Think back for a moment. Can you remember what it was like to be 18 years old? Even though I currently deal with occasional bouts of Stage IV CRS, I vividly recall just how much I wanted to escape my claustrophobic small town rural life of central Appalachia, grab my independence with both hands, and head toward anything approaching an actual city. I was hell-bent on trying to be cosmopolitan and worldly.
The opening lyrics to R.E.M.’s Find the River captures this desire perfectly:
“Hey now little speedy head
the read on the speed meter says
you have to go task in the city
Where people drown and people serve
Don’t be shy
your just deserve
is only just light years to go.”
This little speedy head didn’t need a speed meter to know that it was time to haul ass out of a sleepy, stifling West Virginia. And so I went to task in the city. First, Greensboro NC, then Washington DC, Austin TX, and now Atlanta GA.
I’m not alone in this rural to urban migration. Sometime in 2008, we officially hit a tipping point where, as Florence Williams notes, humans became an urban species. And aside from some sort of apocalyptic event, there appears to be no letting up. Back in 2014, 54% lived in urban areas and by 2050 it’s projected to increase to 66% where 6.4 billion humans will be urban dwellers. The UN describes this event as one where we will turn “much of the world into a global city.”
And yet…and yet. Something hasn’t always felt right about my own migration to urban life. I would sometimes hear an inner voice trying to rise above the din of incessant traffic, demands of work, cell phone dings, shuffling of mortgage and credit card bills. At the time, I wasn’t able to clearly hear the words this voice was trying to deliver to me. But I could feel the emotional weight of the message. Without fail, it always happened whenever I listened to Find the River.
I remember one morning, commuting to work in Washington, DC, the song found its way onto my playlist and I started to weep. I felt a deep sadness rapidly descend upon me and I had to pull off into a hotel parking lot. I don’t remember how long I stayed there, but I do vividly recall sitting in the driver seat and feeling the dark panic, emptiness, and confusion that was engulfing me. Something wasn’t right. I was going in the wrong direction. But what the hell? I enjoyed my work in nonprofits, I was moving forward and upward. I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be, but I was getting there.
So I pushed all that shit back as far as it would go into my gut. I put on a cheerful, courageous look and went about my business of living life and working where the work was, which remained in the city. I even swapped nonprofit organizations for technology companies and entrepreneurship because that is where the real success is according to all the major magazines, popular blogs, and everyone else on social media.
However, after 25 years of believing success, money, and happiness would be found in the city, I realize that I might actually have been drowning and serving and losing my authentic self as part of the Faustian bargain. (Oh and by the way, small detail…during this time I was also clinically diagnosed with depression and acute anxiety.) What if no matter what I did, my just deserve was always going to be light years away simply because it was never there waiting for me? What if it was closer to where I started in the first place?
The song continues:
I have got to find the river
Bergamot and Vetiver
Run through my head and fall away
Leave the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
Nothing is going my way
Where you may find this sad and depressing, I actually read these lyrics as a call to be courageous and honest with our selves. As a forty-something, I’ve come to a place where I believe my path is no longer tied to the city. It is a return to my roots, a return to nature. My authentic self now knows its time to leave that busy, frenetic highway and find my river. And because it is my own unique river, nothing may be heading along my way on a road far less travelled.
My soul is not truly at peace surrounded by steel and concrete. I am most alive when I feel the breeze flow gently through my fingers, hear the sounds of birds singing in the distance, feel the earth beneath my bare feet.
Those same memories from my youth that I casually discarded have now found a way back. Almost like a type of muscle memory. I now vividly recall moments of winter snow, spring wildflowers, summer fireflies, and fall leaves. Of moments spent with my grandmother at her kitchen table watching birds eat from her back door feeder. Of chasing small snakes, toads, and salamanders. Of building dams of sticks and pebbles on small streams.
I’m compelled to reclaim an inheritance that has patiently waited for me to return.
And so I am making it my life and work to reconnect with all that nature continues to offer: beauty, harmony, mystery, awe. Perhaps your authentic voice is whispering something similar. It’s not too late to find our river.