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I am haunted by water

John Infranca | Friday, October 31, 2003

It is a slow and arduous process. Sitting awkwardly on the edge of a rock, trying to keep the thin plastic tube submerged while the water container remains vertical. You slowly pump the filter, drawing water from the cold, fast flowing river, through the tube and into your bottle, where it falls, clear and pure. I think the process itself, slow and methodical, producing its effects in drips and sudden splatters, is an ample metaphor for one path toward enlightenment. I have no doubt that the river itself is a source of enlightenment. I stand beside it as autumnal splendor surrenders to barren winter here in West Virginia. On the edge of this river I seek the solace of re-creation. Rivers seem to know the secret of staying constant and becoming ever new.

The river before me has wound through these hills for centuries. Yet the river before me is gone in an instant. So I might glimpse eternity in a single moment. Or miss it, seemingly forever. Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, claimed that one can never step into the same river twice. Because it is in constant flux, no river is the same from moment to moment. Yet taken beyond the banks of the river, there is little not in flux. I will not be the same in a second.

And so the moment when I and the river before me meet is utterly unique, incomprehensible in the scope of its potential meaning and beyond grasp in the utterly fleeting nature of its fragile existence. T.S. Eliot remarks in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that “what is actual is actual only for one time, and only for one place.” That time and place are now.

I thought of the ephemeral nature of reality as the sun faded on the horizon one day late this past September. The light flaring against the sheer walls of the Hesburgh Library momentarily turned those walls into the glowing crimson and orange hues of Red Rock crossing, Arizona. For a moment they transported me to where I have once been. They plunged me out of time. And in that moment I lost the moment I was in.

The cold water on my toes brings me back. There is much we can learn from the river, the constancy of its flow, its sense of direction, the commitment to its journey. Like us, the river can easily be distracted as it travels, by a rock that alters its path or by the slow erosion that produces a change in its course.

Yet the greatest lesson might be its humility. Rivers reflect the mystical notion of the individual surrendering the self. Though it might pass for centuries through the space before me, and for untold years its form might mark the contours of this land, holding a place within them, the waters of this river flow towards their own absorption. Whether in lake, sea or ocean, these waters will one day end their journey in a greater whole. Tiny molecular particles that the eye cannot see might retain the integrity of their existence. But the river, as it flows visibly before me, will soon be gone, and other water will move in its place.

Is the river then defined by the water that forms its substance or by the space it fills? Am I defined by the composite parts that comprise me, including biological matter constantly in change, or am I defined by the place I hold in some larger whole, some community? When I die, will I be remembered by what comprised my physical form or by the place I have left in the lives of others?

I have traveled 600 miles to the banks of this river for solace from work and study. For a taste of nature that might remain with me so that in the months to come I might, like William Wordsworth, feel that “These forms of beauty have not been to me, As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye: But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din, of towns and cities, I have owed to them, in hours of weariness, sensations sweet, felt in the blood, and felt along the heart, and passing even into my purer mind, with tranquil restoration.”

Yet perhaps such thoughts are foolish, for I store too much for the time to come and live too little in the time at hand. Water, splattering against the sides of my bottle, calls me back to the task at hand. It seems to have fallen out of vertical.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.