Heraclitus was wrong. Yes, you can step into the same river twice. What could be easier? You find a shallow spot, take off your boots and socks, roll up your pant legs and step into the water. You feel the chill and the smooth stones beneath your feet, turn around and wade back to shore. Then you do the same thing over again. If you are 19 or 20 years old, as I was at the time I discovered the old Greek’s error, you can smile smugly at your friend. “There, I did it twice,” I proclaimed.
She was a few months younger than I, but decades wiser. “No you didn’t. The river is not the same and neither are you.”
“OK, so the water I stepped in isn’t here anymore; now it’s downstream. But I’m still here, the same.”
“Only in name, Michael. When you waded in the second time you were a minute older than you were the first time.”
Now I’m older still. Her name was Barbara, a girl from Carpentersville, upriver. The river is called the Fox. She left this world in a car crash sixteen days before her 22nd birthday. But the Fox endures, winding its way from Wisconsin through northern Illinois on its way to the Mississippi. I haven’t visited it for many years, and I’m told that housing developments and strip malls have buried the cornfields and forests that kept us company when we used to walk along its banks.
Since those days a long time ago I have learned that, generally, pre-Socratic philosophers and women continue to be wiser than I am. And rivers are still magic beings.
The Bear River near my home in northern California is not nearly as wide or as deep as the Fox. It flows less than a hundred miles from its source in the Sierra Nevada until it merges with the Feather River. Like the Fox, it fascinates me in a way I can’t explain. So I draw it and paint it as best I can, but it still remains a mystery, beyond the reach of what I can grasp.
Once in awhile, after a lot of work and hours, the sketches might yield a painting.
At the end of his novel, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean writes, “I am haunted by waters.” Waters haunt me too. I doubt that the wise girl of many years ago believed in the existence of heaven any more than I did, or do. But if a heaven were to exist for either of us, in my imagination it would be a river, without beginning or end.