or planning or making sure the water bottles are stowed and the passengers are holding on and leaning forward and ready for the big hit, can see clearly. Until of course, later, when we are downstream.

You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.

Those are Samuel Beckett's words in his work The Unnamable but it might be the song of the river, the lesson of water, the sexy siren call of a boat rocking in the waves: what a life well-lived hands us, then rips into shreds.

You must go on. I can't go on, I'll go on.

This is one part  anthology of a life lived in the grandest of canyons and on a river, with a boat and birds and boys; nights encased within Grand Canyon (the canyon as we guides say) in a living dream, like stepping into an Ansel Adams photo. Like stepping into the words of a story and suddenly you are on a beach on your back with somebody's mouth against yours and the rain is pounding, the rapid you'll run in the morning a wet murmuring of your name, and that is what you want to hear; nothing else about this story matters, what comes next or before. It all comes down to sweet nothings of daily near-drownings. Tangles of sun-bleached hair, some of the biggest whitewater on the planet, and a girl with her hands firmly on a set of oars and not letting go for dear, dear life. The other part is how I ended up holding a MAP or few, and eventually, with an eighteen year-old and the almost-end to a chapter I don't want to close. Yeah, all that too. But mostly, it's a love story.