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.