A few weeks ago, my son Henry and I embarked on a father-son adventure. Little planning or preparation was involved. I described our general travel philosophy as “footloose and fancy free,” though it may as well have been categorized as “disorganized parenting.” Nonetheless, campgrounds were secured, the 4Runner packed, and we set out to explore Michigan’s U.P., from the Porcupine Mountains all the way up to Copper Harbor. I was excited to show my son some of the same landscapes that have informed who I am, and how I interact with, and value the natural world.
On a beautiful afternoon, we joined many other tourists on a circuit of trails beside a series of waterfalls. After walking a path to Lake Superior, Henry suggested we crawl down a steep embankment to the river and go swimming. And so, I followed him onto a slippery rock shelf where we changed into bathing suits and edged into the river.
The water was not Lake Superior frigid, but warm, and flowing around us swiftly, but not dangerously. We launched ourselves into the current and began muscling upriver, and I should add that if, dear reader, you feel any sort of anxiety for us, or for Henry, know that he is an elite competitive swimmer; me: not so much.
That was when we saw the amphibious snake weave its way off a nearby shoreline and into the current directly ahead of us. It was not a big snake, but it was a snake, in water, moving much more confidently than me.
I began to have second thoughts about our little maneuver, but eventually the snake moved far enough away that we could push on, towards an outcropping and pull ourselves out of the river.
There we crept along shore before finally diving into a deep pool and allowing the water to move us back towards our shoes and clothing. Henry was delighted, and to my great surprise, so was I. There we were, father and son, floating down a northern river, our feet surfing an underwater column of rock, as the current carried us out toward the big lake.
I’ve been carrying that memory around with me for weeks. And like the best memories, it wasn’t earned easily; had we remained on the well-trod path, we would not have been immersed in the river’s flow. It was a parenting moment, a decision, where certainly the most prudent thing to do, the cautious thing to do, would have been to say, “This isn’t safe.” Or, “Henry, there’s about a hundred signs warning us not to do this.” And yet, I knew my son. I knew what he was capable of. I knew that he is an accomplished swimmer. So we dove in.
Feels like we’re diving in again, this autumn. Diving back into life, into school, into “normalcy.” Knowing what to do right now, as a parent, is impossible. The older folks in my life just tell me that they’re glad they’re not in my shoes, glad they never had to supervise any distant-learning. Glad they didn’t need to parent through a global pandemic. And those people in my life who were identified as members of the Greatest Generation, who lived through World War II and Korea and polio and the Cold War … well, most of those people are gone from my life now, passed on.
There is no parenting guide for what we’re all facing this fall. I suppose not sending our children back to school would be the safest decision, but I also believe that their teachers are better equipped to educate them than I am, at least on most days. I’m also confident that as their parent, as an adult with a job to do, sending our kids back to school is the healthiest thing for me. I want to at least try to make things work, even if I know there’s a component of risk. The past seven months or so have been some of the most challenging times in my life as my every routine was busted into smithereens. I’ve often felt like there has been a malevolent vibration, an anxious frequency in my every waking hour. Uncharacteristically, I’ve often felt very sad, without any clear reason. I want these sensations to stop, even as I know that in all likelihood, in-person schooling is probably a short-lived experiment, a vaccine is farther off than we’d all like, and that this virus has shown us all, like an X-ray, exactly where we are broken, as individuals, and as a society.
My favorite writer, the great Jim Harrison, was a big aficionado of river swimming. He once wrote, “You can’t row or swim upstream on the river. This moving water is your continuing past that you can’t retrace by the same path that you reached the present, the moment by moment implacable difference of time.”
It is a tenuous time to be alive; it’s probably been 20 years since I’ve felt so unsteady, simply walking through my life. But rivers and water have been a steadying metaphor for me since I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” Look, you don’t go swimming when the river is too high or too fast, or when you’ve had too much to drink. You don’t underestimate the river. And a life preserver is almost always advised. But you also shouldn’t fear the river, because there is enlightenment in being held by its current, in seeing the sheer joy on your boy’s face, as he experiences the new and unexpected.
Parenting, I think, is all standing on the riverbank, understanding nuances and dangers, and guiding a young swimmer into unknowable waters. Parenting, I think, is being aware that time is a river rapidly flowing toward an unknown waterfall. To all the parents, educators, and health care providers out there, I wish you good health and good judgment this fall.