Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"...a river so long..."

"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 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 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


  1. Anonymous2:19 AM

    Anonymous said...
    Wow, Kate. That's powerful and helps me understand that there is no way we can ever know what someone else is going through. No matter what it looks like from the outside. Do you have any ideas what friends could have done to help you better during that time? Is it something you have do all alone?

    Wendie Bennett Hosmer (from FB)

  2. are so kind. And even though this experience happened years and years ago...I can feel the genuine care in your words and it not only touches my heart, today, and makes a reaches back and walks that young girl forward into the light of a friend's love. I think Mrs. Eddy says it best:

    "The tender word and Christian encouragement of an invalid, pitiful patience with his fears and the removal of them, are better than hecatombs of gushing theories, stereotyped borrowed speeches, and the doling of arguments, which are but so many parodies on legitimate Christian Science, aflame with divine Love."
    I think when we "pull in next to someone" look at things through their eyes just long enough to understand where they are and then take their mittened hand and gently move forward with them...patiently and matter how long it takes (the way you would with Jonah if you were helping learn to ice-skate), listening, even when all they say they feel is emptiness or remind them that right there...the ARE feeling something...they are alive to a hunger for something more in their awareness of the emptiness...
    it's a place to start...and hand in hand you can find your way towards Spring.
    love you, k.

  3. Anonymous1:32 PM

    wow, thank you Kate. Thank you for sharing these ideas and a perspective with me I've wondered about so often. Your ideas have helped me know how to move forward and not feel so helpless. This is truly and huge revelation for me. I've had people in my life go through challenging times and I know I haven't always been the best of friends. But I yearn to be able to be the most supportive possible for someone going through this kind of thing. I did know it was a long time ago for you, but I've never met anyone willing to talk about an experience like that and be willing to open themselves up to talk about it and what she learned from it. Thank YOU for having the courage to share and open yourself so that others can be blessed. I feel that blessing today from your sharing and caring and feel warm having you in my life. I'm so looking forward to our time together in CWM in the coming year. Wendie (from FB)

  4. Anonymous1:33 PM

    Wendie - your desire to reach out to others is touching! I love how moments of great warmth come when hearts connect with hearts, even on facebook, even with people we don't know. Your heart connecting with Kates, both of you sharing, sends waves that encircle me and others. Thank you both! My disappointments have lead me to not look to friends for light, but being suprised how it comes, andyet cherishing the deliverer when it comes that way! Isobel (from FB)

  5. Anonymous1:34 PM

    Isobel, I know what you mean. There was a long time in my life when I couldn't count on anyone else. You learn to 'go it alone.' And then there was a time in my life when friends were all I had and I learned a valuable lesson that sometimes God 'setteth the solitary in families' in unexpected ways. The years away from family were always filled with love as we were welcomed into friends and neighbors homes. And now, I can see how vital listening and being there for someone is. I know it can make a difference,it can save a marriage, and help bring someone out of the abyss of the sadness of death . . . but sometimes our own ego jumps in and spoils the 'pulling in beside.' It's something I struggle with daily, so Kate threw me a lifeline, a way to see through it and know, without acknowledgement that presence and stillness do make a difference. Thank you both. Wendie (from FB)

  6. Wendie...I am so looking forward to getting to know one another better over the next 2 years...!!! love, k

  7. Anonymous1:54 PM

    I really LOVED the blog you just wrote. It always amazes me that you are able to describe how I have felt and sometimes still do feel. And you are right people do say exactly those same things to me, ""just be happy", "recall all the things you have to be grateful for", and eventually, to "snap out of it". I try to feel grateful and I DO try to be happy, but sometimes it seems impossible. I even look at my life and think why am I so sad when I seem to have it so good. A great husband, a job, an awesome dog, fabulous friends who love me, etc... The list goes on and on but for some reason none of that seems to matter. Alright I am straying away from my point. I love that you understand and that I really am not alone. I love reading your stories of how you were able to walk from the darkness into the light again and how it is not impossible to find healing from this darkness. What I love the most though is that you KNOW that God is there for us and that is truly why we are not alone. Your faith in God and your devotion to prayer and the practice keeps me going and gives me the courage to keep on fighting this belief/suggestion.

  8. Anonymous2:47 PM

    I wanted to respond to Wendie’s comment/question on how to be “there” for someone who is struggling with depression. You are so right that we never know what someone else is going through or how they are feeling. I struggled a lot this past year and my friends, along with God and lots of prayer were integral in my finding my way back out of the darkness. I feel like God put these people into my life to help me see how valuable each of us truly are and how much we can learn from one another.

    I am not sure if my friends actually “did” anything other than just be there and be a friend. They listened when I needed to talk, they held me when I needed to cry, and they assured me that God was there and that there was a way out of this darkness. They did what Kate said they held my hand when I needed it and were there to walk with me through the dark times. They let me know that no matter what they were there for me. They provided me a safe place to just be myself. I didn’t have to pretend to be somebody or something I was not. They never judged me, or what I was going through. And because of that I trusted them. I could laugh with them or cry with them.

    The biggest thing I was that I did not feel so alone anymore. They were like a lifeline for me helping me to feel again. I am just so grateful that I had people I could reach out to. Sometimes I think we all need to make sure we let our friends know we are there for them. I wish that everyone was as blessed like I was by such good friends and God's presence in my life.

    You see we never know the difference we can make another's life, sometimes it can be larger than life.

  9. Dear Anonymous...

    your comments will help us all be better friends, kinder neighbors, and more faithful witnesses...extending a mittened hand whenever, however, and to whomever we can. with Love, k

  10. Anonymous9:44 PM

    I too stood at the edge of the frozen river when I was just a young confused teenage girl back in the 70"s when I first heard Joni sing this song. It was my favorite album. I would play that song over and over and over....amazing how we can connect to music like that. Still, to this day when I hear that song I have to hold back the tears. It is like a release for me. I loved your words and found comfort in knowing I am not alone in these thoughts....after all these years. Merry Christmas, I wish I had a river.....