Saturday, December 24, 2011

Life is like a river. Or maybe it is more like a tidal strait

The idea that life is like a river seems so natural, it hardly makes sense to question it.

Back around 500 BC, Heraclitus said "You cannot step twice into the same river," and that seems a pretty decent aphorism about time, and about life.

The most powerful modern image of this idea that I'm familiar with is the young boy sitting on the bank of the river.

But what if life is more like a tidal strait than a river? That thought has occurred to me several times in the morning as I run along Astoria Park on the Queens-side of the East River.

The East River is poorly named, because it is not a river at all. It is a tidal strait. It connects Upper New York Bay to Long Island Sound. During parts of the day, you can see the East River flowing south, towards New York Bay, in the same direction of the Hudson, and this matches one's intuition of the direction the East River ought to flow.

But then at other times during the day, the direction reverses. As the tide changes, you see the water start flowing to your right (from the Queens perspective), or to the northeast.

It isn't a smooth transition, either. The East River doesn't slowly come to a standstill, then start flowing slowly in the opposite direction, then pick up its pace. No, the current starts to flow violently north, but along the edges it seems like the East River hasn't got the memo, and the water is still trying to flow south, and you see dangerous eddies where these two currents meet.

And it is quite dangerous. The biggest single loss of life in New York City before 9-11 was the General Slocum Disaster, a passenger steamboat that caught fire in 1904 in the East River. 1,021 out of 1,342 people on board died.

So what if life is more like a tidal strait?

People come into your life, then the tide carries them on. But some of those people, the tide brings them back into your life. The current is confused and dangerous, not flowing in one direction. Rather, multiple currents are flowing in both directions, interacting, twirling, competing. The flow doesn't fit your intuition, and the direction depends on when and where you try to measure it. You can dip your toe into it, and you just might dip your toe into the same tidal strait twice, if you time it right.

A tidal strait isn't as tidy a metaphor as a river, but seems richer with possibilities.

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