A belabored metaphor

by Brian Clarey

What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.

These words I’m listening to right now come in the mournful baritone of Johnny Cash, though they belong to Trent Reznor, who once, a long time ago, held a ketchup fight with his rock-and-roll buddies in a New Orleans bar where I was working.

The only person I routinely let down back in those days was myself — squandering opportunities, forsaking the kindnesses of others, heaping various physical indignities upon myself in a dogpile.

But today, it feels like these words were written just for me. You never start your week by listing the goals you will not reach, the tasks that will go undone, the people you will disappoint over the next seven days. No, the week starts off with optimism, like the promise of spring.

Spring came on violently this year, with tornadoes ravaging the South and late-season frost killing off some of the early strawberries.

The Mississippi River rises in the Midwest even now, spilling over the sides of the levees and obliterating seawalls as the surge runs downstream.

There’s an old saying in Louisiana about the proper height to build a levee: It needs to be a couple feet higher than the one on the other side.

Flooding is what good rivers do in the springtime, swollen by melted snow running down from the mountains, bolstered by seasonal rains. The silt that washes over the land enriches the soil even as it destroys the things humans have made there in the floodplain with the best of intentions.

We have fooled ourselves, over the last couple hundred years that we are in control of the river, that our hand and not nature’s is the one that guides it, that determines its course. And every so often, when the river decides to exert its will, we are proven wrong.

There is no grand river running through the Triad, which is too bad, because it makes a handy analogy. It was while I lived near the banks of the Mississippi that I came upon what I thought was an apt thesis for my life: The river goes where it wants, and we are just riding along on

its currents. It was futile, I thought, to have a plan, an agenda or even a map, because the river was in charge.

The philosophy served me well until I hit the rapids, and it seemed to me that if I didn’t put a paddle in the water sometime soon, I was gonna get smashed up on the rocks. And so I planned and plotted, set my sights on the horizon and made for the bend in the river.

For a time this system of goals and tasks and obligations has helped me navigate the choppiest of waters. But now, with the river rising, I don’t know what to think.

I’m busy. I have a wife. Three kids. A house. I have a stressful job and a book career I’m trying to get off the ground. Inside this matrix lie a vast web of duties and obligations, a thousand plates spinning on broomsticks, and in the flitting from post to post to keep them spinning, weeks, years, whole lives can be lost.

And sometimes, no matter how well crafted your route or true your course, they all come crashing to the ground.

There’s no big river here to sit beside, no perfect analogy for the meandering course of life, its potential for beauty and danger, the long journey to the sea.

So I head to the Greensboro Arboretum, because, by God, one thing we do have plenty of is trees.

You know the place, situated in a cable cut by Wendover Avenue, with nature trails and butterflies and a creek running through it, textured with thriving examples of flora that gives a base of deep green to the acreage. Surely here there would be some fitting imagery, some natural metaphor that would help explain my life as the river rages out of control.

On a slatted bench, life springs around me — insects buzz among the groundcover, birds call across the sky, yellow daffodils await the next sprinkling of rain.

But it’s the trees that strike me: lush and layered in their spring colors, roots sunk deep into the ground as the wind makes their upper boughs sway, infusing the air around me with life-affirming oxygen even as flowers, cones and fruit come into being on the branches. They stand their ground resolutely, adding layers to their being each year, defiantly surviving in a world that, at times, wants nothing other than to cut them down.

I can dig that. So it seems I was wrong. Life is not a river. Not anymore. Now it’s a tree, anchored and strong, soaking up the sun.