The story of how a river helps to write about the ebb and flow of life
By June Alexander
Water helps me feel good. Besides quenching physical thirst, it comforts my soul, helps me to be resilient and go with the flow, and to be eternally hopeful.
In the 1950s, the world through my eyes comprised a small, beautiful valley adjoining the Mitchell River National Park, in Victoria, Australia. I lived at the head of the valley with my parents and sister. From our veranda, we overlooked our dairy farm with its herd of Jersey and Friesian cows and, beyond we could see the river wending its way from the hills to the Gippsland Lakes and the sea. It did not matter that our home had no electricity, television or Internet. The farm, river and adjacent forest comprised a natural playground, feeding my imagination: a playground shared with kangaroos, wombats, iguanas, lyrebirds, black swans, snakes and platypus, I chased lizards, clambered over moss-covered rocks in fern-sheltered gullies and swam and dived for mussels in water below the rapids.
I was drawn to the river from toddler age. Lying in bed at night, the sound of the rapids would lull me to sleep. During the day, the foaming water roaring over the rocks contrasted with the mirror-smooth surface on the open stretches of river. Majestic, demanding respect. In return offering solitude and peace. Oh yes, the peace.
One time, I disappeared from the house and my parents organised a search. My father found me, happily playing on the rocks bedside the river’s edge. He took me by the hand and we walked home along the dusty dirt track. Slowly. Along the way, He smacked me on my backside. It was the only time my father hit me. A sensitive child, I was mortified.
I tried to focus on other things. Indoors, at night by kitchen lantern or bedside candle, a passion for writing and reading took hold. When formal education began at age five, my world began to expand. A bicycle ride two-and-a-half miles along a gravelled lane out of the valley led to a sturdy, one‑room, one-teacher, 20-pupil school on an acre or two of land bordered with pine trees and surrounded by crops and cow-studded pastures.
I never again went to the river alone, until the age of eight, that is, when my exasperated mother said: “Go. I can’t swim anyway, so you might as well go. Alone.” I did. An uncle taught me to swim and I would go to the river frequently in the warmer months, loving to duck-dive and feel the water against my skin, feeling its power, allowing myself to be swept along in its current, feeling the freedom.
At the same time, I loved school because I loved words. At age nine, a prize of a pen in a national story-writing competition fired my writing passion, and soon more stories were appearing in publications like The Australian Children’s Newspaper. Pen-friendships in far off lands, including the United States and Germany, provided another outlet for creative and expressive writing. Words were my friends because they were safe, accommodating, did not judge and did anything I wanted them to.
The river was frequently a source of inspiration for my stories. Home life could be stressful, for reasons that would become clear only many years later, but my walks along the river (you can see a track on the right side of the river) provided a sense of belonging and connection. I am absolutely certain that the bond created with nature at this young age helped me to survive the challenges that would come my wayin the wider world. As with the water, words represented fluidity as well as freedom.
Early in 1962, in Sixth Grade, the final year of primary school, my world changed. I was 11 years old. The younger of two daughters, I was tomboyish, preferring to help my dad on the farm than do domestic chores. My mother encouraged this tendency. My earliest memory is of her calling me Timwhen I was good and Toby when I was bad. I liked being ‘Tim’, doing outdoor jobs and playing with boys but the teacher’s announcement of an impending school doctor visit caused me to worry. As the only girl in the school with boobs, I felt terrified about undressing for what was a routine medical test, in the vicinity of my teacher, a male cousin who boarded with my family. My mother and sister were dismissive when I expressed concern, saying ‘don’t be silly’ but anxiety intensified to the point where one day, while sitting on the grassy school grounds, my tension suddenly eased.
Anorexia Nervosa was developing and providing me with a coping skill, albeit a dangerous one. With each new day, I progressively ate less and exercised more. In this way, fears were suppressed. My focus moved from worrying about the doctor’s visit, to calculating what I could eat and how many hours I needed to exercise each day. Anorexia appeared as a thought to be trusted, to help relieve stressful situations. This thought, however, quickly became dominant and entrenched.
The river track became part of a punishing regime meted out by the eating disorder. If I weakened and ate food the illness did not approve of, I would be compelled to run for miles along the track and back again, often in the dark, stumbling over rocks, to appease the shame and guilt. Many tears were shed along that river track.
But the illness could not break the bond of trust and strength that I shared with the river. The river was more powerful than the eating disorder. Today the river remains, I am well, and the eating disorder and other problems have been vanquished.
Today, I don’t live by my beloved Mitchell River, but I do live by the sea. I have discovered that all moving water speaks the same language and carries the same message. If I am experiencing something painful or sad, I am to remain hopeful because in time this pain and sadness will ease and pass, and if I am experiencing something happy and beautiful, I am to embrace and hug this moment, for it too will pass. Such is the ebb and flow of life. Thank you, water, for your life enriching lessons.
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