Sometimes I wake up too early.
Wander outside to see the sunrise from my back porch, coffee hot in hand. Take a little stroll to the top of the lane and listen to the sounds of sparrows waking. Read a little, write a little. Try to master Sudoku (current book Deadly Sudoku – working quickly toward Fiendish Sudoku).
Early morning stuff, often way too early.
This hot summer day we do something new.
Dogs in tow, we head down to the river, the grand and mighty Mississippi that lives and moves and breathes its stories at the edges of our busy city. The river has been above flood level for most of the summer, its banks bulging, waters running high and climbing over the trees and grasses of riverside parks. Currents are up and swirling hard and I want to see it in its wildness.
We go to walk in the morning quiet, to see what we can see. No one much is out yet, only a few early birds like us. Silent long-necked herons fly high overhead, three of them. Wait, there’s a fourth, moving slowly, almost black, ghostly across the lightening sky. Sparrows twitter and flit in girlish groups and two white-chested hawks sit high, majestic and still on the stiff branches of trees standing proud amidst dark floodwaters. I join the hawks and we watch the river, listening – we all want to hear her voice today.
I need to hear something new.
A man stands straight just at the river’s edge and practices his yoga, pensive and strong. His movements are deliberate and prepared, but in his disciplined quiet, his mind is free to wander and explore. To hear and surrender.
Tall white tugboats push small islands upstream and down, muddy waters splashing wild against these sluggish barges, lapping and teasing the impossibly heavy loads. What’s on board today, what’s your haul? Is it beans or corn or cotton? I wonder. Steel or river rock or some kind of fuel? Does it matter to you what the load is? The regal tugboats are silent, content to do their job on high waters, pushing unknown cargo on to the next port and the next.
“He works his work, I mine” Tennyson wrote. The strong barge knows his day’s work and forges forward into it, happy, free on this river. Unleashed.
The dogs love it here. Unleashed they run, far and fast. The river waters have overflowed their restrictive banks and so have the pups, running on splashy grass, jumping and barking with loud delight at the unexpected coolness the water offers. Joe is the older and usually more cautious of the two, but today he is wildly free, galloping from the soggy shoreline up the steep levee and back countless times, the stoic hawks in branches overhead eyeing him and nodding in approval. Run wild the hawks exhort as they depart their morning branch to do the same. Andy, the pup, dives in nose first at every chance, rolling happy, water flying high with his every shake. Nose in again, he dives headfirst, all morning long.
Living all of this moment, living this day.
Everything at the river’s edge is living in this moment of freedom – no thought of yesterday or tomorrow – the way we are created to live. Unfettered.
I stand quiet on the morning bank and try to do the same, toes in water.
I take a last quiet look upstream before the morning gets city-noisy and I spot a unexpected raft on the far side of the river, built only of logs and rope. I lean in and see two men aboard the homemade craft – no, it’s a man and a boy – long poles lunged hard into the swollen river, pushing forward, forward. They move with great purpose this morning, carefully executing the boy Huck’s grand plan of heading to Cairo, at the bottom of Illinois where the Ohio River comes in. There they plan to sell the raft and take a steamboat into Ohio – one of the free states – where the man Jim won’t be in danger of being sold back into slavery.
Trying to be free, unleashed.
At the core of it, at our deepest place, this is our collective heart’s greatest longing.
What Jim and Huck do not know is a critical element in the story, heavy with irony – Jim is free already – the Widow Douglas died and freed him in her will. I shout this story to them across the river – You are free, Jim, already free! You don’t have to make this difficult journey upriver, come back! – but the two cannot hear me. They are on the far side of the river, heading north, planning freedom.
It is then I can hear the river’s whispered words, what hawks and herons hear as they fly over muddy waters, what all of it is trying to tell us if we could ever be quiet enough, if we have ears to hear the paradox.
Freedom is work. It is the work.
It is for freedom that we have been set free. Staying free is a lifelong struggle.
Part of what brings joy in freedom is the work it takes to get there and the extreme effort one must exert to stay there, the return again and again to one’s purpose. Roll your boulder uphill and when it inevitably rolls back down, turn and do it again. It is in the turning, the choice to try again, the great effort where one finds her joy, her humanity, her purpose.
The freedom is in the turning, in the daily doing of the work. We shall not neglect the double-duty of freeing ourselves from the leash and freeing others – for therein lies great joy, a secret too easily forgotten.
And when it is finally fulfilled, when a yoke is finally broken for you or one you love, it is the tree of life.
The sun rises hot and white ~ summer in Memphis is a brilliant heat. The city awakes.
Pushing and pulling, we all make our way along the river. Unleashed, or trying to be.
This struggle is our greatest story.
Galatians 5:1 – It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.