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A River Called Tomorrow

MORNING sun slips through a pewter sky and falls on the desk here in my writing loft. The bare maple branches glow. Now the stellar jay nags from a bobbing fir bough. The valley flows south. If I strain, I can see sheep grazing. I have been coming to the page in this way most of my writing life, in the early morning, long before everyone except the paper carrier is awake. I come here to draw near the river, to search the starry depths of who I am and what is happening now. I come here before the day breaks into a canter and then a gallop, before I get distracted by news and errands, by work that sometimes feels separate from my life. I come here before I forget what I know.

This page is the Tomorrow River that ran along the edge of our property in central Wisconsin. I would sit along the bank in the spring and summer and watch the current. I'd think about the river's name. I knew ``tomorrow'' was the feeling I felt as I watched the water kaleidoscope through greens and grays and blues and browns or tumble and eddy, and expand and soften to silk. It was never the same, it never sounded the same, it never smelled the same.

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Sometimes I'd reach in the shallow water for stones I'd later store in Mason canning jars, jars filled with the river and kept on my closet shelves. Then I'd switch on the light and enjoy the gleaming stones piled in the jars like plums and cherries and lemon cucumbers. In the fall, I'd watch the river turn crimson and then gold, and I'd feel like I was sitting next to a very old and kind woman singing a song, a song that filled me with such a longing I wanted to howl.

In winter the world reversed. The river hardened into a mirror of steel glass. The land around me flowed and rolled in white swells. Sometimes I'd stand on the bridge in the stinging wind and watch the river trickle through thick walrus tusks of ice. I loved the river for flowing even then.

I remember being surprised to hear my river connected with the newspaper. Mr. Rotolo, my fifth grade teacher, told our class we were going to have a unit on current events. He asked us to read the paper each morning before school and find an article that nobody else might find. Naturally, when the New York Giants swept the World Series in four straight wins over the Cleveland Indians, no one brought in that story.

We searched for more obscure items. Once I found a story. An old woman had bought some herring to celebrate the New Year, but when she went to the refrigerator just before midnight, she found the herring were glowing. She called the police, who probably thought she was drunk. But they came anyway, and took the herring into the dark basement. They glowed, all right. So the police got the ``Chief of Radiological Whatchamacallit'' out of a party, got him on the phone away from the party. He only dismissed the woman's fear saying, ``It probably was just some florescent bacteria.''

But I knew why the woman was afraid, and that's why I took the story to class. I knew it had to do with our ``duck and cover'' drills. I was angry because no one cared about the old woman. I wondered if she were still frightened, and what she did with the fish, and whoever heard of florescent bacteria - and who was he to say?

Later I learned that current events had to do with the evening news. My family usually watched Walter Cronkite, so each night we heard him assure us, ``And that's the way it is!'' I would look at Walter's face, especially his mustache, and hear his words sounding like cards dealt near my ear. Now, once in a while, especially since the war, I watch ``World News Tonight'' with Peter Jennings. I like him. The screen shows Peter tilting his head like a bird, his words creating that same card-dealing, telegr aphic rhythm. He is telling us the number of sorties since the war began. The screen fills with troops maneuvering in gas masks. The screen changes to Washington where our president leans back in his chair and tells us, ``War is never cheap or easy.'' The screen changes to a taffy apple red car. The screen changes to a military officer standing in front of a map. He speaks of collateral damage; his words are forced from the back of his throat. The screen changes to an Iraqi woman grasping a hurricane fence and sobbing.

The room falls silent. I listen to my breath. To rain pelting against the window. For some reason, maybe the taffy apple car, I remember William Carlos Williams's poem about the red wheelbarrow standing outside his window, glazed with rainwater, standing there beside those white chickens. ``So much depends upon it,'' he tells us.

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SO much depends upon What? This is why I come to the river of page before me. It is the constancy of returning and of the daily resurrection with the sun, the ceaseless flow of moments, moments sometimes frozen with fear and drained by distraction or denial, moments wasted and irretrievable like spilled mercury, but still the ever-changing constancy. The continuity. Coming to this edge at dawn reminds me there is a river called tomorrow.

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