"It's coming on Christmas,
they're cuttin' down trees
They're puttin' up reindeer
and singing songs of joy and peace.
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
"Oh, I wish I had a river so long
I could teach my feet to fly
Oh, I wish I had a river,
I could skate away on…"
- Joni Mitchell
I linked to Joni's version of "River" in a post about a Christmas spent far from home and family, called, "I Wish I had a river..." on this blog in 2007, but it is this recording of "River" by James Taylor, that has a gentle, but firm, grasp on my heart tonight.
Sitting in my office at 4 in the morning I'm going back, I've skated away from the "things" of 2009, and am gliding backwards...with my face forward in hopes that going back to gather the story will help someone in their own darkness...to a winter some years ago. I'd been struggling with a gathering pall of depression for months, and this winter day it lowered cold and dark, screeching through my bones like a bitter wind threatening to make my heart so brittle that it would shatter at the slightest touch of human warmth.
I was sad and cold and felt a dead silence inside that not even the sweetest strains of Christmas music could penetrate. It didn't make sense. I should have been happy. But I couldn't shake the dull edge of depression's cold knife cutting me off from all I loved and cared about. It was a feeling of being so disconnected from myself that I wondered at times if I'd actually passed on and was observing myself from a space outside my body, however close it seemed to be.
Nothing mattered...and everything hurt.
I'd been praying for so long, just to feel something...anything...that my hopelessness in finding help, was turning to helplessness that I would ever find even a glimmer of hope again.
Depression is a strange hollowness. It holds nothing. Whatever is given, seeps through through the black emptiness and is lost in the void. I remember loved ones urging me to "just be happy", "recall all the things you have to be grateful for", and eventually, to "snap out of it". I couldn't. I prayed, studied, made gratitude lists, sang hymns, carols, lullabies, songs. It was as if I was doing it all under water. I could hear the words, I could pray the prayers, sing each hymn and make notes in margins about inspiring "revelations", but I couldn't actually feel anything. It wasn't that I just couldn't feel joy...I couldn't feel anything.
But this song, "River" seemed to have an odd effect on me. When I heard it...even just the sound of it, I somehow knew that Joni understood what I was feeling. She was stretching a mittened hand out to me where I sat on a log at the edge of the frozen Raritan River calling me to skate with her, whispering: "yes, you can do it...just a little further.". To take her hands, close my eyes, glide out onto the ice, and let my heart, my mind, my spirit feel the silence of a frozen river, hear only the scratching sound of my skate blades coursing through the rippled ice, feel the bitter cold bite at my cheeks, and listen to the crackle of leafless branches as the wind rocked trees back and forth like keening mourners in blackened shrouds.
Day after day I would play "River". Day after day I would let her take my hands in hers. And I began to feel. At first the feelings were grief and cold and loneliness...but they were also the warmth of a mittened hand in mine, the sweet lowing of my friend humming a song about "wishing" and being "weak in the knees" with love. And I began to feel the tingle of fingers coming back to life in front of a bonfire, and the burning in my throat as hot chocolate from the stainless steel cup on my old plaid thermos, warmed me to the core.
Skating with Joni, knowing that she understood, and that through her music she was taking my hand and skating me forward into feeling alive again...into Spring, and the thawing of my heart, saved my life that winter.
By April, Mind and Soul...the Sources of knowing and feeling...were synonymous again to me. What I knew, or could think of...intellectually, I could now actually feel in my heart.
For some reason I had to start where I was...on the edge of a frozen river, cold, sad, and numb...and have her mittened hand, quietly lead me out onto the ice, before I could begin feeling my way forward...pushing off on Love-angled blades, one against the other, indirect reminders that sliced through my icy heart and poured in the warmth of remembering that I could feel something, anything right in that moment. In fact, I was feeling...it may have started out as a bone-numbing cold, that turned into a painful tingling as I slowly woke to the full warmth of living love....but I was feeling. And it was enough.
Enough to keep me coming back to the river's edge each day for the tender warmth of her now-husky voice, the soft angora of her mittened hand reaching out to take my life in her own and gently pull me forward.
There is an old song from our hymnbook that says,
"Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings..."
And sometimes what surprises me is the way a song can come "with healing in its wings" to pour its balm of understanding on a cold heart and warm it back to life.
Or as Mary Baker Eddy promises in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures:
"Whatever inspires with wisdom, Truth, or Love
— be it song, sermon, or Science —
blesses the human family with crumbs of comfort from Christ's table,
feeding the hungry and giving living waters to the thirsty."
By Spring I was feeling again...and what I was feeling was joy...genuine, palpable, break-into-song, dance-in-the-streets, do backflips in the park, laugh-like-a-child, sleep-like-a-baby joy.
And as the trees began to bud and bloom, and the river languorously carried apple blossoms from our yard, past the old mill down river, under the covered bridge, around the bend, through the state park and eventually out to sea, I was singing "songs of joy and peace" I'd found a river I could skate away, and back again, on. And it was "the river of His pleasures"...calm, constant, fresh, and new each day...flowing in my own heart.
Thanks Joni...I love you...
Kate Robertson, CS