Monday, November 12, 2012

The River Is In Me

Standing on the banks of the Mississippi River on the New Orleans shoreline, I stick my hand into the water to greet her. She is the Mississippi, and I know her well. After all, she’s my lover.

The scent of her fills my nostrils. I take her into myself, filling my lungs. It’s not a fresh smell, but one of mildew, decay and memory. Her warm humid breath comforts me. She welcomes me to her, my oldest friend.

There is a picture my mother has of me, at the age of months, less than one year old. I’m reaching for the throttle of our family boat, the Mimi III, named after my aunt. It was third in a tradition of five spanning three generations of our family. Not even old enough to speak, she was a part of my life. I grew up on boats, on her water, on the shores of Dubuque, IA. My weekdays might hold school or summer play, but she consumed my weekends. I spent countless hours riding her, swimming in her, swallowing her and eventually skiing upon her. On countless weekend nights, she would gently rock me to sleep and gently crash upon the sides of my bed.

Fireworks on the Fourth of July were hers. Annual trips took us through her locks, past her dams and into less explored waters. Cousins, friends, girlfriends and eventually my wife would feel her caress.

I almost died on the contours of her body. I scaled bluffs, walked shores, climbed bridges and jumped off a few. She’s dirty; and she rocks my world.

I’d like to think I was drawn to the Twin Cities by a job, but she was there, reminding me of my youth. I moved to the cities that are separated by her. Today, I live upon the shore of a river that feeds her (the Crow) – slowly flowing and making its way to her, downriver to my hometown and my home away from home, NOLA.

Wherever I am, if I come upon her shore, her waters come and caress me. She will fill my soul; I will say hello and my spirit will rise.

Back to NOLA

On this night on the shore nine days ago, I am standing next to my newest friend Mauricio, my friend Drew a few paces away. There are homeless asleep nearby and we respectfully keep our distance while moving to the shore, giving them privacy. I say hello to her, to Agwe, to all waters that she is connected to. She responds.

At this moment I am open; breathing her in.

We are shouted at. NOLA’s finest is asking us to step away from the water. We retreat to talk spirituality, religion and the nature and existence of the soul. At this moment there is no question in me. My soul is filled, energized and I talk with the enthusiasm of a double espresso.

How can I explain this feeling, this sensation, this energy? I’ve known it my entire life. It is a spiritual experience I cannot deny, no matter how open I try to be to the point before me: that we have no soul. If I could share this way of being, this fulfillment that only she can give me, I would. I have stood upon mountains, have meditated in hidden temples. I have danced and sang in my Vodou temple and rubbed shoulders with the Lwa. It’s something I experience, not observe. One has to live it, it cannot be explained. I try to make my point and feel like I’ve failed.

I try again.

What brought me back to religion was admitting my own denial that I was having spiritual experiences. I continue to have them. I’m having one right now, in the midst of this conversation. I admit I believe there is no hell, but no soul? Then who are the Lwa I speak to?

I respect the passion and intent of the debate before me. This is truly what I live for: to question my beliefs, to question everything – to look into my conviction and ask why? Why do I believe there is a soul? Does it comfort me? Does it make me feel better about death, or a life after death? Do I really believe me, who am I, will ever be the same after I expire? Actually, I do not.

I don’t walk around with a library of past lives running through my head. But there are things I cannot explain. What is it that animates us; that makes us alive? I do believe we can mechanically keep the body alive after the soul departs, but it is the soul, the consciousness, the living drive or force that makes the cells of my body go – to keep on going. This to me isn’t unique to humans, something I view as egotistical, but something that animates all living things: animal, plant and possibly other things beyond my comprehension. I can take the standpoint that I may not understand what the soul is, it’s depth, breadth and shape, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

I’m not making an argument for an afterlife where I, as I am, keep on going. I’m making one for me, as I am now, keeping me going right now. Perhaps it dissipates upon my death, or moves on to a different state with the Lwa, as a ghost or some other aspect in some other place. Perhaps it is reincarnation. This isn’t as important to me as the here and now. It’s making me alive, perhaps it’s not the consciousness, but what drives it.

The point is, I’m close enough to the river that she is filling my lungs. At this moment I know. Later, as I write this, I will doubt – and this is good – but during this discussion, I know.

Vodou is a religion to be experienced. You can watch: during a ceremony, on a television documentary, but to understand it is to experience it. This soul I’m discussing, it can be experienced. I can’t explain it as well as I wish, as logically as I wish – but some points are good. I’m not the religious scholar some of my friends are – but I am feeling it, experiencing it. That’s more than I can explain, with words specific enough in my grasp of my language. Like Vodou, this experience is what makes it what it is. Like deep meditation, you can’t understand it until you’ve done it. Like great sex or that first orgasm, if you’ve never had it, you have no idea what it is.

It’s beyond language.

I’m not sure if I convinced anyone of anything. It’s not the kind of argument that deserves a winner or a loser. It’s the kind of argument I really appreciate having, and I thank my friends that they are willing to have it with me. It’s a blessing to be challenged in this way. It gets me to think, to try and explain what I believe, to articulate things I haven’t tried to articulate before. It’s the mark of a great friendship.

Am I right or wrong? Is there a soul or isn’t there? Is this really important? To me, the important thing is the experience ; experiencing life, experiencing the river: my friend, my lover. I wish Saumya was here. I wish for this moment, this argument/debate to never end. Right now I am alive. My definition of that life includes my poor understanding of my own soul, my consciousness and my grasp to explain what that means. I don’t believe I’m alone in my struggle to explain that which I cannot explain.

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  1. More!!! I want more! To be continued...oh, please? Thank you, Urban. beautiful.!!!

  2. I could not read through this entire blog post, I'm not yet at the point where I have enough emotional distance to respond without a sweet sorrow that chokes me up my throat. However, as I read about your love for the river, I share that affection! I've been in love with many rivers, almost drowned in one, too.

    I want to say more, yet I am respecting the personal space.

    1. Valentina, the personal space is yours. For me, I encourage all to add their comments.

  3. I'll admit to being the other person in that debate, the one suggesting - rather passionately - that we may not have a soul at all.

    The thing is, I've had the same spiritual experiences you've had, Urban. The same double-shot-espresso fullness of bua (ashe), the definitive sense of not only my own soul but of other, amazing spirits beside me.

    But what we experience firsthand is not always accurate.

    The question no one has been able to answer for me is: how do we know those experiences aren't just a glitch of the mind?

    1. Drew,

      I think you are asking the right questions. Your conviction in pressing the issue is commendable. To me, it's not a debate worth winning, but rather one worth having. In questioning, we start to understand and appreciate our beliefs.

      Thanks for having it. We all struggle to make sense of our experiences. You push me to ask the hard questions, and attempt to give them answers.