When I was growing up my family spent a few weeks every summer in El Portal, California, just outside Yosemite National Park. My great-grandmother had a home right on the spectacular Merced River. During the day, we splashed around in the river, in an area where the rapids were not too dangerous. We spent hours hopping from one rock to the next to cross the river. From our favorite swimming holes, we would hike upstream and then navigate the small rapids downstream on our inflatable rafts. Making it all the way to the swimming hole, still on your raft was the ultimate victory. But most of the time, we would fall off our rafts or even pop a hole in them. It didn’t matter because we still ended up in the swimming hole, laughing and enjoying the rush of the water around us. At night, we fell asleep to the sound of the river. Its steady hum promised us a new day full of adventures to come.
When you are down in the canyon in the midst of very powerful rapids, the sound is almost deafening and the velocity of the river is ominous. As the water crashes around you, it is clear that a misstep can be deadly. You have to yell to be heard by someone who is standing on the rock next to you. You can’t hear anything else, not a bird chirping or leaves rustling in the wind. It is exhilarating to be in the middle of all of this, but it can also be daunting.
Looking down on all of this grandeur from the riverbank is a completely different experience. From this distance, the force of the river is inspiring. The sound of the water crashing over the rocks is so soothing. I can spend hours admiring how the water spills gracefully over each rock. From here, I appreciate not only the allure of the river but also its beautiful surroundings.
Life can be hypnotizing in the same way as that river. Down in the canyon, the roar of everything racing past us can be almost paralyzing. It is hard to hear or see anything else at all. The enormity of our challenges can be so overwhelming that we can hardly look around enough to find a rock where we can perch on for safety. Calling out for help might go unheard unless we scream. A path to safety could be right in front of us, but we can miss it so easily.
Getting to higher ground makes all the difference in our outlook. With some perspective, everything looks different. We can see a path across the water. We can see not only the majesty of the river but also its lovely surroundings. We can step back and admire the twists and turns life has taken. We can admire the beauty of their unpredictability. A simple request for help can be easily heard. The hum of the river weaves together with the sounds of nature like chamber music.
Sometimes it feels impossible to climb out of the river and up to the shore. The demands of life and our responsibilities can immobilize us, leaving us frozen on the same rock that falsely appears to provide safety. But if we we can’t move and play, if we can’t talk and listen, what do we really have to lose by trying to get up to the riverbank? Who wants to stay stuck on that same rock indefinitely? When the rush of it all is consuming us, letting go of our false sense of security to get to higher ground is absolutely worth the risk.
When we are in the middle of the river, we are actually surrounded by vitality. Whitewater rapids give life to the ecosystem of a river. As the water crashes over each rock, it captures air in bubbles, leading to more dissolved oxygen in the water. More turbulence in the water leads to more oxygen in the water. So every drop rushing past us is literally filled with life and energy. What could be more invigorating than that? We simply have to take a breath, look around and revel in the opportunity to be surrounded by such a thrilling force. If we can learn to savor it all and not let it paralyze us, the power of the river can inspire us from wherever we are standing. It might even cause us to jump on a raft, head first, and enjoy the ride.
Julie Haydon is an artist and musician living the beautiful hills of Oakland, CA who creates works of beauty that brings people together. When she is not at work in the studio or making music, she is outside playing in the dirt or hiking with her husband and their two spoiled dogs.