Wish I Had a River

I’ve been listening to this song all day.

I want to learn the piano part so that I can play it at home. I’m up alone tonight; Greg and I were going to watch a movie but he crashed with Aviva after reading with her. Pearl was out cold after a day of playing and swimming and the neighborhood holiday party. She closes her eyes and sleep smooths her face just like that, instantly. My voice is tired from schmoozing.

And then there’s this, over and over I listen:

I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

What is that melancholy, the one that aches in my throat while everyone else sleeps, the blue LED lights twinkling on our little tree out front, the neighborhood quiet now, the party winding down, the children all with their soft cheeks, innocent still. The woman at the pool today, teeth clenched: Shutthefuckup she hissed at her older son, a heavyset boy in swim trunks who looked like he wished he could walk right through the wall on out of there. How I tried to see her, did see her as she welcomed him back from his time out. Who am I to say whether she’s doing her best? Aren’t we all doing our best? Couldn’t I be her? A click of the dial, another channel, we’re not all so different.

The chords I long to play catch in my throat and well up behind my eyes. It’s not sadness exactly, but something more like poignancy; the quiet night house, the clicking of keys, the music that has always opened me in a way words sometimes can’t. I met a woman at the gym last week who was describing to me how she raised her kids, who are now grown. “Spirituality,” she said definitively. “You gotta have some kind of spirituality. I told my kids, ‘Everyone’s got a void inside of them, and they’re gonna fill it up somehow, either with good or with bad.'” Maybe she’s right, and the place this music touches and fills is some kind of hole – the same one I fill up with brownies, apologies, tears, worrying, plans, projections, stories.

I remember as a child sitting in a concert, just bawling. How even then I was aware that I was bawling, experiencing both the emotion pouring out of me, brought on by the music, as well as the observation of the experience. Over time, both have stayed – and more and more I invite the feeling. I just want to feel things. I am tired of judging everything, good bad, ugly beautiful, better worse, what he said what she said, their house my house. There is too much love and too much anguish and too much art and too much music and too much beauty and too much horror to spend another minute judging myself for… anything, everything.

I feel like a broken record, but that is just a judgment, right?

And then there’s this, and I listen, the locks at my throat loosening, the pull around my eyes, the memories (a very short-lived boyfriend, Jamie Jewett, taped this for me in 1995) – I invite these in, too.

My hands move reflexively. I love the way Keith Jarrett, if you listen closely, shouts out while he’s playing, one with his hands and the keys. There is no separation. This reminds me of the book I picked up last week when we were at my parents’ house. It’s called The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (a mother-son science writing team). The Introduction blew me away.

Your self does not end where your flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other beings. Thus when you ride a horse with confidence and skill, your body maps and the horse’s body maps are blended in shared space. When you make love, your body maps and lover’s body maps commingle in mutual passion.

When you touch the keys, your brain does not know the keys are not your body. They are your body. The music and the music-maker are one. The mother and the child’s cheek she strokes are one. The mapping brain does not discriminate. The topography undulates, ever changeable. Our lover turns away from us, the song ends, and we feel bereft because we are cut off from this source of connection. But the connection isn’t severed. We carry it. We seek it and it seeks us.

The music has stopped. A plane has just taken off from the airport nearby. I can hear the dog rustling in his bed in the next room. My own inhale, deep into the belly. I notice where my teeth are touching, slightly clenched. I remember the woman at the pool and send her some light and hope her kids are sleeping, too. I want the ache in my throat, in my eyes, to melt away, to “suffuse and blend” with the world, even as I hold myself apart.

Be gentle here, says the angel at the nape of my neck. Tingling sensation. The cat comes by and grazes against my legs. And then I do the hardest thing: let it all go, and let myself settle into sleep.

9 thoughts on “Wish I Had a River

  1. The Other Laura says:

    Jena, this is the closest thing I have ever read to describing how music unclenches my heart, brings tears. Thank you.

    (I am actually dreading Max’s holiday concert at school because I know I will be fighting big huge tears with a lump in my throat the whole time. What would happen, do you think, if I just cried, just let it all out?)

    I always find sustenance here, Jena. Thank you again.


  2. jeanette says:

    Oh iloveyoulovelyouloveyouloveyou. And I totally love you.

    First – Joni Mitchell- River. Along with KD singing Hallelujah, my favorite song ever. You expressed that melancholy and poignancy so perfectly. One review of Hallelujah I’ll never forget called it ‘simultaneously heart-breaking and redemptive’ which totally fits River for me too. Either way, those two pieces of music carry me.


    PS: love you:)


  3. Lisa says:

    This post made tears well up in my eyes and found me wanting to say “I love you” to you.

    You’ve touched something deep and true and universal here.

    You see, I have the same hole in my heart. The same ache. The same lump in my throat. The same reaction to music. And to trying to ‘see’ the world.

    This post is powerfully beautiful.

    And so are you.


  4. Karen Maezen Miller says:

    Flowers fall with our yearning. Yes, there is a void inside of everyone but it cannot be filled. It is full already, because there is no inside, and no outside, and no in between. “You have to see through the illusion,” my teacher keeps telling me, and I sob and nod.


  5. Dot Brauer says:

    So wise.

    At 51 I find the ache you describe has gone and a lovely peace has arrived. I remember sensing this peace in some older (50’s) adults I knew and loved when I was a child — Mrs. Robinson, my next door neighbor, and Mr. Copenhaver, one of my mother’s co-workers. I distinctly remember thinking then how I looked forward to arriving at my 50’s. I though maybe then I too could live every day “in my skin” with the peace I felt emanating from these two people who understood how to be a friend to an eight year-old, burdened by adult questions and concerns.

    I think back now about how Mrs. Robinson was deeply grounded in her love of Christ and her evangelical religious community. I sat in her kitchen on Saturdays and visited with her while she fried up a mountain of chicken for Sunday’s church supper. I once walked by the small building on a Sunday and felt the brick walls pulsing with the organ music and the booming voices singing joyful gospel songs. I couldn’t make out the words, but I could feel the message.

    Each day after school I walked to my mother’s office with my younger brother and waited there to walk home with her at the end of her day. I remember Mr. Copenhaver occasionally taking a break from work to stand on his head. My mother explained it was part of his daily meditation practice. Mr. Copenhaver was the only man I knew whose energy never seemed to feel angry or overbearing.

    How lucky I feel today that I knew these two people at such a tender and vulnerable time in my life. I think knowing them planted a seed that I believed in enough to spend the next 40 years trying to learn how to nurture.

    Even though the ache is gone, I still get lost in the business of everyday life, and music still serves as a lovely gateway into a garden blooming with self- energy- and universe-awareness. Thank you for sharing with such beautiful openness and love, words and reflections that speak to the hearts of so many.


  6. Anita says:


    What beautiful thoughts in this time of darkness. The music pulls me into a place of light and peace. Thank you for sharing so eloquently.




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