Time is a River

The new photo album came in the mail. It’s pictures from the fall, all capped off with a glossy photo on the front. It’s my son on the cover, 7-yrs-old, holding a rainbow trout in his hands. He’s grinning at the camera.

This picture, taken by me, lived on my phone for months before I had it printed. It’s a “live” photo, meaning that when I touch it with my finger, the moment moves just as it did when it occurred. The water swirls around Kyle, his grin stretches, the fish flops lightly as he grasps it. Only a second long, the moment is a fish plucked from the river of time.

With technology, it’s easy to recall the past as we have documented it. But the things that I didn’t photograph, I still remember about that day fishing. The dead snake I found by the river. The patience of the instructor with my son. The calm feeling of repetition – cast upriver, let the lure drift downward, pull back, do it again. The water moved coolly around my legs; the sun warmed on my shoulders. We threw the fish back and watched it swim away.

Just yesterday, I was on a plane back from a long weekend in New York. As we flew down the eastern seaboard, we descended below the clouds. As we got closer to the lowcountry, I peeked out the window and could see the rivers and tidal creeks of the lowcountry snake through the marsh grasslands. The hairpin curls of streams—I remembered something from my college geography class taken twenty years earlier. Water always takes the path of least resistance. Floods into the weak points, moves around obstacles. A river’s geography is ever changing, due to water’s path. The river winds back and forth.

I think about time now in this way. If time is a river; the memories are water. Moving around obstacles, flooding in at weak points. 


Lately, I haven’t had much time to write.

Sometimes, it’s like this. My head is a mumble jumble of to do lists, relentless and never-ending. Every day, I fold laundry and empty the dishwasher and every day there is more laundry to fold and a dishwasher full of clean plates, ready to be emptied. Who can write when there’s so much to do? The dog needs to be let outside, there’s a birthday party to plan. Oh crap, I forgot about my dentist appointment tomorrow. Mom, can you find a pair of socks for me? I need help with my homework. Honey, did you put that check in the mail? We’re out of toilet paper.

It’s never ending. In a blog post, Dani Shapiro, one of my favorite writers, nods to an interview with writer William Styron in which he calls such chores the “fleas of life.” Shapiro quotes Styron’s interview with the Paris Review:

“Every writer, since the beginning of time, just like other people, has been afflicted by what a friend of mine calls ‘the fleas of life’ – you know colds, hangovers, bills, sprained ankles, and little nuisances of one sort or another.”

I know about fleas. Real ones. Our cat, last summer, had a terrible bout and we could never quite rid her of them. I switched treatments twice, vacuumed daily, bought her a flea collar. We finally shook the fleas in October; I suspect they’ll be back with full vengeance come summer. 

Back to writing—I’m scribbling away now while waiting in the car rider line to pick my son up from school. Because if my “fleas of life” keep me from writing, then here I am winning the battle, little by little. In a few minutes, my son will walk out to my car with his big book bag bouncing on his small first grade shoulders. He’ll open the door and plop inside and I’ll shut my notebook. He’ll smile and tell me about his day at school while I drive the long stretch of highway home.

My cat’s fleas were non-redeemable little bloodsuckers. The flip side of most of my “fleas” is sustenance.  A long car ride home yields a lovely story from a child. Dirty dishes pile up from a well-enjoyed family meal. A laundry basket full of clothes dirtied on a weekend outside together. Bills to pay for the home that gives us shelter.  I’ll continue to scribble away in my car just as I’m doing now because if these are the “fleas of life” allotted to me, I will take them. And I will write about them.

I'm a lucky girl. 

The Sandbar

Upriver, just before historic Charleston plantation homes, there is a sliver of sandbar revealed at dead low tide. The sandbar is located on the Ashley River, a tidal river that begins at the mouth of the Charleston Harbor and ends inland in a brackish trickle. You wouldn’t even know the sandbar existed—it’s just a tiny crescent of tea-colored sand—but it’s a popular resting spot for shore birds. At dead low tide, you can see the resting flock from our dock where, incidentally, my kayak is stowed. My kayak is nothing fancy, just an old hand-me-down from my father, but it’s stable and safe, which I appreciate since my kayaking buddy is my four-year-old son.

For two years now, ever since he knew enough to follow important instructions (stay still so the kayak doesn’t tip over), Kyle has sat with me in my kayak as I paddle. It’s a sit-on-top kayak, easy to get in and out of, comfortable to paddle even with a small child sitting in the middle. We paddle close to the docks of our neighborhood and don’t stray too far from our own house.

But today I look upriver, hand over my eyes, shielding the sun. I look towards the sandbar. The river is wide in this part of the Ashley. Wide and deep. Kyle stands with me on the dock. He has grown inches this summer, sprouting into a leggy boy. It’s the last day of his summer vacation before he starts preschool. Next year he’ll be off to kindergarten, middle school, high school, college. Just yesterday, it seemed, he was a baby and I was a new mother.

Where does time go?

It’s a dead low tide and the sandbar beckons. I ask the question every little boy longs to hear:

“Want to go on an adventure?”

“Oh yes! Yes mama! Yes!”

We load up and set out. Barely containing his excitement—stay still so the kayak doesn’t tip over—Kyle sits in the middle as I paddle away from the dock, against the outgoing tide. There’s a strong headwind as well, coming downriver, hindering my efforts. But soon we make it upriver, past the last dock of our neighborhood. We begin to cross the wide-open water towards the sandbar. Kyle huddles close.

“When are we going to get there?”  He asks.

“Soon, baby, soon.”

We hunch down in our lifejackets. I grit my teeth and push harder.

There is only a short window between the tides before the sandbar disappears. At low tide, the pluff mud banks and cordgrass alongside the river swell above us. It’s a long paddle, an exhausting effort. A fresh blister festers on my left thumb where my paddle rubs. But finally, finally, I feel the bottom of the kayak scrape on the sand. We arrive, Kyle hops off and the shore birds fly away in a flapping display of white wings. My son is a happy package of kinetic kid energy. He runs the length of the sandbar, his feet slapping in the wet sand.  He is tan and tow-headed from the summer sun.

We build a sandcastle. We wade out in the water and swim. We enjoy a sandy picnic of sandwiches and apples and talk and laugh. Kyle throws our apple cores into the water. “For the fish,” he tells me, squinting in the sun. We hunt minnows and crabs in the shallows.

And quickly enough, the tide shifts. The water comes swiftly and encroaches our little beach. It’s time to leave. We push the kayak off, hop in and cross the deep channel of water, fighting yet another current on the way home.

The wind is on my back now, helping to push our little boat past the docks of our neighborhood. I’m worn out in a good way and so is Kyle. He rests his head against my chest and stretches his long stork legs out in front.

“I think I’m getting a little big for this kayak, Mama,” he sighs. 

“Yes. You are. You’re growing up.” It’s difficult for me to maneuver the paddle around him and I know our days together in this little floating watercraft are numbered.

We pull up to the dock and unload. I pull the kayak out of the water. Kyle and I start down the weathered dock back towards the house. But first, I turn and look back for the sandbar. It’s not there anymore. It’s completely immersed underwater. Gone.

I hold my son’s hand a little tighter.

It was only there for a fleeting moment.