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.

She Burns My Ears!

Some time ago I encountered an elderly Amish man in our local coffee shop. He was eager to talk to strangers, which is rare for an Amish man, and I struck up a conversation. I sat and listened.

I learned that his two children were grown and had left the state; people don’t realize how much the Amish are on the move, taking rocky ground in Missouri and upstate New York and making something of it, starting new communities. But they do use Amtrak and hire vans so they can visit each other. I discovered that this man’s children didn’t come visit often and there was some estrangement, learned that his first wife had died, and that he’d remarried against the advice of his community. His second wife was a long-time bachelorette, and he was her first husband. Therefore she was a good deal more independent than a normal Amish wife, and even though “they warned me,” he said, “She burns my ears.” Suddenly, I understood why he was talking to strangers.

My father-in-law sold agricultural products, fertilizers, etc., in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, (densest concentration of Amish in the world) all his life. He’s 78 years old, and he’s never heard an Amish man talk like this. He was never an insider, as far as the Amish are concerned, but he wasn’t enough of an outsider for them to open up that way. After all, he knew them and knew their neighbors. He might have kept a secret if asked, but he wasn’t to be trusted. He was “English.”

What allowed this to happen? I wasn’t too busy to listen. That’s the first piece. You have to slow down if you want these sort of encounters. The second remarkable thing here is that the man lived in a “we-told-you-so” community where there was not a single empathetic ear for his problems with his second wife, so he took it outside the community. I was far enough outside his community that word couldn’t travel back. I asked his name at one point, and he wouldn’t give it.

If you want to develop authentic community, you have to refrain from creating a “We-told-you-so” culture. When people take their problems away somewhere, going “off to town” to find an outlet, it makes restoration and reconciliation difficult. For an Amish man to share his story with me seems rather harmless, but there’s potential for a much darker side to this phenomenon.