I spent four years in school in England growing up. Throughout all of our ceaseless back-and-forth across the ocean, my parents remained committed to educating us in the local systems. So a French preschool taught me to read, and the British system taught me a lot of stuff which culminated in ten GCSE exams at the end of 10th grade.
One of the subjects I took for GCSE (the old O Levels) was Geography. This was not, as you might assume, the study of maps and the world’s order. Anyone who’s spent any time with me, and observed me arguing my firm belief that Peru and Tibet are right next to each other can vouch for this. No, Geography was more a tour of totally random subjects loosely connected to the natural world – rain, different climate systems, oil rigs in the North Sea, city planning. Pretty random stuff, but I found it oddly fascinating.
One of the subjects that has really stayed with me is the study of how, over time, a river meanders. Meander is both verb and noun here: the meander of a river refers to its bends, which gradually grow more and more concave (or convex in the other direction). Over time, the quality of the moving water (differences in speed, suspended silt) carves a once-straight river into the swooping arcs we have all seen. Eventually the river cuts itself off, returning to a straight passage and stranding the arc into a now-lonely oxbow lake. These movements are driven by tiny differences in the amount of sediment suspended in water, or in the speed that water moves. Such massive, permanent engraving on the face of the earth is driven by such miniscule things.
This metaphor rings through my mind all the time. How small things, things we don’t even notice, add up to huge changes. How without even realizing it, as we move through our days of small mundane actions, we are carving permanently into the soil of our lives.
Yet water doesn’t always carve. Witness sea glass, edges smoothed from a sharpness that could slice into soft, perfect roundness by the power of water’s passage. The water of the ocean tumbles sharp things, wearing them smooth. So, moving water has the power to either cut us or to sand us to smoothness.
Water is time. Time, whose passage thrums with the same irrefutable, unavoidable urgency as does a river’s flow or the ocean’s tide. I can’t reconcile why sometimes we wind up a smooth, beautiful piece of sea glass and sometimes we end up an abandoned oxbow lake. I just know that in both cases, the movement to that reality is made up of a million imperceptible things. As moving water marks the earth, so does time mark our spirits. Minutes add up to months, and months add up to our lives. And as they do, they indelibly shape and mark us.