Slowly Moving Rivers

Slowly Moving Rivers

I walked by the mill-race today, and the water moved lazily past me. It was almost as if the river said to me “I have nowhere to go in particular, but something magnetic compels me into motion.”

I, too, was stuck. I had nowhere in particular to go, insofar as I had all afternoon to write, and only wanted a few good words, maybe just 450 when I can easily write 4500 in that amount of time. 450 well-placed words, rather than 4500 aimless ones, is better. I felt that I wasn’t moving much, so I went for a walk instead.

Sometimes peoples’ progress is imperceptible, or so slow it almost drives you crazy. Like a slowly moving river, their approach is wide rather than narrow, they aren’t shooting through the rapids.

They wind around, rather than going in a straight line.

Their path is full of algae, even fallen branches, sometimes trash – shiny, empty skins of old Doritos bags, Pepsi cans sitting sideways, their mouths half-filled with muck. They aren’t moving fast enough to sweep the debris.

Are they getting anywhere at all? Does it even matter to them when the world around cries out with urgency?

I thought the river was in a conversation and it would turn out that the river was the listener today, but this is not the case. Today, the river was the one being listened to. Nearly stuck, almost a pond.

But not quite. Gravity continued to gently play her part, softly drawing the river north, never screaming or begging for much motion; just a little, continuing the flow, and it would be enough.

When we’re listening, and hoping for progress, and inviting people to move, we must remember that an aqueduct such as the Pont du Gard has a drop of 34 cm over a kilometer; that the river in my town is only 801 feet above sea level and has plenty of time to get there with very little gradient.

Vitruvius, a first century civil engineer, recommended no more than a drop of 1:4800 for an aqueduct. That’s because too much drop puts undue pressure on the system and causes more rapid deterioration of the entire system.

It’s easy to panic when we think that there isn’t time.

But there is time. Be like gravity, a slow steady pull. Even those who don’t seem to be moving very fast will one day get to the ocean. Your 375 words will be like 375 cm of drop in an aqueduct. Don’t try to use gravity too fast; the system may degrade from pressure and erosion.

When things move slowly (and you move beside them slowly) you’ll see things a rushing river or a dead sprint might not give you: two turtles sunning on a log. Four ripe blackberries you can eat. A robin with a worm. Slowly, you have the ability to avoid getting goose crap on your shoes. Slowly, you’ll see a duck kicking her way upstream. Slowly, the river gets where it’s going and you don’t miss the scenery, either. It’s two for the price of one.

A Listening Posture and the Knuckleball

What is a ‘listening posture’? We know that it refers to a mental or spiritual attitude, but what is it like: Standing, sitting, lying prone? A baseball catcher spends much of his career in a crouch or squat. Many of the greatest baseball coaches were former catchers, because of way their role on the field prepares them for the coaching job. They are often said to be the on-field coach. The catcher has several jobs. The first is to call for a pitch, so they set things in motion. (the coaching question) The second is to catch the pitch. (hear the answer) If they fail to catch the pitch, it can mean disaster. So the alternative is to knock the ball down. It’s not ideal, but it can keep a runner from scoring. If the catcher misses the ball and a runner scores, the team may even lose the game. Ironically, the pitcher is the one who is said to have “won” or “lost” the game. But much credit is often due this on-field coach. The hardest pitch to catch is the knuckleball. This throw involves putting no spin on the ball so that the ambient air may direct the ball, herky-jerky, up, down or to the side. It can be nearly impossible to hit, but is also very difficult to catch, because the catcher can’t anticipate its direction; it doesn’t go fast, but it doesn’t go straight. The pitcher can’t spend his time worrying about whether or not the ball will be caught. A knuckleballer puts a great deal of concentration into the pitch. It can be impossible to hit, yes, but when thrown incorrectly it can also be the easiest pitch for a batter to hit. A listening posture is that crouch: ready to catch the expected or knock down the unexpected so that you can pick it up and toss it back to the speaker. A really good listener, like a confident catcher, is always calling for the knuckleball. Give me the unexpected, and I’ll knock it down, toss it back to you … and help you turn it into a win.

Congo Reflections Part 4: Coasting In Silence

David Law flew me back to Wembo Nyama. I was 14 and had spent four weeks away from my family. I needed a break from them, and everyone knew it.

