It's mid-July, my birthday time, and I love to mark it somehow, so that later I can think, ah, yes, THAT year I was doing such-and-such... (So as I said to Dom, twenty-two years ago, I was pregnant with you and walking up the pass that is part of the circumambulation of Mount Kailas, in western Tibet, and here you are tall and grown and hopefully undamaged by those early in utero exertions!)
This year we slept in a friend's cabin on a hill above the Gatineau River, on a chilly night (but we had sleeping bags and quilts and were comfy). On my birthday morning I could get up early and walk down through the trees to the gleaming wide river, slip off my sweater and sarong, and step into the water. I was bare, but warm with the remnants of sleep. The river was warmer than the cold morning air, so it was soft and welcoming, slippery smooth on my skin.
I love swimming in the Gatineau. It flows south into the Ottawa River at Ottawa, and its water carries some suspended clay in it, making it almost silky to the touch. Any place that we spend our childhood has magical connections for us I think, and for me the Gatineau sure has those. There's a before-thought kind of familiarity and welcome to all of it: the feel of the water as I first sink into it, the subtle cool scent of the air over the water, the slight ooze of the river bottom as I push off to start swimming out toward the far shore.
I don't actually swim across the river, and have rarely done so. It's very wide. When I was a kid we would occasionally swim across, but only if accompanied by an adult in a rowboat, for safety, and always it seemed so far and such a marathon. I think I'm in better shape, and also am a more confident (though not a more elegant!) swimmer, so the crossing looks less daunting to me now. But I don't do it. Instead I swim out then luxuriate and float and paddle and swim a little more and let myself just BE there. Heaven.
Once back out, that birthday morning a few days ago, I wrapped myself in a towel, slipped the sweater on top, and walked over on the path to my cousin's dock. Under it the water makes a lapping sound as little wavelets reach the rocks and shore. I lay there in the sun, getting slowly warmed and feeling connected to and almost inside all the times I've been in that place, listening to that water.
But of course the water I heard before, all those other times, is somewhere else on the planet or in the air now, and the dock I lay on as a child has been replaced by a fresh dock with fresh planks. As always there's that lesson about life, which can seem the same, and feels the same but not the same, feels continuous but also renewed and altered over time.
So as the river flows by, we step into it at the same spot, but into different water, and we too are different, not the same person who stepped in yesterday, or ten years ago, or fifty (fifty!!) years ago. But inside I feel like the same person; I'm still me, aren't I?
These are birthday thoughts, or thoughts for the new year, when we ponder life and time and change...
And so it felt entirely right that on that trip to Ottawa, apart from the pleasure of swimming, and of seeing old friends, and of having travelling time with Dom and Tashi, I also had a visit with my aunt. She is eighty-seven now, lives in a present that is ephemeral to her, and with the past just a vague impression, so conversations are tangential and like those inside a dream state. She now looks very like her father, my grandfather, as he did in his late eighties, especially the way her mouth shapes words as she speaks. It's a precious glimpse of the past. I found myself in tears almost, touched by that family connection, and, once again, by the intertwining in life of continuity and change.