Oxbow lake of the soul

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.

15 thoughts on “Oxbow lake of the soul”

  1. Stunning, as ever. And reminds me of one of my very favourite quotes (as told to me during a yoga practice…I’m not exactly an academic):

    Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water.

    Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
    nothing can surpass it.(Tao Te Ching ch. 78)

    Thank you for the imagery.

  2. my boy and i are watching “lost” while he recuperates from eye surgery. we have always enjoyed meandering conversations, and this tv show provides us much fodder. your beautiful, thoughtful post makes me think of how we talked about different ways to move through life. about how here these people have (allegedly) been given a blank slate – a fresh start – and yet we see how they still carry the past because their passage through various contexts of life has left an indelible imprint on who they are. i love this post . . . and “meander” is one of my favorite words ever.

  3. This is one of your most beautiful posts I’ve read but I love subtext. Thank you for sharing and sharing part of your day. The Kate story is so unbelievably poignant and remarkable to me. One day we will all meet.

  4. I love the thought that the river of life can sand me to smoothness, rather than cut me on the rocks and fallen trees in the water…peaceful imagery.

  5. This is lovely imagery. Your words guide us through the movement, as fluidly as the metaphor.

    I believe we try to direct our lives so strictly at times that we forget the discoveries of meandering. Of getting off track, and perhaps following a tributary rather than an artery.

  6. You put that metaphor to such good use here, Lindsey. As soon as you mentioned meandering, I got a vision of how my own life has meandered here and there, but always has led me right where I should be. I think about the oxbow lakes sometimes, myself, and wonder why they ended up lakes and not a part of the flowing river that is my life now. Like you, I can’t make sense of it. But I do know that even the lakes have shaped and marked me.

    Posts of yours like this make me think, “Wow, how lucky those kids are to be raised by a woman like this.”

  7. I’ve always loved watching water. Especially creeks and rivers. They are so much less massive than oceans and lakes, yet their movement is so beautiful and powerful. I just love watching the water find its way through the turns and over the bumps along the way.

    So, because of this, I LOVED this post!

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