I Went Down to the River
Yesterday I bought and played a harmonica for the first time in my life. The day before that I woke up at 6:30am then went back to sleep until 11am. The day before that I read a poem I wrote to my yogi mates at the park:
I went down to the river to watch the fish swim by
But when I got to the river so lonesome I wanted to die, oh Lord
So that I jumped in the river, but the doggone river was dry
She’s long gone, and now I’m lonesome blue…
And then I said, “Just kidding. That’s a Hank Williams song” and played the song for them as we laughed. Then I read a real poem I wrote.
The day before that I went down to the river. I woke up before sunrise and packed my things. I drove 10 minutes to the Panorama Bluffs and hiked down the golden hills. Once I got to level ground, I walked a way I’d never gone before. Before I knew it, I was guarding my face from spider webs as I walked a green, jungle path with trees so bizarre they appeared to have cotton growing from them — everywhere, from their trunks and branches and leaves. And I thought, this is exactly right.
I went around a bend and the river song grew louder. When I reached a clearing, and left the cotton trees behind, there was a tiny beach with a sideways tree just for me. I looked at the river and realized I’d entered badger territory. There were some branches and leaves piled up there in the middle of the river, right where a big dip was.
The river was everything in that moment. It was rushing and glassy smooth. It was surrounded by lush green plant life. Dragonflies zoomed around just above the surface, birds sang, and the rising sun danced through the trees. I set up my things for yoga as I listened to the river song.
After yoga, I sat and soaked it all in for a while. Then I walked back and hiked up the golden hills and slowly returned to my non-fiction life. Sometime during my return, I heard the phrase “I went down to the river” play in my mind. Well, I had just gone down to the river so that made sense. But it kept playing and before I knew it, I was hearing a familiar song. That Hank Williams song I mentioned earlier. And then I thought, huh, well I’ll be damned.
That’s what dad would say. When he’s surprised by something he thought he should’ve known — like how harmonicas can be dangerous if not kept up well — he’ll say, well I’ll be damned. It’s no surprise that Hank Williams song started playing in my mind after going down to the river that morning.
The day before that, I sat paralyzed, glued to my phone for hours, waiting to hear how dad was doing. He had gone to the hospital for the second time in three days. The first time, we feared the worst. The second time, something happened in my mind. Another proverbial click.
Dad is dying, just like the rest of us. It’s not like him to visit a hospital twice in three days. Just a week before he went in the first time, I had joked with him on the phone that he’d probably outlive me, that he’d live to be 120. Dad is a stubborn man.
We can’t agree on much these days, Dad and me. These days we’re learning to listen to the other talk without getting offended or angry. We’ve even started using humor to deal with one another. He’ll send me things that frustrate me and I’ll send back a gif with Jennifer Lopez crossing her arms and shaking her head. This seems to be working for now.
He hasn’t been a perfect dad and I haven’t been a perfect kid. But now that he’s been visiting the hospital more, I’ve been thinking more about the ways he’s influenced me for the better. I’ve been thinking about him as a human and wondering about all the things that happened in his life to make him who he is. I’ve been thinking about his remarkable ability to sing that old twangy country music that’ll put a smile on anyone’s face. Like that old Hank Williams song.
Long Gone Lonesome Blues is one of the funniest, most interesting pieces of music ever made. My dad can play it and sing it with the best of ‘em. Or, he could once. He could slay on electric and acoustic guitars. And he could play harmonica, too.
After the enchanted Hank Williams song came to mind at the river, I started listening to it and other songs like it. Songs by Willie Nelson and Lead Belly and Emmylou Harris and John Prine and Mississippi John Hurt and Gillian Welch.
I listened to the songs as I thought of all the years of life dad has lived so far, and how he can still crack a joke to make me laugh. I thought about how much he must have loved that Hank Williams song to learn it. And I thought how maybe the stubborn grit in my bones can be a beautiful thing after all, if I can learn to alchemize pain into humor, in the end.
I’m looking forward to writing comedies with my blues harmonica. Because what can I do, now that I’ve figured out how to accept my feelings? I won’t go back to being a tough girl. There’s nothing wrong with being tough if you know how to be sensitive first. It all comes back to balance.
Humor is best as an art, not a defense mechanism. And I think my humor is rooted in whimsy. The river and Hank and dad pointed me back there. I’ve long sensed whimsy in my spirit, flowing like that river water. For example, did you know Rwandan chimpanzees once made me scrambled eggs for breakfast?
The real poem I wrote after dancing with a tree to the river song:
I went down to the river and was greeted by a song,
one I’d never heard before —
Notice how it feels to be here now.
Everything you sense —
Morning melody of the birds,
Dragonflies flitting wild,
Tall blades of grass swaying at the shore,
Sun rays dancing through the trees,
White feather floating downstream,
Soft sand under your feet.
Everything you sense here now will be gone soon.
This moment is yours
if you’ll let yourself have it.
Plant your body here
and let the earth hold you.
Feel its pulse
as you sink down your roots
and lift your spirit to the sky.