When I was a kid, my friend C. from Buffalo moved to a small Boston suburb right around the time my family moved to Western Massachusetts. Like any moment of profound change, my memories from that first year are densely concentrated, like a nebula; I go to touch one and my hand moves right through its gases and vapors. But sometimes, a word will become available, something more solid to grab hold of.
“Aqueduct” is one of those words, from 1983 or ’84. C. lived on a pretty, quiet street with her mom and older brother. Her mom and my mom were pregnant with us at the same time, and there is a famous-in-our-family photo of me and C., age three or so, looking miniature in a giant armchair, each of us holding a book and looking seriously at the camera.
Our move to Massachusetts meant a somewhat rural existence overtook an urban one. It was disorienting to say the least, and I felt lonely in my new fifth grade class. On a visit to see C. and her family in the eastern part of the state, I remember just two things: Her brother had painted the walls of his room black, and I learned a new word.
Down the street from their house — I think it was a dead-end — was an aqueduct. I’d never heard of an aqueduct and had no idea what it meant. C. explained to me that there was water under the ground. You’d think that at age nine or ten, I would have known this already, and maybe I did. But there was something about naming it, and her description — vague and mysterious — that lit my imagination.
I tried to picture it, this water. Was it flowing, river-like? Was it a lake, so many feet under? We were actually *walking* on water, I thought to myself, as we crossed the field.
Deep underground places where water flows freely. No wonder the notion appealed to me; even then I was looking to tap something inside of myself. My dowsing rods were my voice and my pen: I literally sang and wrote, sometimes bringing myself to tears whose source I couldn’t name but that I knew had to do with God and my deepest self — perhaps one and the same.
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This morning, I looked up the definition of “aqueduct,” and saw that for more than thirty years, I’ve been misunderstanding this word. From Websters:
“a conduit or artificial channel for conducting water from a distance, usually by means of gravity”
“a bridgelike structure that carries a water conduit or canal across a valley or over a river.”
It turns out that all those years ago, C. and I were not walking on water after all, at least not in the way I’d so vividly imagined it. Yes, there was water beneath us, but the aqueduct itself was created not by nature or mystery but by a human feat of engineering. The aqueduct was not below ground, but above it! And just like that, “aqueduct” loses some of its former cachet.
What this newly clarified definition doesn’t change though, is the quest. The way writing remains a form of listening for something inaudible; just as you’d hold a divining rod in your hands to find untapped wellsprings, a pen moving silently over paper is feeling its way to some source, something that makes it vibrate with truth. You know when you’ve touched it, for something in you has found sustenance.
And in this way, maybe the writing is in fact an aqueduct — a container, a bridge to channel and cross that which flows beneath the surface, unseen and unguided.
When we write, we find a way to guide the invisible upward, where we can drink from it and bathe in it. Your words, your memories, your underground springs — these are precious resources. May they be of use, to you and to the world.