Swimming in Rusted Rivers and Icy Oceans

Sometimes, one finds it necessary to take unnecessary risks. That is, exposing oneself voluntarily to circumstances that friends and family would label irresponsible and dangerous is required for one’s sense of happiness and sanity. Those instances when one feels compelled to engage in perilous activities must be kept secret, lest the sphere of one’s tiny little world explode into a monstrous, limitless, self-immolating supernova. And therein lies the dilemma: is the momentary excitement of an unnecessary risk worth the incineration of incinerating a routine that is perfectly comfortable, if unexciting? Such risks must not always be kept secret. For example, many years ago, on a whim I paid $100 to climb into a small airplane, get tightly strapped to a guy I’d just met, and plunge out of the craft from a high altitude. My one episode of sky-diving was unnecessary, risky, and (depending on one’s perspective) irresponsible. But I felt like I had to do it. It could have been (and thus far, has been) my only opportunity to experience the thrill of free-falling for several seconds. I had a similar, but decidedly less dangerous, thrill when I arranged for a hot-air balloon ride for my late wife and me as a birthday present for her. In both cases, it was not necessary to keep the experience secret.  But sometimes the experience one requires to feel fully alive must be kept close to the vest. That dangerous thrill has to be kept in the dark recesses of one’s brain or else one’s world could be consumed by the flames of rage, suspicion, and distrust. For example, if a person felt compelled by intense curiosity to experience the effects of cocaine or heroin or meth, that lust for a dangerous experience (or, after the fact, the actual experience) would best be maintained in strict confidence with oneself; even sharing it internally with oneself could lead to explosive results. The unquenchable desire to take unnecessary risks has to be measured against the likelihood that taking the risks could lead to one’s demise or, almost as bad (or, perhaps, worse), the utter destruction of one’s comfortable and content lifestyle.

Even the quietest, calmest, most rational among us have those secret desires to take impossibly dangerous risks. Or those people have already taken the risks and have kept them hidden. Or they have taken the risks and found them sufficiently compelling to merit taking them again; with great care to ensure they remain secret, nearly impossible to be uncovered. I look around me and wonder who among my family and friends and acquaintances may have taken—or be contemplating—almost unspeakable risks. And, then, I look in the mirror and wonder the same thing about him.


Yesterday evening’s Zoom call with my siblings felt good. For some reason, the last couple or three Zoom video conference calls with them have seemed more relaxed than the ones before. Our interactions always have been comfortably informal, but these last few have felt especially good, almost as if we were sitting together in the same room, chatting about recent events and offering up observations about whatever happened to enter our minds. Last night’s call lasted about an hour and a half. That, I think, is about the limit for such video conference calls; after that, they begin to seem a bit labored, with too many silent stretches during which participants strain for something to say to reignite the conversation. At any rate, the sibling engagement was good. Next time, we’ll try to have my nieces and nephews join in, hiking the number of participants to about a dozen. I hope that feels as comfortable and relaxed as last night’s conversation. The next one will have to wait until my oldest brother and his wife return from their river cruise in Portugal and their subsequent exploration of the country in and around Porto. I envy them making that trip; it sounds both relaxing and exciting.


For months and months, I’ve been saying to myself and to anyone else who would listen that I feel a need to go on a road trip. Actually, I need to go on several. I need to go to California to see my sister and to see Colleen’s ninety-year-old mother. And I need to go on a road trip (perhaps it’s the same one) that will allow me the luxury of traveling as slow as my curiosity will require. And as fast as I need to go in order to reach a destination that is more attractive than “here” and “now.”

And I need to go on my own to a desolate place to think and write and sort out in my mind the unwanted realities of aging. How does one cope with arthritis pain as it grows worse and worse, with no cure in sight or even a way to soften the symptoms? How does one accept the body’s inability to do what once was as natural as breathing? How does one learn to accept knee pain and joint inflexibility? Will I be able to accept these things and adjust to them, or would I (and the people around me) be better off if I simply set a limit beyond which I would be unwilling to go?

I keep putting off the actual road trips. Instead, I make occasional quick jaunts on the road for a day or two. I do this in between responsibilities associated with buying and remodeling and selling and so forth. A real road trip requires abandonment of such responsibilities. Ignoring obligations. Exploring the future and the past without being attached to either.

The A problem with me is that I sometimes need both isolation and proximity at the same time. I want to be completely alone, but in the company of someone who will comfort me. I want to have no obligations to supply love and compassion, but I want to be needed and wanted.  I am several people together in one body wrapped with with smoke and sinew.  I am certain that certainty is an illusion. My emotions are at once as soft as a rabbit’s fur and as hard as granite. Icy blood dams create dangerous rapids of animosity in my veins, while warm rivers of compassion fill my eyes as they witness injustices and pain. I want to reach out for an embrace but instead recoil in fear of rejection. Rage and fear are different expressions on the same face.  The origins of modesty and shame live in the same sullen prison cell, a place where the mirrors are cracked and smudged with the dust of bad experiences.

I’ve wandered into somber narrative poetry, a place tangled with thorny vines, webs of long-dead spiders, and the knotted, decayed remains of snakes. This place is not fit even for cloudy days; certainly not days tinged with sunlight and promise. I will try to climb the broken and rotted rungs of a ladder to reach the surface, but that is a long way to go. Better to try to make it than to wonder whether the dangerous trip to the top is worth the potential pain it entails.


A few quotations about taking risk from people who took them.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

     ~ Goethe ~

Leap and the net will appear.

     ~ Zen Saying ~

Pearls don’t lie on the seashore. If you want one, you must dive for it.

     ~  Chinese proverb ~

Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.

     ~  Jimmy Carter ~

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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