Monday, August 18, 2014

The Walking Cure 2: Three Rivers

 -- By Tom Phillips                                           

Every walk needs a destination, and for me it’s usually the sight of water.  I’ll walk happily by the ocean, or around a lake or pond or reservoir.  But the best destination is a river – preferably a big river through a great city.  

The first sight of it inevitably brings a relaxation response, felt in the belly, released in the breath, and finally reflected in the mind.  That’s when thoughts begin to flow – not spilling over each other and splashing like water from a broken faucet, but moving at an even pace, going somewhere.   

More than any other sight in nature, a river is a mirror of the mind.   The ocean seems endless, incomprehensible.  A lake or pond is hemmed in, like a small-minded person with a limited repertoire of thoughts and feelings.   A river is contained, but still open on both ends; you never know what will turn up in the stream, or where it will go.

Three rivers stand out in my memory:  the Thames, the Hudson, and the Ganges.

When I was four years old, my family moved to London for three years.  We lived just a long block from the Thames, and I remember asking my mother nearly every day if I could walk down to the river.  I wasn’t allowed to cross the main road by the river, but I could see the water from across the street.  I'd stand on the corner for I don’t know how long, just watching it flow.

The greatest thrill of my London years came beside the river.  It was the day of the boat race between Oxford and Cambridge, and we walked down to the banks of the Thames to watch.  The whole neighborhood was gathered there – butchers and bakers, barbers, fishmongers and fishwives.  We all looked upriver, under the Hammersmith Bridge, watching for them to come around the bend.   Suddenly a roar went up – the first crew appeared, flashing light blue trim on their oars.  Cambridge was in the lead!  The Oxford crew, with dark blue tips, labored a few lengths behind.   The roar built as they pulled past us, six men to a crew, rowing mightily, the coxwains barking through their megaphones, urging them on.  I became a Cambridge man on the spot, and light blue has been my favorite color every since.

Weehawken series -- John Marin c. 1915
For the last fifty years, my home river has been the Hudson – like the Thames an estuary, an arm of the ocean, but like everything in America, bigger.  It’s a mile wide at its mouth, and I’ve lived on both sides – ten years in Weehawken, New Jersey, and the last forty on the west side of Manhattan.   In the early 20 th century, the artist John Marin painted the Hudson from high atop the Palisades in Weehawken.  Both sides of the river were bustling with cargo ships, ferries, ocean liners and tugs. These days the river is more of a contemplative sight.  

The Indians called it “the river that runs both ways,” in and out with the tide.  It’s salt water for at least thirty miles upstream, and in that stretch the riverbed is flat.  At the high tide limit, fresh water rushing down from the Adirondack Mountains meets the salt water flooding in from the ocean, and there they mix. 

I remember the Thames in the subdued light of London as grey, almost black.  The Hudson is usually a muddy blue, verging into brown. I don’t like water you can see through, such as the Caribbean Sea.  I like water with secrets, fair and foul. 

The River Ganges begins as a clear mountain stream in the Himalayas, and flows down through the great muddy plain of northern India, 1560 miles to Calcutta, where it's the color of black tea with milk.  That’s a physical description, but in India there is always a parallel spiritual account of things, and in this “Mother Ganga” descends from heaven to earth, flowing through various holy sites, and the holiest of these is Benares.  Halfway through my life, I took a year off from working and made my way to India, where I walked by, and bathed in, the Ganges.       
At the holy city of Hardwar, where the river sluices down from the Himalayan foothills, it’s a cold, rushing stream.  Pilgrims hang onto metal frames by the riverbank to keep from being swept downstream.  Five hundred miles east in Benares, it’s deep and full, warm and placid, like a cow.  Bathing in the Ganges at Hardwar is like having your sins washed away; bathing at Benares is like being forgiven.  
You don’t need a guru in Benares.  All you have to do is sit on the steps by the river, among the dozens of temples and shrines and the open-air crematorium, and watch the hubbub of life and death meet the peace of the river.  The longer you sit, the better it gets. 
At the top of the steps where the main road spills down onto the steps and the riverbank, there was a tiny temple tucked in between buildings.  It was a room about twelve feet by ten, open to the street.  There every day from dawn to dusk, Hindus would gather to chant a prayer, sung responsively and repeated endlessly with varying melodies and rhythms.  The words were:  
                                                Si Ram Jay Ram
                                                Jay Jay Ram. 

I couldn’t translate it and didn’t care to, but I sang it for hours every day.  Anyone could come in, sit down on the rug and join in.  The leader played a harmonium, a small keyboard instrument like an accordion, and they had a tabla drum and some small cymbals for rhythm.  After a while I picked up the cymbals and became a regular member of the band. 

Like all bands, it had its ups and downs.  One of the leaders seemed a bit egotistical, hurried the tempo and didn’t seem to be listening.  But then there was an older woman who gave the chant a slow, mysterious reading, almost like a romantic song.   Another man wailed it like a lament, but with joy and passion in it.  

One day, in the middle of a bright, sunny afternoon, I was playing the cymbals and looking out over the river.  The Ganges seemed completely smooth, with all its motion under the surface.  From shore to shore, you could see the curvature of the earth.  On the near bank, workmen were digging ground for a new temple.  Cows wandered around the broad stairs amid the pilgrims and tourists. 
Si Ram Jay Ram seemed effortless, just spinning itself out over and over again.  Suddenly it struck me that I had become a part of this group, part of the music itself.  How could this be?  I knew nothing about them, not even their names.  I didn’t belong to their religion or understand their language.  A thought occurred, almost casually:  “Well, I guess we’re all just brothers and sisters.” 
A few seconds later, I realized that I had just uttered the most hackneyed of all religious truths.   But I had come to it innocently, with a beginner’s mind.  It was the only way I could explain my own happiness.

Later, it didn’t escape my attention that this universal insight was also a particularly Christian doctrine.  It turned out to be the first step of a long journey.  Today I’m a Presbyterian elder, a minister’s spouse, a singer in the choir.   And I look forward – tentatively, with doubts, but with the blessed feeling that in some way it’s true --- to the promise of the hymn:

                                      "Yes, we'll gather at the river,
                                       The beautiful, the beautiful river;
                                       Gather with the saints at the river
                                       That flows by the throne of God."

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips

For my book, "A Beginner's Life," click here

1 comment:

  1. Lovely Tom. I always look forward to a new entry in your blog.