Being and the River

So many things happen in a person’s life. Mine was no different. looking back on growing up, I realize that the summer season gave me my most memorable experiences, the bulk of which were quite happy. Even as I marched into adulthood, that time of year gave me the greatest joy in the simplest of ways.  
My birthday precedes the first day of spring by a few days. 1998 was ~ 50th year to heaven. I knew that I had much to be thankful for, but I was dislocated in a way and to an extent that I cannot really explain.

As spring wore on that year, it seemed that even summer was going to fail me. The two previous years had taken an enormous toll on my family.  
In June of 1996, my 34 year old nephew and law partner had died of cancer after several years of horrible suffering. He left two infant children and a devastated wife.  
In July of 1997, my wife’s father, with whom I had been very close, died of cancer after several months of pain and suffering.  
In January of 1998, my mother died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Two months later, my father took a severe heart attack in Florida on the same day I was supposed to leave for a birthday holiday in San Francisco. I spent the next three weeks in two different Florida hospitals, helping my father survive (which he did). 
In May of 1998, after much travail, but still unexpectedly, my older sister died of a rare neurological disorder, only two days after her 59th birthday.

By mid-June, I felt myself hitting the wall emotionally. It was all I could do to get up in the morning and go to work. I felt like I couldn’t do anything, but didn’t know how not to do what I had always done. Toughing- it out had always been the way in my family tradition, but this was different. I knew I was in trouble in a way I could not express and did not know what to do about it.  
About ten years before, I had attended a five day summer program organized and run by Wayne Diotte and various associates of his at his rural home in a conservation district on te banks of the Missisippi River in a little village called Blakeney, about an hour by car from Ottawa. Several months before that, my other sister had introduced me to macrobiotic foods which I had liked at once.

I wanted to learn more about macrobiotics, and particularly how to use the techniques offered in macrobiotics to help myself my family and my friends. Many people felt I overdid it, proselytized, and was generally tiresome about the subject. They were probably right. 
I remembered the place fairly well, it was simple, spare, clean, peacefull out of the way and within a few hundred yards of one of the loveliest rivers I had seen in Canada. The river was a winding one , which flowed to the magnetic north. It was also the only known spawning area for a rare freshwater fish known as the River Red Horse which is an endangered species. Those two facts alone distinguished this particular river. 
That first exposure to the river and the wonderful conservation district through which it passes was very cursory for me seemed like just a pleasant adjunct to the lectures, seminars, cooking lessons, eating and socializing that were taking place. In hindsight, I realize that I only skimmed the river environment and what it really could offer, the memory of that experience lingered however~ and must have left the hint of greater promise.

In a moment of desperate inspiration, I called information and tracked down Wayne Diotte’s phone number. I rang him early one June morning. I recounted my tale of woe after reintroducing myself. He and his assistant, Corinne Van Der Velden, agreed to take me in for a five day individual program which included personal consultation, shiatsu massage, ginger compresses, walks on the country roads, stretching, and guided river exploration. There were also wonderful macrobiotic meals with many ingredients grown on the premises, bicycle riding, meditation and lots of solitary time in the river and elsewhere.

It took me four apprehensive hours to come by car from my home in Toronto to Wayne’s house. He had acquired an 1875 vintage farmhouse close to his home which he had renovated as a guest house and furnished minimally with stark white walls and Japanese style mattresses on the floor in the guestrooms. The uncluttered quiet of these premises appealed to me immediately upon entering.  
I think I was vaguely disappointed when I realized that I was the only guest there for those few days. A short time thereafter, however, I began to appreciate the solitude those circumstances allowed me. 
The day following my arrival, Wayne took me on a guided exploration of the park and the river. I began to see the area in a way I had not even contemplated that first time ten years before.

The exploration began with an invigorating adventure that consisted of jumping off the riverbank under the access bridge where the river begins to drop and the water is quite wild. Wayne hung a rope from the center of the bridge railing with a wooden branch handle at the end of it dangling just above the waters swirling and frothing surface. If you missed the rope, the strong current caught you and swept you down a chute about 60 feet or so to a little eddy where you could scramble back to the river bank It was like a full body slide, and was most exhilarating.

Of course, I missed the handle on the first attempt. I had grown up at a lakefront cottage, and knew the outdoors and how to handle myself around water. This simple failure humbled me and opened me up to just: how off the mark I was in my then current state. On my second attempt, with Wayne’s coaching, I caught the handle and swung on that rope as long as I could. First I held on with two hands, on my front, then on my back, and afterwards with one hand, front and back. I raised myself and dropped down again. I hung from my legs, back and front, side to side, and so on until I was exhausted and had to let go.

What a letting go that was, with the sun shining, the water churning and the force of the current carrying me forward. I remember feeling how good it was to be alive in those few seconds. I started my river time each day thereafter the same way.  
Later, Wayne walked me through the park and down the riverbank. We forded the river barefoot in our bathing suits, always stepping on the highest point on the rocks underfoot He showed me nooks and crannies my untutored eye might otherwise have missed. He opened the way to some of the most serene and glorious spots I have ever been to, including one incredible white water Canyon where the swirling and frothing water comes in from four or five different directions, and a body can wedge into the froth and absorb the forces of unmasked nature running through.

I could spend many pages describing the simple experiences of putting your bare feet onto the warm, carpet-like, exposed red tree roots on the river bank; Or climbing up barefoot Onto the top of a little rock island in the stream to find a warm spongy rug of years of pine needles underfoot, and picking and tasting wild raspberries and blueberries a few feet from there; or finding a long, flat, exposed rock out in the middle of a little tributary slipstream with a tree growing on it, partially shading it, and lying on your back there in the heat and light of the summer afternoon, feeling the timeless glory of being. 
It was there, in the warm delight of those moments that it came to me that I would have to return to this place, time and again. I made a promise to myself then and there that I would strive to come back here the same time every year; and so I have.  
In the late afternoons, I would make my way back to the white house and prepare for my ginger compress or my shiatsu massage depending on what was scheduled. Those treatments were like icing on the cake, allowing me to take my emotional leave and put things into that flowing context that I had always worked so hard to achieve.

The dinners which followed those sessions were always simple and excellent, the surprise dessert always left me with a smile, Following dinner, I would take Wayne’s mountain bike and ride aimlessly through the back roads, admiring the birds and flowers in the farmers’ fields and the other rural sights that took so little effort to enjoy. A nearby town called Pakenham a few miles away that has an incredible stone bridge across another part of the same river is always a worthy destination.

Upon return from those bicycle rides in the later evenings, I would hike down through the forest behind Wayne’s cottage property across the road from his house to the riverbank on yet another part of the river facing a waterfall where the water was very calm and placid. There, I would bathe in the dim light of dusk and then lie down to dry on the flat rocks which were very warm at that point in the day as the heat went out of the water into the land. There was always a sweet sadness that went through me just before hiking back up through the woods to the white house as that day gave way to night. I felt clear and easy. Sleep came so quickly it was all I could do to read a few pages of one of the several books I had brought to occupy myself. I slept with the window fully open to the night breezes and sounds of the country village. The sleep was never long but always restful and unburdened.

I could easily go on at much greater length about what a great coach Wayne is; what an incredible nourishing cook Corinne is; what a great hideout this place offers; but I am sure you can see it all from what I have already said.

In summing up my thoughts about this part of my life experience, I cannot help but present two unrelated quotations which bear great significance for me:

“Sometimes all you have left to win is the knowledge of why you are taking the beating, and the realization that no one will save you from it.”
From “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean

“The race is not to the swift, but to those who can stand still and let the waves go over them,”
D.H. Lawrence

Les Wittlin

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