Saturday, May 18, 2013


Beyond flesh and bone, beyond earth, wind and fire, beyond every tangible thing, there is flow. It is the story of life, the story of everything. Everything flows.

For the human animal, it all starts—and, one might say, ends—with blood. That is what we first are; it nourishes our earliest being. If it were the only thing that ever flowed, that would be some miracle indeed.

Water is the quintessential liquid. We learn about it in utero—how it feels, how it moves, supports, soothes and quiets.

Once we’re out, our relationship with water deepens. We soon become aware that it has to go into our bodies—and come out again. But first, before we appreciate most of its serious qualities, we learn to play with it. We splash it, squirt it, jump into it and blow bubbles in it, among other amusements.

      We may catch an occasional glimpse of
      what an utter miracle this clear, quicksilver
      stuff really is.

Eventually we’re taught how water’s a vital part of every living thing. We study how it seeps, pours, breaks into drops, and transforms to vapor and ice. We learn, often the hard way, that it can also hurt us, burning, freezing, knocking the wind out of us, drowning us.

If we’re lucky, if we can allow wonder to draw our mind’s eye around its ubiquitousness, we may catch an occasional glimpse of what an utter miracle this clear, quicksilver stuff really is.

Water is our model for how other substances, even unlikely ones, sometimes act like liquids. The easy ones are particulates like sand, soil or snow. They may take a bit longer to give in to gravity’s urging, but eventually they do. It’s only because we become so accustomed to seeing these materials as part of solid earth that landslides, mud flows and avalanches so often catch us unawares.

         Mt. Rainier is, geologically, a ticking 
         time bomb of flow gone wild.

Even whole mountains flow. The immense, seemingly immutable hulk of Washington state’s Mt. Rainier is, geologically, a ticking time bomb of flow gone wild. The mountain’s internal hydrothermal system, acidic chemistry and 26 glaciers have conspired to turn much of it into a stew of rock, ice and mud.

Rainier’s collapse—some say it’s inevitable—could release a volume of material greater than the nearly one cubic mile set loose when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980—enough to pour, 20 or 30 feet deep, all the way, over the city of Tacoma, to Puget Sound.

Not just water and steam, but also heat, can render the hardest substances runny. Hell, here we are, clinging to the eggshell-thin crust of a big ball filled with 2,000- to 9,000-degree liquid rock!

Flow is relative. The other day, as news broke of a wildfire sweeping across part
of northern Wisconsin, I was struck by the irony of the opposing flows—even as
a steady current of wind swept smoke and ash eastward, the fire itself crept relentlessly westward.

       The pessimist sees time as flowing away—
       running out, as it were; the optimist sees it 
       flowing in.

Which way we go with the flow depends on where we are and where we choose to look. I float in my canoe down the St. Croix. The water next to me tells me I’m standing still, yet the shore insists I’m moving. One person fears being inundated by a looming life challenge; another paddles hard, catches the wave and rides it to a happier shore.

Isn’t that the way it goes in all of Nature and life? One substance, thought or emotion streams in; another flows out to make room. The Army Corps of Engineers builds seawalls and dikes to save a city, only to squeeze the floodwaters out somewhere else. The pessimist will see time as flowing away—running out, as it were; the optimist sees it flowing in.

One way or another, through all the turbulence, through all life's comings and goings, flow is what makes it all end up in balance.

       They pour through the conduits of our 
       universal sure as any 
       river of finding their ultimate equilibrium.

Not all things that flow can be seen, yet we know they’re there by observing their effects on other things. Life, love, moods, spiritual energy, time—all these forces pour through the conduits of our universal connections with one another and with the earth, as sure as any river of finding their ultimate equilibrium.

I think this may be why I’m so enamored of rivers. Their flow reminds me of all flow, assures me that the best I have to offer to this world will be carried downstream, perhaps to slake the thirst of others. On the other hand, anything I need will eventually float down to me—some of it nourishment from the efforts of others; much of it directly from the Source.

Surely one of the great delusions of human existence is that we can stop flow. We can’t. Have you ever dammed the flow of rainwater in a street gutter? You can can create a huge lake, but sooner or later the water finds a way around, over or through even the best of dams. And the greatest joy, of course, is taking the time and place of that breach into your own hands.

    Watch with gratitude as it 
    flows with us, through us, 
    past us.

Isn't this the way it is with the flows of fortune and failure, of pleasure and pain, of love and loss in our lives?

Let us acknowledge and celebrate the wonder of it all, this force of beauty and goodness that animates paramecium and blue whale alike, moves the smallest particle and the very planets, and connects all of it.

We can stall it, we can divert it, but only for a time. Best to embrace the flow, perhaps find a way to harness a part of it. Draw power from it; give power back to it; find beauty and inspiration in it; and watch with gratitude as it flows with us, through us, past us.

Or buy a canoe.


Anonymous said...

Humans tend to time to move through the illusion of movement. It reminds them of change when they are actually stagnate. When time is up, and the clock is broken, the hands of people begin to really move, but no longer in circles, although they feel like they may be standing still as everything changes naturally around them.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Bern'e -- so you're saying the movement of a clock's (or a person's) hands is an illusion -- that they're really standing still and everything else is moving? ;-) I'll have to see if I can get my head around that....

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