It’s been raining for days here in Switzerland. It’s a cold heaviness that settles over the body like a wet wool sweater that won’t dry out. It reminds me of the winters in the West Virginia valley where I grew up.
I remember the way a river can control the weather.
This afternoon I force myself to pull on my warmest tights and descend slowly down the hill from our apartment. Late afternoon grey light combines with the mist in the valley and does funny things to my sense of place and time. I feel suspended in a cloudy, nameless location in some ambiguous era. I could be anywhere.
All day I’ve been reading the post-election news and an unrelenting feed of comments from friends and strangers that’s left my brain addled with anxiety and a sense of surrealism.
I take small, careful steps, wary of the slick leaves on the sidewalk as I trot down to the Aare River, to the banks that flow north around the old city. In one direction is the northern town of Solothurn and to the south lies the magisterial Bernese Alps. I usually choose the mountain view, even when the weather’s bad.
The water is high, a wide, vigorous current of teal and green and brown. The color changes constantly as I make my way along the dirt path that heads toward Thun.
Bern was once a Medieval city with a wall encircling it. The square that I live near is dated 1400-something with a statue of a man on a horse who must have had something to do with it. This morning I stood at the tram station and squinted my eyes and tried to imagine what that square looked like so many centuries ago.
I couldn’t do it, my experience of time is so completely stunted. These old European cities have witnessed long eras that I cannot even conceive of as an American.
I wonder what those ancients would think of our world today. Of our advanced technology and the modern way that we communicate, how we process our information, the cadence of our crazy lives. The way that we burn through our days, willy-nilly, expecting our natural resources to last forever. How we reduce time to peripatetic clicks and bytes and images on screens.
I can only imagine that people in the past understood time on a very slow clock. Getting the news took weeks and even years. Men and women crawled though their days with their eyes tuned to the sunrise and sunset – even the stars. Moving forward was difficult, near impossible and daily efforts rarely paid off quickly. Life was just expected to take time, long slow time.
Running along the river bank I let this moody murk swirl in my mind. I run south against the flow thinking I’ll need the rush of current alongside me on the way home to boost my energy boost and propel my tired legs. I’m all about looking for a way to save myself from any pain at the end.
Rivers are an obvious metaphor for life. I believe they are a constant, wise and gentle friend and I know that in the end they will outlast me.
There is a comfort in that, I’m part of a current that rushes tirelessly from ancient rock that pre-dates me millions of years, and one that will no doubt live on when my life is done.
Up on my right there’s a jangle of bells and my eyes cast up to the hillside, there are sheep stuck like velcro against the steep, slippery berm. Their coats are dirty and matted and thick with rain, and yet they chew in oblivion.
Like all of the animals here in the forest they don’t care a thing about the conditions and the weather. They look at me with marble eyes and can’t discern the meaning in my cries of why and how and what to do.
Their perfect cloven hooves keep their thick bodies clicked into place in a way my nubby soles will never do – I’m not made for scrabbling across rock like them or the Swiss people around me.
My feet betray that I am a stranger in this country, in every country, even in my own. Travel has taught me this. In leaving I’ve learned that my native country is a foreign place, like Switzerland, even though I thought I knew it like I knew my self.
Today I recognize that I’m completely lost, even when I know the way back home is simply re-tracing my steps on the trail. I’m lost for my country, for my privileged white heritage, for my sense of entitlement, for everything that has made me stupid and selfish and complacent.
It’s been deceptively easy to believe that I’m an important being on this planet, a product of my western, ego-driven, capitalist, consumerist society and my American beliefs and ideals, and that my life means anything at all.
To the river, to the animals and to the mountains it means nothing.
Under the canopy of the dripping hornbeam trees covered in moss, even I can see that I am merely a mud line on the steep bank, and that the ancient river will not make way for me or for any of us, it will just continue to rush on by.