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Ride The River: On Navigating Life's Uncertainty

a woman on the columbia river, columbia gorge washington

For the last year I’ve lived along the Columbia River that divides Washington from Oregon. It’s the largest river flowing into the Pacific Ocean from North America. It bends and winds its way 1200 miles and flows into 10 main rivers. The largest of its tributaries is the Snake River, connecting me 1000 miles to my home state of Wyoming.

Though I haven’t spent any time on the Columbia River, I’ve spent enough of it resting my gaze on its majestic expanse and watching it flow. Some mornings it’s completely still, like glass, and I wonder if it's even moving at all. Other days it’s fully awakened and alive with movement with waves large enough to entertain dozens of wind surfers.

Over the holidays I flew home to Wyoming, peering out the plane window at the earth's maze of rivers. During my layover in the Denver airport I crossed paths serendipitously with a man who happened to live in Casper, Wyoming. He was on his way to Texas, his home state. We exchanged numbers and grabbed a drink at a local brewery some days later when he returned to Casper.

Between awkward jokes and nervous comments the topic of spirituality and religion came up. “What makes you feel connected… I mean, spiritually?” I asked him.

His eyes drifted slightly beyond me as he imagined the scene. “The river,” he said. “I could watch it for hours; the way it’s always moving and changing. It’s never the same in any single moment.”

My vision blurred as I fell into my own memories of all the moments I’d spent near rivers and in rivers, experiencing their constant flow. Like the time I lived in a van in Alaska down by the river (Saturday Night Live, anyone?) and spent time simply watching it go by.

A few days later I found myself walking along the half-frozen Platte River in Casper as the sun melted into a sunset over the horizon. The Platte meanders through town, holding it together like a spine does a body. The air was clear and still. The stars were just barely beginning to stretch themselves out across the expanse of a Wyoming sky...

My favorite kind of sky.

I’d spent many mornings and evenings walking along the Platte when I’d lived in Casper previously. At the time I'd been swimming through the difficult decision making process of whether to leave my job and other commitments to pursue a different path.

This river knew me well, and I had needed its steady support to move through the waves of indecision.

As I walked along its edge two years later I could sense my time in Washington was coming to a close. Wyoming was pulling me back. I’d been feeling it for several weeks, but I didn’t necessarily understand it logically. Rather, I knew instinctively. I could see a bend ahead though I had little idea where it would lead. That's the thing with bends–and with life, really: you never know what's next until you're already at the curve and a new view unfolds, but not a second sooner.

While taking in the river and all its geese, I reflected on all the bends my life has taken throughout my twenties. My path seems to shift left, then right, then left again. From the outside, and sometimes even from my view, it looks rather chaotic and uncoordinated. Somehow I’ve always felt unmistakably guided yet completely lost and even doubtful in the mystery of it all. My faith in my intuition has kept me going, but the not knowing has kept me uncomfortable for the majority of the ride.

the columbia river, columbia gorge

I had hoped that Washington would be my steady flow… my long stretch of river that extended the space between its bends. After all, moving here had been one of them–a spontaneous leap that admittedly felt like the right one.

“Why’d you move out here?” people would ask.

“For a yoga teacher training…” I’d say as my best answer. It wasn’t false–I ventured Northwest to attend a nine month yoga teacher training that a friend of mine was co-teaching. But I could’ve taken a training anywhere, even in Wyoming. And being the studio’s first ever training, it was an interesting reason. The deeper truth was that I simply wanted to flow that way, and the training was enough of a tributary to take me there.

In a year, it’s led me to a small but meaningful reservoir of amazing things that will continue to be a source of life in the years to come: a yoga teaching certification that I’ve desired for years, a friendship with a wise man who has taught me treasured lessons on life and love, and an unexpected yurt in rural Washington where I seemed to enter a cocoon-like state of deep self-reflection and continued transformation.

But like I assume a caterpillar might experience when it’s time for the next phase, I feel a sort of subtle nudge–an inner sense that it’s time to emerge and move onward, even so soon. Like rivers, life doesn’t unfold in pre-planned segments of time.

Over the last year, the uncertainty of my life and especially that of the world at large has compelled me to acknowledge the fluidity and impermanence of everything: phases, careers, relationships, governments, places, homes, institutions, ideas, identities.

In this life we each emerge into our own unique river to ride. Like the Columbia River, ours eventually merges with the sea where we reconnect with all we’ve ever been.

But for a moment, it’s just us and a river and the passing of time.

Along the way fear seeps like oil into our crystal clear waters. We search frantically for certainty and grasp for things to stop the passing of it all to give us a sense of control of what we’ll never be able to grip–time. Like water, the minutes, hours, and days surge through our hands, impossible to hold onto.

I’m poignantly in tune with the fact that every wave of life is fleeting. And like so many times before, I’ve recently felt myself getting pulled under by the fear of impermanence. I want to cling, desperate to understand what things mean so I can continue to believe I have the ultimate authority over them.

inspirational quote about uncertainty and life

But now I’m beginning to understand that the magic of life emanates from the very reality of impermanence that we so often want to escape. What makes anything meaningful is the fact that it’s temporary. Looking this truth in the eye can initially be painful and terrifying, but it’s the only way we can begin to live with joy and gratitude for everything that was, is, and will be.

On the other side of acceptance is freedom. Rather than grasping, life invites us to ride the waves with enthusiasm, totally elated by their arrival and–when it’s time for them to go–to willingly release them with reverence for ever being. We must let go of the riverbank and keep riding our unique rivers wholeheartedly until they merge with the sea.

As my plane set flight from Wyoming for my holiday visit back to Washington, I looked out at the Platte River that winds its way through Casper. I envisioned myself on my own river, turning around each bend and dip with joy and unconfined curiosity for what it has to offer next.

Since then, I’ve decided to return to the wide open prairies and expansive blue sky of Wyoming. Washington will be my home for only two more weeks until my path winds its way back to the square state once more. I’m entirely unsure of the days to come, but I know I only need to ride the one that’s happening today.

It comforts me to know that the Columbia River feeds into the Snake River, connecting me in some symbolic way to two places at once that have played a meaningful role in my life.

I like to think that all of our lives are like that: braiding together and sharing waters with all past, present, and future aspects of our lives and the lives of those around us. All of our stories are shaped by the people, experiences, and places whose rivers intersect with ours for a time, our waters tossing and turning together at their perfect timing and flowing their separate ways just when it’s right.

May we all learn to ride the magical uncertainty of Life's River.

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