To paddle the river down to the ocean

A personal story about losing my friend at young age.

– The call of a river –

I grew up in northern Germany. My home was a solitary white house outside a small town, on the bank of a joyfully meandering little creek, surrounded by lovely meadows with black and white cows and light-green forest. The running water in front of our house was the theme of my youth.

I spent my days playing at this small black river, exploring its banks and finding a thousand different ways to see the water. I always came back to it and saw it ceaselessly moving, gently wandering by. It smelled of strange and exciting things, and at night I heard its whispering noises. How I envied this river for, what I thought then, was freedom, for its liberty to effortlessly move on, traveling to faraway places and never returning.  I felt how it already came from distant adventures and didn’t bother to linger in my small town, unimpressed with my world that I knew. This little creek smiled at me, it didn’t talk or lure me, but it knew everything about my dreams of adventure in far-off places and just smiled knowingly and kept its secret and never stopped. It moved on as if it not only knew much more exciting and more interesting places but as if it knew something about other places in general, about the illusiveness of being different, becoming, about coming and going, about traveling, about the mystery of places, and about what I didn’t know then: about life.

Wolfgang lived at the other end of town, also not far from the river. We were very good friends. I know now what a friend is, but back then I had no concept of friendship at all. He was just like me, I thought, and then he was all that I was not. We could do things together, and that was far better than alone. I don’t remember how we found each other, but it must have been instant recognition. He was energetic, stronger than me, and funny. He could laugh in situations when that was the last thing I would have thought of and was amazed that it was even possible and seemed sometimes surprisingly appropriate. We would sit together all day and talk things over; it was as if we had known each other forever. We were 14 to 15 and girls were on our minds, but we mostly just shared our frustration and bewilderment about this mysterious issue. The lust for adventure was what we thought we really knew all about. We would sit by the river, and he was as spell-bound as I was by its smile at our staying behind, half-friendly inviting, half sneering.

Where does this water go all the time? We knew about maps, we’d found the little name of our hometown printed over shades of green and brown next to big names of other cities and places. And we’d seen the crooked thin line there on the map that was supposed to represent our little creek and other rivers – real rivers – and one ours would flow into and then another and another – surely a huge one we figured – that finally flowed into the ocean. Somehow we knew the concept; it isn’t that hard to comprehend. But what would it be like, downriver, on such a journey, what would happen to us if we went too, if we let go of what we knew and just did what the river does: just go and never look back, maybe never return? What does this river smile about?

We needed a boat, it was obvious to us. Actually, somehow the whole “river” was so obvious to us, its message, its meaning. We didn’t think about it in metaphors, we didn’t care much for abstract and symbolic meaning. We took it all so seriously, we took life personally, and we loved it, at least what we’d figured out together so far.

So we spent a summer raising funds, a necessity, a concept that also appeared so obvious that we never wasted a minute to resent it. We planted trees in the forests and saved every penny and did serious research on boats and equipment. And one day our boats arrived: 2 folding kayaks. Now the river was different, we played in it and with it, and there was an intimacy growing. But we knew this was just practice.

And then, the next summer, we launched our loaded vessels one morning and started paddling downriver. We broke away and left and did it. I think we were 15. Our parents didn’t have a clue what we were up to. Of course we couldn’t tell them, and of course they would have never let us; and that we did it anyway, of course, seemed obvious, the river knew everything about it.

We didn’t take a map, the concept was clear enough. The ocean was our destination, but deep inside, I’m not sure that we knew what a destination really is. The river smiled even more now, but at times we actually began to forget about it. The world passed by on the banks and presented itself to us, somehow there wasn’t much need to do anything. We could keep paddling and see what’s next around that bend, we could just float, we could choose to stop and explore or stay and make camp. Finally we were part of the river and not of the land, and the motion was our life.

