On my way to work each day, I cross four rivers. Driving to the train station, I slide over the Saugatuck, then follow its course for a mile and a half, observing its marshy banks lined with houses and studded with private docks. Once on the train, I navigate the Norwalk with its bridge that splits and rises for high-masted ships, the Byram in Greenwich, whose mouth was once a bustling commercial center, and finally the East as the train barrels from the Bronx into the Big City. I take these crossings for granted, as I make them every day. The bridges are in place, the routes clearly mapped out, the bodies of water measured, spanned, tamed.
At signal points in our lives we find we must cross rivers where bridges do not exist yet, where the shortest, safest crossing point is anything but obvious, where our course is uncharted, where the nature of the other side is unknown, and where we know there is no going back. We know, often for our own sanity and/or survival, that we must get across the river, but we do not know how, or how long it will take, or how much of our precious energy the crossing will consume. These are hard, defining moments, and while we inevitably grow stronger after making the journey, we experience a sickening combination of fear, urgency, excitement, and self-doubt, along with a sense of wonder and amazement. What we are about to undertake seems unreal, as if we are watching our bodies chopping the trees and building the bridge, or swimming across the water, and yet we feel every stroke – of the falling axe or the swimming arm – with excruciating intensity.
These crossings often involve changing the nature of relationships, forging new ties, and leaving people and places behind. What makes them so difficult are the voices inside our heads, voices of guilt and regret, the feeling we are giving up on something – or someone, along with the knowledge that the change will be permanent. But it is our authentic voice, the voice of our authentic self that is telling us to make the crossing in the first place. And we know in our hearts that staying where we are can only muffle this voice, causing us eventually to go somewhere alone and scream. And so we must build the bridge, or just dive in. Our axe may be dull from years of neglect and disuse. Our muscles may be weak and atrophied. But we find the strength, an inner strength we always knew we had and never really lost (never can lose), and we do what is necessary. It is not easy. As the riverbank we are leaving behind fades further into the distance, we look longingly for a moment, then remember in a flood of feelings why we must leave. It is scary. Will my bridge hold me? Can I swim the distance? Yes it will. Yes you can. And when we finally reach the other side, and gain a clear perspective on where we have been, where we have come from, the sigh of relief we breathe, the joy we experience – is unimaginable.
This originally was posted on Tom’s blog Tom Aplomb on August 26, 2008.
Thomas G. Fiffer is a graduate of Yale and holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He posts daily on his blog, Tom Aplomb, on his morning commute from Westport to New York, where he works at Leadership Directories, a database publishing company. He is also a featured storyteller with MouseMuse Productions, a contributor for The Good Men Project, and is working on his first novel, which is being published online in serial form.