do we think like rivers



The week before last I wrote about the disruptions of my morning swim and how I wasn’t sure I’d be able to continue. I took a week off and then returned to the pool, going slightly later, hoping that the aggressive swimmers would be finished. Mostly it’s working. The lanes are narrow and it’s hard to share and I felt that I was the one expected to shift and change to accommodate the men who thrashed their way back and forth. I was resentful but who was hurt by me staying away? Ha. I realized that I was missing not only my swim but also the thinking that happens as I do my laps.

I wonder if this is true for everyone, that thinking, deep thinking, is an active process that takes you into it as water takes a body? As currents move a body through water? That thinking is dynamic, animated? Psychologists like Charles Fernyhough equate thinking with language, or at least that thinking requires language, that thinking is a kind of inner speech. But I have to say that my own deep thinking isn’t exactly a stream of inner talking, isn’t first and foremost language driven. Using language now to try to describe it makes me realize how far from my experience these words are.

When I take up a quilt to work on it, I am taking up thinking. As I ease my needle carrying thread through the layers of fabric, I am immersed in the movement, not as an analogy but as a process. The image at the top of this post is a little section of the back of a quilt I sewed to help me make sense of my circulatory system, of the atmospheric river system that resulted in so much damage in the fall of 2021. I pieced a top of long strips of red cotton and strips of (mostly shorter) blue Japanese cottons, using a piece of hand-dyed indigo cotton as a backing. As I was basting the back to the top, with a layer of organic cotton batting in the middle, I realized that the backing was an old experiment. I’d made a little run of salmon across the centre of the cloth (a white sheet I was no longer using), waxing them in place, and then dipping the sheet in what was left of a vat of indigo dye. I wasn’t wildly happy with the results so tucked the sheet away, finding it years later when I needed a back for the atmospheric rivers. Finding it years later, I realized how perfect it would be as a back for a quilt about rivers.

frozen fog

The whole time I was piecing and sewing, my mind was in the rivers. The quilting itself was simply an long meandering line, echoing the way rivers appear on maps; I think there are only 4 lines over the entire quilt, each of them endstopped with a tiny shell button. Stitching, I was part of the current. I was sewing myself into water, into its complex flow and urgency. Sometimes my own safety was precarious, my own agency abandoned. I didn’t have words for the experience but did that mean it didn’t happen? I think now of Oliver Sack’s wonderful River of Consciousness:

If the stream of thought is too fast, it may lose itself, break into a torrent of superficial distractions and tangents, dissolve into a brilliant incoherence, a phantasmagoric, almost dreamlike delirium.

It is an incoherence but it has meaning, this kind of deep thinking. It buoys me up in the current and brings me to a beautiful awareness of meaning. Some nights I wake and there I am in the darkness, part of the starry sky, taken into it on a river of dream. A dreamlike delirium. Yet there is meaning in the delirium. I would say it’s a process, like sewing, but without the needle or thread.


In the writing I am doing now, the essay that’s become a memoir, I am studying drawings. Mostly they’re of me, at 23, and I want to understand how an artist’s eye saw me, translated me to charcoal or ink lines on paper. It’s not entirely happy work. To be honest, it’s painful at times. But yesterday I spent time looking at a drawing done later in my life, when I was the mother of three young children. I wanted to know something about the process of thinking and drawing.


How would someone even begin to look and draw and translate a transitory moment to this? Some of the earlier drawings were intrusive, in part because they were the product of an obsession. To look at them, you would think they were a record but they weren’t. I never posed for them. They were imagined or dreamed. Does that make them dishonest? I don’t know. But this one isn’t dishonest. I remember the occasion. I remember the way the artist found a scrap of paper and immediately drew. And how the paper began to deteriorate shortly after and how he made a good copy for me. A record. And it’s shifted my thinking a little, shifted my perspective again.

“On hair falling down in curls.”

Section 389 of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebook:
On hair falling down in curls:
Observe the motion of the surface of the water which resembles that of hair, and has two motions, of which one goes on with the flow of the surface, the other forms the lines of the eddies; thus the water forms eddying whirlpools one part of which are due to the impetus of the principal current and the other to the incidental motion and return flow.

He drew me once with my third child. He drew on rough paper that began to deteriorate almost at once. He made a copy and brought it when he came for a visit. It’s on the wall outside my study and I see it every time I come in to work at my desk. When he brought it I almost forgot the difficult weeks, the letters, the pressure, the insistent pronouncements of love. Look at my strong arms, the drapery of my clothes, the soft curl of my hair down my back. Look at my hands.

I almost forgot.

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