We saw landscapes we’d never seen before. Ancient forests where the splashing of our paddling would echo from above and marshes, smelling of decay. We were faced with debris clogging the whole river at places, later with dams and locks. We saw big cities passing by, we met people, so many people who lived out there and didn’t know much about where we came from. We reached the ocean; it was true what they said. Neither of us had ever seen the ocean or had ever tasted saltwater. What a miracle it all was! We found out about tides, we paddled in waves, we paddled next to gigantic ships, there was so much more than we ever imagined, and everything was a million times more exciting than we ever expected. The river, it had changed its name many times, it had changed its face daily, it had carried us, guided us, but then, in the end, we sometimes forgot it. When we were home again its smile was different, the sneer was gone, there was a touch of sadness, sometimes, when I recall it now.

I don’t remember how we got away with this feat when we showed up at home again. Maybe it isn’t really that difficult to explain things you are serious about. Maybe the successful vindication belonged to the test – another step of the liberation.

The door was open now. The next journey took us much further away. We knew now that maps were not only inspiring pictures but also serious tools. We used other rivers as guidance, as reference. We were learning fast, but the river was still our teacher. We were probably just 16 when we paddled down the Donau (Danube), all across Europe, through several nations. We ran white waters, and finally set out on the ocean. We survived hair-raising dangers, many times, and it all just made us stronger and smarter. We began to see what life was all about, at least that’s what we thought, and nothing could stop us. We made serious plans to travel around the world, Wolfgang and I, some day soon, when a few other “obvious” obstacles had been removed. We planned to paddle the Mississippi, the Yukon, the Volga, maybe across the Atlantic.

And one day there was a phone call: a terrible car crash, not far away, and Wolfgang was dead.

The image of him in his coffin has a place deep in my memory where it can never be erased. His face, somehow bruised, is almost like marble, like wax, like an empty mask, but it is him, and he does not move. And I touch him, and he is cold, he is not there anymore, it’s just stuff. I’m not really scared or shocked, I don’t understand – or do I?

So this was the ultimate rule of the game. The beautiful flame of a candle shining its light all around – a whiff, and it’s gone, nothing left but a black wick. I’m sure when you’re young you somehow already know the inescapable law of impermanence. We had talked about death, this mysterious end everyone was afraid of; we knew it happened – to others. But how can you understand death when you are so young?

I sat at the river – it smiled, but I did not see it. I did not see it for many years. I threw rocks into the water – this strange habit of men, this ritual, passed on from generation to generation and performed with ridiculous predictability like an addiction each time when someone stands in front of a calm surface of water. I threw rocks and savored the splashes and watched the ripples drift with the current and vanish.

And I lived on. Somehow the story simply continued where Wolfgang had left. It was me who lived on. Life lived me. And a few years later things really started to sing. Adventures came my way I had never even dreamed of, adventures that changed my life every day. I traveled around the world many times. And I did paddle the Mississippi, the Yukon, the Ganges, and so many others. I soon learned that the names do not matter. Oh, I learned so many things. I learned about love, about patience, about self. I found how self got elusive within the rest of all this life.

Why me and not him? I carried this question for a very long time. Until I also learned that many questions are not more than disguised assumptions, premature conclusions. By insisting to ask them we really refuse to listen, we exclude the possibility that this question simply may not apply, that the very act of asking a question can be the obstacle for seeing what we actually want to know. I came across the inherent neutral quality of not knowing, of ignorance, the incredible relief that not knowing is the only truly reliable conclusion we can ever reach. In a forever mysterious way the truth is not accessible by asking questions like ‘why‘.  I discovered the wonderful quality of pure attention, of genuine listening, and asking without having a question. When we give up our question and instead diligently and unconditionally listen to whatever arises, the truth may reveal itself out of silence, and we will know what we never expected.

And I came back to my river – he’s far more than a friend now. I actually live now in one of those faraway countries, but I find him again, everywhere.

             Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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1 Response to To paddle the river down to the ocean

  1. C. Prince says:

    Thank you for sharing your roots….in such a poignant manner. All our “Wolfgangs” shape and enrich our lives. My heart was moved.

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