“A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger. When men come to like a sea-life, they are not fit to live on land.” — Dr. Johnson
The shadow of my head shone like an angel along the river’s bed. As the boat weaved between the Nevada and Arizona hills, the sun bounced off my frame through the waters, creating a shadow at the bottom of the Colorado River. Along the outline of my head, the light then shot in every direction across that riverbed, as if that shadowy form foreshadowed a future glory. I was in the hull of our little canoe—a friend took the stern with his wife in the middle. We struck out against the current, just south of the great Dam, about six or seven miles. The Mojave air was mild and pleasant, yet we hugged the Nevada hills to the west, for even in February, the sun can be an enemy. As we paddled, we passed many kayaks but saw no other canoes. Various motor boats came from upstream, and even when they slowed down, our vessel was tossed gently by their small wake. One individual, either heedless or lawless, did not slow down; we watched the mighty waves with fear; up and over them went our boat, and down it came with a light splash.
Those men with motorboats had more likely made it to the great Dam. A wonderful sight it must have been from down below. But I wonder if the experience is not cheapened by the motor; not that those men did not stare at the Dam with great wonder or enjoy themselves; but that those men truly exerted little physical effort in obtaining the experience. That is, they flew around the curves of the river as if they didn’t exist. They, likely, missed out on the joy of the travel itself. My comrades and I, meanwhile, moved the canoe with the only thing God gave us: our bodies.* We propelled our vessels against a—very light—current with bones, muscles, and joints covered in skin. Each curve in the Colorado was an event in and of itself for our world-wearied flesh. We were traveling slow enough to notice that even our shadows along the riverbed grew where the river was shallow and shrunk where it deepened. In short, those motorists may have reached the Dam (we did not), but we experienced the river as only a man can truly experience it: In a self-propelled boat.
I am convinced that a man of my profession needs to take about a day each week in which he reads very little. Perhaps I feel that the reading needs a chance to soak into the mind, and the mind needs a chance to meditate on the mysteries of our world. Take, for instance, our bodies. I am in no way a theologian, and the following should only be regarded as an effect of the imagination. But I have recently been musing on this idea that the modern man is in revolt against his body. That is, more and more we are doing things in spite of the body—like driving motor boats instead of paddling canoes, or talking through texts instead of with throats and tongues and teeth. We seem, almost, embarrassed of our bodies. But I wonder if the body is not to be seen as one of God’s most mysterious gifts to mankind. He could have just as easily made us bodiless like the angelic and demonic spirits that surround us. But He didn’t. Instead, He chose deliberately to clothe us in this shell that is a body, to breathe into us His Spirit and make us both of the physical and spiritual realms. This thought, I hope, would make us think differently about our earthly tents.
And perhaps that notion of the body being a tent is somewhat deceiving, as if the goal for mankind is to rid himself of his body and live merely as a spirit in heaven. But this only seems like a platonic or gnostic heresy. Indeed, our modern world is more gnostic than we realize—everything must be paperless, wireless, saved in “the cloud,” lacking physicality, heard but not seen, if you will. But imagine if our end is not to be bodiless or even clothed with a new body but more fully clothed with our own frames. What if at the resurrection, I am reunited, not with some platonically perfected body God has prepared for me, but with my body? What if this body is my rightful frame? And what if this world, made new, is that body’s eternal home? That is, what if heaven is not some spirit-place in the clouds but this physical world made new, not different—to be experienced not by a different body but by this perfected body?
We ate lunch on our boat, tucked in a little nook of the river on the Nevada side. The afternoon was cool in the shade, and all was quiet and peaceful. A few kayakers caught up to us and passed, waving. Then a party boat of some sort came from upstream. Its wake shook our canoe even minutes after they passed. We paddled upstream for a few more minutes, then tucked our paddles away and let the lazy river bring us back. After several attempts, I lit my pipe. Our voices echoed against the cliffs, some which rose hundreds of feet high with little or no vegetation. I looked hard for any sign of the big-horned sheep but was once again disappointed. The only wild-life were small ducks. Hundreds sat up and down the river waters, ducking their heads for food or taking flight at our approach, lightly skimming the waters and creating several ripples. I wondered at their small size and interesting colors, but none of us knew what kind of ducks they were.
The canoe was due back at three, and we thought we should check the time: fifteen till. Alarmed at this, still a mile and a half upstream from our dock, we woke from our peaceful stupor. I laid down my pipe, and now with arms beginning to feel the ache, began the violent paddling that would take us home.
I have lived most of my life in this half-gnostic sense, vaguely understanding that God will give me a new body at the resurrection but always half-expecting it to be something far more grand, something I can’t tangibly touch and feel—an unrecognizable thing, if you will. But if it’s true that my current body is the one I will live with for eternity, that changes how I view it and how I treat it. (That changes, sadly, how I view such things as food and exercise.) It is not depressing to think this way, as if I will always be stuck in a body with old bones and a twenty-inch vertical†; on the contrary, it is hopeful to think that in some way I am home here and I don’t have to disdain my own body. Someday my old bones will be new and I may just dunk a basketball. I will very much recognize myself at the resurrection, just as the disciples recognized Christ. I will write with these hands and fingers; I will canoe on the new earth, on the new Colorado, hopefully unpolluted by motor boats; I will canoe with these same arms and muscles that won’t feel so sore the next day. Though my current body will one day be pushed to sea in its parting canoe, when the soul has fled this world for a time, the two shall one day be reunited; this pale shadow, this world-wearied vessel, will then be more fully clothed in its own perfection.
Written at the Desert Schooner I,
Las Vegas, Nevada
Sunday, February 14
Painting: “A View on the River Tay at Perth Looking North”
By Macneil Macleay,
Oil on canvas, n.d.
*My good friend, R. Eric Tippin, has also, and firstly, made this observation regarding the bicycle, located here.
†Pencil markings on a wall in The Kansas State English Department record this fact.