Sunday, March 7, 2010

Watching The Rivers Flow

Pittsburgh Dawn, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams

It’s easy to find ourselves on autopilot, mindlessly going through routine motions. We’re preoccupied by deadlines to meet and problem solving tasks for our jobs, and by items to tackle on our “to do” lists – already mentally at the next destination before we’ve physically arrived. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, rushing to the next thing – get in, get out, get it done, do more and more and more. Instead of rushing toward the next thing, instead of living in a state of distraction, we need to spend more time living in the moment. Slow down. Pay attention. Tap into simple joys. Notice our surroundings. Stop crashing through life and allow ourselves time to watch the river flow.

A favorite part of my day is the drive along the rivers on the way to and from work. Regardless of which route I take, I always cross one of Pittsburgh’s rivers, and usually see one, if not both, of the other two. My favorite route takes me over the Allegheny and across the middle of the city to the other side where I then follow the Monongahela from high above as I drive along the bluff.

There’s a rhythm to this commute that changes from morning to evening, and also with the seasons. These past two weeks have brought significantly more daylight to my evening journey. For most of the winter months it’s already dark when I leave the office at the end of the day. Last month marked a shift of seasons when a trace of light remained as I headed out into the evening. It was still dusk as I left work, but dark before I got across the city. Last week, a few minutes of daylight still lingered after I arrived home.

The rivers themselves are part of the rhythm. The Allegheny usually looks steely gray because of its gravel bottom. Even on the coldest days of winter when it is frozen over, there is a tinge of gray to the ice. Because the Monongahela has a mud bottom, it is usually brown in color – especially in the rainy spring months which tend to stir up the bottom. When the Mon calms down, it turns green.

The Allegheny and the Monongahela converge to form the Ohio River at the very tip of Pittsburgh’s downtown area at The Point. Depending on morning traffic, I sometimes follow the Allegheny and cross it near The Point where I can also see the Ohio River. Driving this route in summer, I often see sculling crews rowing on the Allegheny.

Several summers ago we had the most extensive road construction projects that I can remember. It seemed as though every major artery was being repaired, and it made the commute twice as long. I tried alternate routes, many of which didn’t follow the rivers, trying to escape the inevitable gridlock. Although I still had to cross the Allegheny to get to my destination, I tried shortcuts over the hills instead of around them, and tried crossing bridges further upriver. But, on days I didn’t cross one of the bridges close to downtown where I could see the details of the skyscrapers and not just the skyline in the distance – and especially if I didn’t get to look down at the wide curve of the Mon from the vantage point up on the bluff – I realized it had a negative impact on my mood all day. I needed to see the city waking up and coming alive from close up.

When I realized how much seeing those rivers affected my days, I stopped looking for alternate routes. Instead, I used the time stuck in traffic to savor watching what was happening on the rivers. I no longer cared if I was at a complete standstill as long as I could watch the river flow.

The Mon is different each day. Some mornings I would see the Delta Queen, but now that she’s been forced into retirement she no longer comes to town. A lot of coal moves along the Mon, each powerful towboat pushing up to sixteen barges (4 across, 4 ahead) and trains hauling coal along tracks on the far side of the river. In summer, fishermen drift close to shore. On some winter mornings when we’ve had a sudden cold snap and the air is colder that the river, I can even see the river’s breath as wisps of mist rise up to meet the air, the river seeming to exhale.

Evenings have a different tempo. In winter it’s too dark to see the water, the rivers a black void in the city lights, except where the bridges cross. These past few weeks watching the daylight linger a few minutes longer during each drive home has lifted my spirits. The hillside houses look especially lovely in the changing evening light with their windows glowing golden, the sky more dramatic above them, and the hillsides they cling to still white with the last of the winter snow.

The changing light is the best, whether it is in morning or evening. The shifting color in the sky exhilarates the senses – something is changing, in transition, becoming. In some ways it’s like watching an image develop when making a photographic print in the darkroom, seeing the details emerge from the darkness.

My husband once described dusk as a shifting of gears. That description seems especially fitting to me on the commute home when I’m trying to empty my mind of the day’s challenges and shake off the work day, to give space to my other lives – my creative life and my home life.

I’m happiest when I quiet my mind and make a conscious effort to look at the world around me. It’s when I discover my best story ideas or have insight about a character’s motivation or behavior. There’s a lot more than meets the eye to watching the rivers flow.

Photo Credit:

“Pittsburgh Dawn” Photograph © 2008 by Dory Adams

Around the Blogosphere:

Good advice from Christina Baker Kline about The Curse of Multitasking at A Writing Life: Notes on Craft and the Creative Process. She truly nails it with this: “But writing is not about keeping the balls in the air. It’s about letting them drop. To unspool a story is to inhabit a different space altogether. You have to let the world in your head grow until it becomes more important than the world you inhabit. You have to calm your heartbeat, slow your skipping brain, become comfortable with silence. You have to accept that you will get nothing done except this one thing – this one paragraph or page or, perhaps, on a good day, a chapter – and possibly not even that.”

Levi Asher at Literary Kicks maps fiction In Gatsby’s tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo

Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer offers a belated 100th birthday to social documentary photographer Milton Rogovin with Milton is 100! More about Rogovin’s lifetime of photography can be found at Milton Rogovin’s website.

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