Out of Our Bones

“And Let ourselves be carried

to the river

that is without the least dapple or shadow—

that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—

in which we are washed and washed

out of our bones.”

–Mary Oliver

The falls of Minnehaha creek have frozen, and on a sun-filled Sunday, Riley and I slip and dangle on hand rails, past the don’t enter signs, down the ice-packed steps to the river. This January thaw has swarmed the park with people—cyclists, joggers, parents gripping the taught arms of bundled and unsteady toddlers. We’re all in need of stretched muscles, some tart air in our lungs.

At the bottom where gallons of water break and the creek resumes, we dodge the feeble fences posted round the pool, join the dozens crowded on uneven rock and snow and ice. Many have arms slung around shoulders for pictures, some are climbing, all are just trying to keep their balance. Awkwardness is the great equalizer, and as people slip and dart in unexpected directions, arms flail in desperate circles, squeals echo on unpredictable ground, no one is above fighting to remain on their feet. Most of us don’t. A stranger offers her mittened hand as I step from one ledge to the next, and I take it because we are all rather clumsy and helpless. The scene is all the more welcome and vulnerable because of it.

While the people below clamber, the falls are frozen in time, chilled into a single instant. The cliff ledge is sheeted in blue-pillared walls of ice, a rocky rim of speared stalactites, layers of arrowed water stopped rigid. The surrounding trees and brush are steamed white with frost, and the waterfall itself, the concentrated mass of river perpetually plunging in its singular, unvarying form, pristine as glass. I am at the foot of its marble foam, the billowing and spray of its impact locked in massive mounds. Crawling up and over them to get closer, they are knobby as popcorn balls.

Above me towers a fierce and sleeping energy—a rampage of motion suspended over my flimsy skull. I imagine the crack that would send water crashing through, dismissing me like fallacy. My hands brush over its gritty sleekness, and I can see the water still tunneling through beneath the ice, flashing and shadowing, its falling as gentle and hushed as a never-ending breath. I am stroking a slumbering beast. There is that blush of risk I crave, and I wonder that I am not devoured.

My mittens and the knees of my blue jeans are wet from clinging and crawling, my hair is knotted on my neck, and instead of feeling powerful for my conquering, I am only better reminded of my feebleness. This is how it should be—how easily am I convinced of feeling otherwise? In my potential, I am invincible. I am the gathering capacity for greatness and ambition and achievement. And then there are car rides with Christian Wiman’s words, his reminder that we are dust drawing our nature into the dust, our ambitions hollow as ghosts; and mornings with Ecclesiastes, a chasing after the wind; and afternoons standing beneath a waterfall. This body is at the mercy of the world, and the best this soul can do is be in awe, to take contentment in its small, enduring way.

Behind the falls, I crawl into its cave, chandeliered with icicles, the light through its walls glowing blues I’ve never seen. Nothing roars or surges or crashes. I sit within this cavern, imitate the language of winter, and be still.