Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
April 2010 - Volume 10, No. 4
The Log at the Dam
It’s like a dream image, but it was definitely real. A few blocks from one of my Iowa childhood homes, there was a small dam in the Wapsipinicon River, downstream from the bigger one that once powered the town’s mill. I never knew the purpose of that smaller dam, but I would watch, seemingly for hours, when a small log would get stuck in the undertow at its base.
I can still feel it in the pit of my stomach, as it whirled and turned and bobbed, helplessly unable to escape the churning waters that imprisoned it within that small radius of struggle. Sometimes it might be a styrofoam picnic basket, but usually a small log, the size I could hold to my chest if only I could somehow retrieve it from its doom.
Why was it that most logs (and other debris like lost picnic coolers) could ride over the dam and then on down the river, but this one, just this one, would get stuck?
The longer I would watch it, the more desperately I would feel its plight. Eventually I would have to tear myself away, even from the river itself so I could fully breathe again. Once I could no longer see it, I could proceed with my day.
But then the next day, or a day or so later, I would return to that dam, and the log would be gone - as if it had never been there! How was it that I could spend seeming hours watching that log struggle, and it would never break free? And yet I could return at a later time and it was gone. I would even consider that some great construction implement would show up in the middle of the night on a self-appointed log rescue mission. It was forever a mystery to me.
This memory often returns when I’m working with a client who also need to let go of something. Again a seemingly impossible task. And I would tell this story. It’s the story of a great mystery - letting go so something itself can be released.
Now I’ve always had a great respect for the power of water, especially at the base of a dam. In part this is due to having an anxious mother, who had memorized every account of every child that had ever drowned at the site of every river dam we’d visit on our family Sunday afternoon picnic drives. Or at least that’s my memory.
So perhaps there’s an old (inherited) anxiety that emerges in me whenever a client is stuck somewhere. I do know that in my early life I took beginning swimming classes at least a half dozen times over the years, and still don’t consider myself a swimmer. As if I still can’t fully trust the water.
Now the mystics among us usually do trust, even venerate, water. They speak of the flow of a river as the flow of life - including a natural ability to flow around numerous obstacles. And as soon as any particular turmoil is past, water just flows along as if that peaceful flow is its natural right.
But what about the eddies, the whirlpools, the undertows, places where that same water can drown unsuspecting children, and capture innocent logs and ubiquitous styrofoam objects?
I know the secret of swimming is to let go and trust the water, while at the same time having practiced body movements that cooperate with that trust to propel one forward. So it always fascinated me that once I stopped watching the log, it was free to find some way to get unstuck, to rejoin the natural flow of the water. Like our elderwomen tell us - ‘a watched pot never boils.’
It would seem there are processes in our human universe that we’re not supposed to see or control. We need to fall asleep so that those cleansing deep operations of the psyche can accomplish their work unimpeded. We learn to trust each other, knowing we’re each fallible. The secret of life’s erotic arts lies primarily in letting go to each other. And when the end of our time here comes, may we have the grace to finally let it all go. I consider it takes the work of a lifetime to accomplish that.
So when I think of that log stuck in the waters at the base of that dam from my boyhood, I know there’s a lesson waiting to be more fully learned. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for you as well.
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