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  • Sarah Nannery

Memory Lane: Life is Like a River

My mother helped me with a great many life lessons growing up. Some on purpose, some by accident - all from a place of love and as the result of accumulated wisdom from her own life experiences, which were so many and varied.

I could cite many lessons which I still carry with me today, and which I hope to pass on to my children.

One in particular has come in highly useful more than once - especially given my tendency to over-analyze, to over-think, to nearly paralyze myself sometimes in spirals of thought.

I was probably about 9 years old when she imparted this wisdom to me. I wanted to share it here, in case it is helpful for others who have the same tendencies I do, or helpful to their loved ones who may be looking for resources. It has helped me more times than I can count.

Life is Like a River

"Honey? Can I come in?" Mom's voice floated in from the hall.


She entered, finding me seated on my bedroom floor.

I liked sitting on my floor. The carpet was fuzzy, and its lavender color made the sunlight soft and pretty. The firm, expansive flatness of the floor as opposed to the soft bed or a confined chair, and the sense of being lower than everything else in my room, felt grounding. Solid. Like a foundation I could build from.

She sat down on the floor with me, slightly surprised to see me there rather than chilling on my bed or sitting at my desk.

"Honey, are you okay? You seem down."

In truth, I wasn't really anything. Which I have learned comes across as "down" to most people. If I am feeling very little emotion at all, which to me feels comfortable and neutral, the rest of the world sees someone who is depressed.

In this case, though, I really was a little too much of "nothing."

It had been days, perhaps, that I had existed in this kind of highly neutral state - finding joy in nothing, and sorrow in nothing. Usually I had at least a little give and take each way. To tell the truth, I was probably keeping myself in highly neutral mode on purpose, to avoid stronger feelings around a particular issue or circumstance.

I don't remember exactly what was wrong at the time. Nor do I think I was ever actually able to articulate it to my mother.

"I feel stuck." Was all I could say. It was an unpleasant feeling, but also very hard to undo on my own. It was like I couldn't let go of something, or I couldn't get passed whatever over-analyzing I was doing, either consciously or subconsciously.

Now I know that this sensation of being mentally "stuck" happens a lot with many Autistic brains. It happens in Neurotypical brains, as well, but with less frequency, and less magnitude.

And this wasn't the first time that I had been mentally stuck on something.

Mom pondered that for a few minutes, and then came out with the simplest and most profound mental exercise, which I still use to this day, and which I will never in my life forget.

"Honey," she said. "It's okay to be stuck sometimes. But you don't want to be stuck all the time, right?"

I shook my head.

"So, maybe," she continued, "here's a way to think about it. Think about life, as if it's a flowing river. Close your eyes. Imagine the river - the river of life. Sometimes, it's still and quiet. Other times, it's flowing at a steady pace. Sometimes there are big rocks in the way, and the river rages around them, or maybe there's a waterfall as it flows over a big cliff. But always, even when it's still, the water is moving. Always moving, always flowing.

Imagine that you are in the river of life, right along with everyone else. You are one grain of sand, flowing along in the river. I'm a grain of sand, too, there in the river with you. All the people in the world are grains of sand in this big river.

Now, you're floating along in the water, and you get stuck. Maybe you ran into a rock. Maybe you came to rest on the bottom of the river and you're not moving any more. That's like how you are now - stuck.

But, unlike a piece of sand in a river, you are a human being. And human beings have something that sand doesn't: free will. You have the power to make a choice. You can choose to unstick yourself. Or, you can choose to stay stuck. It's up to you. Maybe you decide to stay stuck for a while, watch the river flow by around you, and then when you're ready, unstick yourself and go with the flow again.

But whatever you decide, the river never stops. It keeps flowing. And the longer you stay stuck, the more of the river you are going to miss, as it passes you by."

In that moment, imagining my soul and body encapsulated in a tiny grain of sand in the giant flowing river of life, I reached out my imaginary human free-willed sand-grain arms and pushed myself off of the rock where I had gotten stuck, and into the current again.

You may have heard the phrase "go with the flow." This life lesson is similar, but I think different in very significant ways. Going with the flow usually connotes some form of compromise on the part of the person who is choosing to go with the flow - it implies that "the flow" is the mainstream, and that it's best to go with what most people are doing or thinking in that moment. That might be good advice in some situations. But I think the true lesson in thinking of life like a river is not to blindly go with the flow - but to exercise free will. I can fight against the current if I want to. I can get stuck if I want to. I can let the river carry me forward, or I can even swim on my own and maximize that forward momentum.

But whatever I choose, it's my choice. I don't let the river decide for me.

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