The River and the Imaginary Variable


Natalie Patton -Imaginary Variables3By Natalie Patton | Twitter: @naticakes1016

I was raised on the banks of the Saline River in Benton, Arkansas. My “home” was a miniature distributary where the water was just calm and shallow enough to settle in cozily. My “food” was giant sycamore leaves I called fish.

It was where I learned to tread water. It was where I caught the winds of gusto on a rope swing. It was where moving water was the only thing that could be heard and all that seemed to pass; where time stood still. It was where my grandfather unearthed a 900-year-old Caddo tribe dugout canoe, a reminder of the sacred space the river represented to a people who no longer called it home. It was where the presence of God hovered over the waters throughout the suffocating heat and humidity of Arkansas summers. And it was the best entertainment that my 20-nothing-year-old hippy parents could offer three, restless children.

I’d wade into my belly button, and the shock of the cold would take my breath away. Like apple pie à la mode, the contrast was too delicious. The smell of grilling meat and Budweiser original, that raw, earthy smell of clay and weeds, and the sound of smooth rocks grinding underfoot still evoke nostalgic comforts to me to this day.

But as I got a little older, I began to feel pangs of resentment. I hated how all of my friends and their families swam at the country club pool while we were the rednecks at the river. I was embarrassed when friends would ask where we swam. I was desperate to be a country club girl, but I knew there was no cash for the frivolous, especially when we had our own swimming hole down the road. As I grew lanky and self-conscious, I began to notice things that made my experience seem even more deplorable, like how all of my swimsuits turned brownish and how we had to swim in old shoes to protect our feet from any glass debris that a tornado might have brought in the water. I tried my darnest to make my mother feel guilty for taking us to the river instead of the chlorinated square in concrete where all the upper crust belonged.

The river began to represent what I longed for, but didn’t realize I already had.

I had my first child on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan five years ago. I was already a fish out of water in a very otherworldly culture, but becoming a mother miles away from my family with a husband gone half the time felt a lot like sink-or-swim. When the muggy Japanese summer rolled around, I caught myself in a full circle moment.

Rather than going to the crowded base swimming pool where we lived, I found myself preferring the banks of the Tama River,  instead. It was the perfect space for my rambunctious little cave man who came alive in a way that was different than the pool. With wild abandon, he would throw rocks into the water with all his might. He would sit in shallow water for hours if I let him, his pudgy fingers picking up mud, rocks, leaves and whatever bits of earth he could find. My mini-ascetic, he was still young enough to know that the river was actually better.

I wonder if “river culture” is a counter-culture that transcends time and place. A place where a moment of joy can be suspended over a moving current. A place where God’s love is felt in the smoothness of the rocks, in the sunshine through branches, in the cold, moving waters. It’s layer upon layer of grace and goodness. It’s no surprise that baptisms were traditionally done in rivers, following Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan.

My full circle river moment has awakened me to all of the goodness and grace around me that I miss every time I clamber for the Imaginary Variable, that moment in time after I do/achieve/buy/have fill in the blank. I’m deceived when I think everything will be all right when I get my hands on it. The Imaginary Variable is a perpetual dangling carrot that’s a shape-shifting beast. The Imaginary Variable is an idol that keeps me from enjoying today. But more often than not, the Imaginary Variable turns out to be a chlorinated square in concrete, when the river has been in front of me the entire time.

I feel a bit like the older son in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. When the younger, lost son who had squandered his father’s money returns, he thinks his father will be angry, but instead the Father sprints out to embrace him, slaughters the fattened calf, and throws a big feast and party to celebrate. The older brother sulks. He tells the Father how faithful, how obedient he’s been, and he asks the Father why he never gave him the slaughtered calf or a big celebration. And the Father tells him,

My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.

In the words of Rob Bell, the older son was at the party the entire time and didn’t know it. Such is the upside-down wisdom of God.

The best days of our life, more often than not, is today.

I’m trying to slow down, to live a contemplative life. To seek silence, simplicity and solitude. More often than not I fail. Living in the circus that is Bangkok, keeping the wheels spinning in my own circus at home, keeping up with my real friends on Facebook and my imaginary friends on Twitter, and hearing from so many amplified voices at once—my attention is so fragmented. I’m pulled in a zillion directions and my A.D.D. brain is overly zinged most of the time. The still, small voice of God gets drowned out in all of the clamor. And the noisy ambience piles up the imaginary variables, one on top of each other, as the expectations rise and my soul is left bankrupt. Is it possible to live a contemplative life in this day and age, and in this  environment?

The aesthetic Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Christian church viewed silence, solitude, and prayer as a necessary rest in order to have breakthroughs in compassion for others. Henri Nouwen, who was heavily influenced by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, asks:

“Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well being you desire? Don’t you often hope: ‘May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.’ But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual death.

There aren’t any rivers near my Bangkok flat, 27 stories high—at least, not any clean ones. My closet with a good lock is about the closest I’ve come to shutting out all the noise and sitting with Jesus. The literal translation of pray always is come to rest. I’m learning that it’s prayer with fewer words that is needed. Sometimes it’s prayer with raw thoughts. Sometimes, it’s wrestling with my own discomfort for a while, wading in the awkwardness and working through the dry spells. In this amplified era of 2017, it’s the only way I can find true rest for my soul, live in the light of the resurrected Christ, and walk away with a spirit that is raised to walk in newness of life.


About Natalie:

Natalie PattonNatalie is an overly caffeinated, partly cloudy, always scattered wife and mother of three tots living in Bangkok, Thailand. Pull up a chair, and you’ll find she’s part weirdo from being an expat in the Middle East and Asia for the better part of a decade. She’s a proud US Air Force wife who lives with the cognitive dissonance of knowing war but seeking peace. She works with Somali refugees in Bangkok. When she’s not chasing down a tuk-tuk or letting her son sample fried grub worms on the street, she is found with a good book, a good recipe, or a good song. Follow her scattered life on her blog,  Twitter or on Instagram.