"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's original version of "River" always speaks to a place in me that hungers for mercy. But it is James Taylor's recording of "River" that I turn to when sorrow rattles the window casings. His voice wraps mercy around my shoulders like a heavy wool blanket on a cold winter night.
Tonight, like a skater gliding backwards -- with my face forward -- I am hoping to gather in the fading light of the past, a perspective on a story which I pray might help someone else.
It was decades ago, but I will never forget the lessons learned. I'd been struggling with a gathering cloud of depression for months. But that winter, its pall lowered -- cold and dark. It screeched through my bones like a bitter wind. It threatened to rend my heart. A heart that already felt so brittle, it might shatter at the slightest touch of human warmth.
I was sad and empty. I felt a dead silence within. Not even the sweetest strains of Christmas music could penetrate that vacuum of feeling.
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 everything I loved and cared about. It was a feeling akin to being disconnected from myself. And there were time when I wondered if I'd actually passed on, and was somehow just observing myself from a place outside of my body. It was a vast detachment, and it seemed to leave me beyond the reach of kindness.
Nothing seemed to matter -- and everything hurt.
I'd been praying for so long -- just to feel something, anything. I was absolutely drowning in hopelessness. And I felt helpless as I wondered if I would ever be able to find even a glimmer of hope, again.
Depression is a strange hollowness. It holds nothing. Whatever love is given, seems to seep through through its black emptiness and get lost in the void.
I remember loved ones urging me to "just be happy," to
"recall all the things you have to be grateful for," and eventually, to "just snap out of it." But I couldn't. It wasn't that I didn't want to. I just couldn't remember what any of those things felt like.
I went through the motions. I prayed, studied, made gratitude lists, sang hymns, carols, lullabies, songs. But it was as if I was doing it all under water. I could hear the words, I could pray the prayers, sing hymn-after-hymn, and make notes in the margins of inspirational texts about inspiring "revelations," but I couldn't actually feel anything. It wasn't just that I 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.
It was as if she were 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. I could almost hear her whispering: "yes, you can do this -- just a little further."
And I'd think, "perhaps I can." I could take her hands, close my eyes, let myself glide out onto the ice, and allow my heart, my mind, my spirit to feel the silence of a frozen river.
I wanted to hear the simple scratching sound of my skate blades scoring the rippled ice. I longed to feel the bitter cold bite at my cheeks. I ached to hear the crackle of branches as the wind rocked the bare arms of marsh willows at the river's edge -- back and forth -- like keening mourners in blackened shrouds.
Day-after-day I would play "River." And day-after-day, I would let her take my hands in hers. Till one day, I began to feel.
At first the feelings were grief, and cold, and loneliness. But there was also the warmth of a mittened hand in mine. And there was the sweet voice of my friend, Joni. She was whispering a song about "wishing" and being "weak in the knees" with love.
Eventually I began to feel the tingle of living, like fingers coming back to life in front of a bonfire. Tears started to fall and burned in my throat like the hot chocolate I sipped - as a girl - from the stainless steel cup of my old plaid thermos. The feeling that she understood me -- that anyone understood what I was going through -- warmed me to the core.
Through her music Joni was taking my hand and skating me forward into feeling alive again. She was skating me into spring, where my heart began to thaw. It saved my life that winter.
By mid-April, Mind and Soul -- the spiritual sources of all true knowing and feeling -- had become synonymous again to me. What I knew (or could think of) I could actually feel (in my heart) again.
This was a different kind of healing for me.
For some reason, I needed to be met where I was. I couldn't seem to move from the edge of that frozen river -- cold, sad, and numb -- without the help of her mittened hand.
Her music quietly led me out onto the ice. And before long, I began to make my way forward -- pushing off on Love-angled blades, one against the other. Realizing that I was feeling something, anything -- no matter how painful -- sliced through the lie that I was living in a void.
I was so grateful to discover that I had never stopped feeling. Even my awareness of the vacuum was a feeling to be grateful for. I was alive to my own simple desire to feel. And since I could feel, I wanted to feel God, good.
Joni, pulling me onto the ice with her words -- words which made me realize that I was not alone in my sadness. Words that woke me up. And although it may have started out as a bone-numbing cold, turning into a painful tingling as I slowly woke up to the full warmth of my living -- I was feeling again. And it was enough.
It was enough to keep me coming back to the river's edge each day for the tender warmth of her now-husky voice. It was enough to keep me leaning towards the soft angora of her mittened hand. She was reaching out to gently pull me forward. And I was reaching out for life again.
There is an old song from our hymnbook that says,
a light surprises
the Christian while he sings..."
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." It pours the balm of understanding on a cold heart, and warm it back to life.
Mary Baker Eddy promises in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures that:
"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. I was feeling joy -- genuine, palpable, break-into-song, dance-in-the-streets, do backflips in the park, laugh-like-a-child, sleep-like-a-baby -- joy.
The trees began to bud and flower. 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. And I was singing "songs of joy and peace."
I'd found a river I could skate away - and back - on. Again, and again.
No matter how deeply sorrow had carved it's name on my heart, I could never, be made to believe that I was unable to feel again. And if I could start with the fact -- that I was feeling -- I could let those icy feelings swell the space in my heart and expand my capacity for compassion until all the world fell in.
Just like water. When it finds a small fissure in a rock - that in extreme cold turns to ice -- expanding and causing the space to grow -- so my sorrow could only expand the space in my heart, making me more open to the needs of others. Making it more understanding, more compassionate, more alert to someone else who might be sitting on the edge of the ice. Now, it is my hands that are mittened.
Thanks Joni. I will always be grateful. always...