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The River Sings

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People see a title like that and they think they’re going to hear something inspirational. And while this story definitely has those elements, it would be remiss of me to simply jump to the more palatable aspects without describing why I could hear the river singing when I was less than five years old.

Yes, children are more sensitive to the sounds and voices of nature, not having yet been conditioned against hearing them, and not yet convinced that natural elements are just things for humans to manipulate according to our whim or pleasure. But the fact that I could hear the river singing meant far more to me than childhood fancy. Hearing the voice of the river connected me to the deepest parts of my soul—parts that would otherwise have shriveled and died.

One of the nice things about the river’s voice was that I could just sit quietly beside the water and let the flowing sounds untie the knots of fear and pain that my parents created. I didn’t have to tell anyone what I was doing, because even people who couldn’t literally hear the river singing still could get a sense of relaxation by sitting near it. The difference was that for me, the river was personified. It became a source of mother energy for me.

Winters were the hardest time of year when I grew up in the little New Jersey town of Butler. The roads were often icy, which trapped my family inside our small clapboard house. This wouldn’t have been so bad if my family had used its energy in peaceful and industrious ways, like playing board games or making things together. It was a terrible, dark thing since my parents had never learned to live with their own selves. In fact, the thing they ran from most often was their own selves. This meant that any time we were stuck inside with nothing better to do than fight, that’s exactly what happened.

Because the pattern handed down by my parents was of back biting, fighting, and lies, fights could start for any reason. Sure, normal stresses like leaving a sink full of dirty dishes could be understood as stresses for anyone. But in my house, such an event was an excuse for an all out war. And if the battle ended, and everyone but me was still standing, they’d huff and growl under their breaths until I did or said basically anything. The first utterance out of my mouth gave them enough reason to worry my carcass into silence, if not submission.

All it really did, besides create the physical, mental, and emotional scars that took a large chunk of my adult life to heal from, was make it easier for me to leave them as soon as I could.

It’s funny. I was told all during my childhood that I was the black sheep of the family because I had a big mouth and a bad habit of airing my family’s dirty laundry—which meant, I suppose, that the bad smell that came from my family’s violent abuse (which was the hallmark of my family’s identity) floated around, stinking up the neighborhood. Well, I guess I found out early why some people wrinkle their noses, not only when they smell something unpleasant, but when they see or hear something that they don’t like.

Anyway, childhood was very confusing, because there was so much darkness, violence, and fear mongering in my house. Yet, the one thing that would have stopped it, which was letting it out for everyone to see, was the one thing that wasn’t allowed. And because I was the one who was determined to let it out somehow, because I believed more firmly in peace than the rest of my family, all the darkness and fear mongering was heaped on me. I didn’t have to do anything wrong to be labeled as wrong.

My family had decided that the most important thing was to protect the outward appearance: a thin plastic-like thing with glassy eyes and a permanent smile, intended to prove that—despite the fact that we seldom allowed visitors into our inner sanctum—our inner world was as bright and smiley as our outer projection.

So I was the victim of the wolf pack, so to speak, for my childhood years. That often left me feeling shredded, gnawed on, and battered. And that was when I escaped to the river, and when I discovered that the music of the river was sweeter in the winter than it was in the summer. As it floated up through cracks in the ice, it preached against the idea that everything must be still during the cold months.

It sang of the inner motions of life, and as I sat on a mostly dry rock beside the stream, I could feel the currents flowing through me, washing away the dried blood, mending the tattered bits of me, and soothing my nervous system. As I felt more whole, I would turn face on toward the river and add my voice to its music—letting the greater harmonies of the worlds beyond my parents’ small dark space mend my deep places.

And when I finally felt whole again, I’d thank the river, stand up, heave a deep sigh, and like a warrior, steadfastly set my will and resolve to return to the fray with a deeper sense of the value of peace, justice, and harmony.

To say the river sings is one thing—and I think that most people would agree with the statement. But the turmoil in my childhood taught me why it sings, and helped me to understand how important its song is—not only to me, but to the world as a whole. 


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