These days, I can’t imagine living anywhere that is not next to a body of water. The rhythm of water, its consistency and potentiality, has been my deliverance. I grew up near a river—the White River, which empties into the Wabash River, which empties into the Ohio, which empties into the Mississippi and then into the Gulf of Mexico. The river created in my mind the potential to float away from where I was, leaving behind everything and going everywhere.
Only recently did I become conscious of this significance. The river, without my knowing it for a long time, gave birth to my desire to be near water. My experiences of it helped shape the person I have become. As a teenager, I recognized it as a place to hide. I could go and be alone without anyone asking why I was there, as opposed to questions I would get if I were to sit in the middle of a field or walk in the woods. I could go to the river and distance myself from everything and imagine a life otherwise. Part of this appeal arose from its seclusion, for it flowed through the countryside and not into town. The rest of it was that the flow of the river nurtured possibilities.
My first memory of the river was of spending summer days sitting on its banks, passing away the time and listening to Cincinnati Reds baseball games on a transistor radio. It was my refuge from a difficult home life. I could imagine I was in Cincinnati, which was just across the Ohio River from my birthplace and home of all my mother’s relatives, the people with whom I wanted to be.
As I got older, I ran along the river, which often meant making my own trails among jagged, brushy banks. It meant focusing on the immediacy of the moment and what was directly in front of me, lest I stumble, instead of the concerns and thoughts I brought with me when I came off the bridge and down the scruffy grass to the water’s edge.
My runs would take me farther up and down the river than I could travel by road without being outside my allowed boundaries. I ran beside fields, along shallow gorges created over a thousand years, and through muddy flood plains. I moved slower than I would if I were running on the road but extended more effort because of the ground underneath me. I often had to retrace steps and revise routes to avoid underbrush, thickets, and deep muddy patches hazardous to shoes and bare legs. These runs would continue into college, on the same river but twenty miles further away.
At the same time that I took to running along the river, I began to trudge through its pools and currents from November to February trapping raccoons and muskrats for spending money. I rose early in the morning and rode my bike in the darkness the half-mile to the bridge. Wearing hip waders, I slipped into the cold water, its pressure converging around my legs. I was always surprised and soothed by the insulating warmth created by the cold water as it rose up the waders past my knees and along my thighs.
I moved gingerly along the water’s edge, shining a flashlight into lairs and underbrush where my traps lay. More times than not, I found nothing. At other times—a few times each week—if I had done it properly, a muskrat would be submerged in the water, drowned by my trap-setting expertise. Too often, however, I found live muskrats, their backs against the shoreline, eyes lit up by my flashlight and teeth bared.
A worse encounter was to come on a raccoon in similar pose—very much alive and ready to fight and three to four times larger than a muskrat. In the end, I killed the muskrat or the raccoon. With the raccoon, the effort was pandemonium, with me swinging at it with a tree limb, thrashing water and landing glancing head and body blows as it, in turn, retreated further into the grassy bank or sprang forward trying to escape. In the end, I was soaked in sweat and water, the raccoon dead, as my gasps for air punctuated the constant murmur of the river’s current.
I trapped muskrats and raccoons for only a few years. Eventually, I started running in the mornings instead of trapping, and without much thought, a November came when I left the traps in the barn and never touched them again. Over the years, I seldom thought about the experience. When I did, the thoughts were triggered by shorelines that reminded me of the White River.
All of this came back to me one early morning as I ran along Lake Michigan in one of the few desolate places on Chicago’s shoreline. I was on an old access road next to a golf course. Although it was open to the public, only few runners and some bird watchers used it. In the early morning, I could run the entire mile distance and not seeing anyone. On these mornings, I was likely to see raccoons, foxes, or skunks along the rocky shores or in the underbrush growing along the golf course fence.
Nearly all of my runs now take me along Lake Michigan in some way, often along bike paths that run from one end of the city to the other or next to the break walls that line long sections of the lake that haven’t been turned into beaches. It is the access road, however, that I return to most often, running north and then south often during the same run.
It is not is a coincidence that I returned to running after a layoff of years only when I moved close to Lake Michigan. Now, if I did not live near a large lake, the ocean, or a river, I would find someplace to run because, like when I was young, I cannot imagine my life without running. Running and water don’t necessarily go hand in hand, but running and being near water inhabit me in similar ways and those ways are most pronounced when they are done together. Running, however, is the constant, and although I can sit and look at water, and probably would survive without water nearby, my psyche demands that I run. But still, I can’t or don’t want to imagine my life apart from water.
As for the trapping, that instinct left me long ago. What seemed so natural at the time—the willingness to kill another living animal—left me without my knowing when or why. I don’t regret the experience, but looking back I realize it was nihilistic to think I was justified in what I did. It was violence perpetuated by me. Yet my upbringing was no more violent than those with whom I grew up, at least not physically or psychologically. At times, I suffered emotional pain—pain of loss, rejection, verbal denigration—and without giving it much thought, I was able to inflict pain, to do violence to others in similar fashion, and to kill animals.
Maybe all that changed with running, with a subconscious desire to keep running and allow it to subsume all else? Ultimately, running took me away from that place in real terms, first off to College and then even further away. In those new places, I always found water. And, in time, water was not so much an escape as a respite. How ironic is it that none of this—the abandoning of trapping, the continuing to run, and the role of water—was planned and as it happened not given significance until now?
The lure of running always remained strong, even when I stopped, and is even stronger now that I have returned. The lure of the water has remained constant, although too often overwhelmed by other necessities. And the pain I have experienced and inflicted has never been so violent as when I was a youth but has always existed within me. I embrace every opportunity that makes the first two possible, and struggled every day for deliverance from the latter. I have not killed a living thing since I stopped trapping. The transformation was not a result of courage, maturity, or morality. It was happenstance it seems, which only took on meaning and became significant after the change became part of who I am.
The lure of water these days is also the interest in the wildlife that is there—ducks, geese, fish, turtles, heron, cranes, foxes, skunks, and more. I seek them out, traversing the access road and winding along shores and beaches. I worry now about the destruction of the world and what will happen to all of us. I wonder too, regardless of what we know about ourselves, about our planet, about others, is the world still so mysterious that deliverance—as profound as it must always be—only comes through transforming pain into something more purposeful and resilient? I believe so. It rests on something as significant as recognizing pain—yours and others’—for what it is, and, in my life, in breathing deep and feeling the cold air off the water hit my body to remind me why I am alive. It comes from seeing and hearing the water’s movement, and knowing, too, my own perpetual movement of blood and fluid that pushes me toward possibilities that I imagine but that only ever begin, are only ever realizable, with my seeing, hearing, feeling what is around me.