The last straw was the night I smacked my little sister with a steel bowl, right on top of her head. At five, she was prone to running about naked, which embarrassed me, especially since we lived in a fish bowl. I mean that, at night, in one of the few houses with electric lights, it was not unusual to realize that neighborhood children’s eyes were peering in the windows. They were only naturally curious, wondering what these whites did at night in their closed-door, brick and tin-roof house, without a grasp of any social taboo of going to see for themselves. Seeing my sister, the nudist, in all her blonde Caucasian glory. As if we needed more reason for people to gawk. I was angry, peerless and alone, culture-shocked, stressed, dealing with my sister’s exhibitionism so my concern about the “paparazzi” was too much to bear, and I thumped her with a bowl and it sounded like a gong. And of course she cried quite a bit.

So they sent me to stay with the Laws for a while. A half-hour flight or so, in a single-prop Cessna to a different mission station. Take a break. Grow up a bit. Get some perspective. Stop fighting with dad. Socialize with some other Westerners.  Go for hour-long runs on the savanna where I could focus on my breathing and watch the occasional dung-beetle who also had to deal with his crap every day as he rolled his treasures across the same dry plateau; it was a chance to think only about as much as the beetle was thinking. I fell in love with running. It was one foot in front of the other, thoughtfulness without the need for a specific idea. You got your second wind, found your pace, and coasted along the dirt track in silence and slid back into the house unnoticed, sweating out my toxic anxieties in the process.

Before I went to stay with the Laws, I was going a little bit crazy, maybe a bit beyond the tolerances of normal adolescence. ‘Maybe’, I say, because even in retrospect, I realize that I only grew up once, and it happened to be in the middle of Zaire. So how would I know for sure if I was beyond my own ability to cope with being 14 in any way worse than it might have been in Illinois, on a strawberry farm where I knew the difference between fruit and weeds? But I’m pretty sure the added stress meant I was not coping as well as I might have in the States.

At the end of my retreat, as we flew back into Wembo, David said over the noise of the engine, “Check this out. I can cut the engine and we can glide the last two miles to the strip. Nobody will hear us coming.” Usually the arrival of an airplane was a major deal. Hundreds of people would show up at the strip to gawk at the plane, welcome strangers or say goodbye, help out with luggage somehow, hoping for a tip. To surprise my parents by walking in the door without anyone in town noticing, I liked this idea very much.

He cut the engine and turned the Cessna into a hang glider. The wings would bear us up just long enough to reach the strip and coast to the end. We began to lose altitude. I might have been afraid we’d crash, but my pilot was confident. The air rushed by, our velocity kept us moving forward, and all was still. A half-dozen noticed us coming, but there wasn’t the usual dozen-times-a-dozen spectators as we rolled down the last bit of clay airstrip, touching down like an ace at Wimbledon in that hush of the serve, just before the audience erupts in applause.

It’s significant for a person like me, who likes the bright lights of a stage, to have that desire to walk unnoticed. Coasting in silence on the outskirts of Wembo taught me that the ability to be at peace, and, at the same time, to be unnoticed while falling out of the sky, is a valuable art. That’s what I like about the riskiness of coaching someone – I can turn off the engine that drives my own decision-making process and let the wings of listening interact with the air of my client’s living and breathing and let them land on their own runway — or take off for jungles and oceans, all successes unknown.

If you go to the woods…

Notes from journal after two hours of retreat at the river preserve:

If you go to the woods for a few hours to hear God and all you hear are songbirds, is that so much of a loss? And if you return home with reflections about songbirds which ring true, have you not then heard from God who is Truth?

The water skeeter walks on water and the surface tension is his ally. If you want to walk on water you must make that surface tension between the physical world and spiritual world your ally, not your enemy.  When you say “will this idea float” you are not asking to set down pylons of concrete to support it, you are looking, listening for a positive reaction to the surface tension: buoyancy. You are recognizing the water and the air together.

The time it takes to listen well goes beyond getting enough time for your own Sabbath rest. You must charge your own batteries and an auxiliary one as well. You give from a place beyond well-rested. It’s internal peace, surplus. One of the greatest gifts you can give those you listen to is to spend time listening first to God, songbirds, and nothing in particular. Then you are (more) ready.

I saw a snake, only his head shiny, the rest dull as he molted. You have to be comfortable in your own skin to listen well. If you are molting, you may be too focused on your own task at hand and too dull to give a good, shiny reflection.