7/27/23

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Over the last weekend, Friday through Monday morning, I was in one of my favorite places, La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’ve been going to La Crosse regularly for years now, starting in 2010, mostly to meet with a book club, appear in the bookstore, or teach a class at Kinstone in nearby Fountain City. Whenever I come, I try to spend a few extra days, mostly so I can be close to the river.

Not any river. THE river. The Mississippi.

This time, my break came on Sunday. I went to Starbucks, got my favorite drink, a grande cinnamon dolce latte, with only two pumps of cinnamon dolce, thank you, and iced, and took both the drink and a book to Pettibone Park. This simple park, with a beach by the river, and I have a history. And so it’s where I go, when I want to be closest to the river.

My first time in La Crosse happened a long time ago, way back in the 1990s. I was there for a weekend away with my first husband. We came without our three children; it was sort of an unspoken last ditch effort to see if the marriage could go on. If either of us wanted to save it. My husband found us a nice hotel, right by the river. Directly across the river was Pettibone Park.

I found things for us to do. A trip to an antique store or a bookstore. A drive up Granddad’s Bluff. A visit to Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine. A riverboat cruise. The river itself. But he mostly wanted to lay on the hotel bed and watch sports on the television, without anyone to interrupt him.

Discouraged, I went down to the hotel pool by myself and wandered between pool and hot tub for a while. Later, I wrapped myself in a towel and went out on the hotel patio. Across the river, I could see the beach and the happy sounds of people playing in the river.

I had no idea you could play and swim in the mighty Mississippi. I rarely heard the name without the “mighty” in front of it, and “mighty” didn’t seem conducive to playing. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was stand in that river. Feel the water swirl around me, going deliberately, purposefully, somewhere. It knew its direction, even if I didn’t. I’ve never been good at geography.

At dinner that night, I pointed the beach out to my husband and asked if we could stop there on our way out of town. It wouldn’t interrupt his sports-watching; we’d be on our way home anyway. He wasn’t happy, but he agreed.

We found our way across the bridge and when I saw a sign for Pettibone Park, I pointed it out. Sure enough, there was the beach, and a little beach house. My husband sat at a picnic table and crossed his arms, looking back toward our car and checking his watch. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants legs, and carefully, nervously, walked into the river.

I needn’t have been nervous. I felt welcomed. The water swirled around me as I’d imagined, and I stood and watched it roll away under the bridge and off into the distance. I went out as far as I could, without getting my clothes wet.

And a feeling came to me there, in that river. With my husband glowering and tapping his foot behind me, I looked away. I knew, without a doubt, in that beautiful river and no one with me who wanted to share it, that the marriage was over. But I also realized, watching the river sleek against me and then moving on, that it was just one thing that was ending.

My life wasn’t. There was more to life than this particular marriage.

I came out of the river, dried off, and we went home and moved on.

I didn’t come back for years and years. But when I did, I searched out that park. I went to the same hotel, looked across the river, saw the beach, and found my way. And then I came back, again and again. Almost always, I bring Starbucks with me, and almost always, a book, and I sit at a table and read, all while listening to the river. And I stand in it, even when it’s really cold.

One stand-out year, 2014, as I walked around the beach house toward the river, I heard a whoosh and then a wing opened in front of me. I shrieked and stepped back and something else shrieked too and I followed it as it landed in a nearby tree. It was a bald eagle. I’d nearly been walloped by a bald eagle as we both went around the same corner. It wasn’t malicious; we were both surprised.

I stood there and watched him for a while. He watched me. “I’ve only seen bald eagles in zoos,” I told him. “You’re amazing.”

I’m scared of birds. I wasn’t scared of him. Eventually, he flew off, I admired him, and then went to stand in the river.

I went to the river the year I had breast cancer in 2017. I stood in the water and knew I would be okay.

And so last Sunday, I sat in the sun, drank my Starbucks, and read a book. Then I went and stood in the river. I thought of how baptisms happen, sometimes, in rivers. And when I’m there, standing in that particular river, with all of our history swirling around us, I feel baptized over and over again. Not sure by what or who, beyond the river itself.

But it was all it took to make me happy last week.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

At Pettibone Park last Sunday, with my Starbucks and my book.
Sunset of the Mighty Mississippi.
On the La Crosse Queen, a riverboat, for a dinner cruise on the Mississippi. A student took this photo. I spent most of the time on my feet, watching the river.
The bald eagle that nearly flew into me in 2014.

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