Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Six Months of Sundays at the Falls

At some point during the long winter, it hit me that I could either spend each of those mostly gray Sundays in front of the tv, which didn't seem to help the winter blahs much, or I could head ten minutes down the road and see if I could see Niagara Falls.  A lot of crotchety, weather-based objections came to mind, but then it hit me that I would rather be watching the falls in that kind of weather than doing just about anything else, and a little cold and wet wouldn't make much difference. 

Since then, just about every Sunday, I've gotten to drive over the bridge from Grand Island, head a mile or so down the Robert Moses Parkway toward the curtains of mist that the spatter of the cataracts casts up, and park on the road that's closed to through traffic by the upper rapids, or just pull into the lot right by the falls.  At night, there's no charge for parking there, and, during the winter, there was almost no one there.  Even when I've gotten sort of used to the spectacle of it, the white water itself and the steady pounding of it, plus how it stretches from close to my feet into another country, it still gets louder than my mind, and I'm learning what a gift that is. 


Also, that quote from Heraclitus comes to mind sometimes when I'm there, that one about never stepping in the same river twice, because the space around the falls, and then the falls within it, seem different to me each time I go.  The sky never has quite the same shapes or shades of cloud, trees change their number and color of leaves, and I can't remember ever seeing the same people there. 

Logically, I also know that I must not be seeing the same shapes, or shattery sorts of patterns, in the water itself, that it must not run the exact same way maybe ever, that each week I come it has a different volume from freezing or thawing or summer storms, and that it has worn a little more on the cliff that makes its shape, to rush with more ease.  All of that seems to trigger the basic recognition that I'm not the same me, either.  But it's easier to see in the falls. 


In the winter, there were at least two or three times when, for at least a couple of minutes, I was the only one standing there, by the rail beside the bridal veil falls, and the park benches and other spaces now flooded with people were only covered with snow.  It did take some wading through slush that ran into my socks, past all of those white-pelted empty spots, and trying with some frustration to take phone photos of the way the snow slanted into and through the fuzzy spheres of light the lamps cast, which, again, something in me reminded me were tiny compared to what I was walking toward. 

Being alone with it, knowing that I was the only one seeing just that fanned path of the rapids the lamps made a kind of luminous gray, and hearing just that hushed rumble from its hurtle and hurtle and hurtle onto the car-sized stones below, I felt held.  I know faith can't just come from the evidence in front of me, but I got some from that.  Of course it couldn't be a moment made just for me by any objective measurement, but if no one else could see or hear or feel it, didn't that make it a special gift?  And who else for? 


Since then, more and more people have poured into that part of the park, and I've been surprised to find myself feeling some kind of ownership, a "what are you doing at my falls?" kind of feeling that makes no sense at all, and that goes away when I think how far some of them have travelled just to see what I get to live by.  There are a lot of women in saris, and people of seemingly any nationality holding up tablets to take pictures over everyone else's heads that remind me of Moses with the ten commandments, plus more and more and more people I might never remember. 

A few weeks back, I was up on the observation deck, waiting to get to the railing so I could take a picture of the falls without anyone in the way, and the man in front of me, who seemed to me to be taking forever, had a yarmulke and a long gray beard that looked like steel wool or something else too strong for a human form, and his wife would come up in her shawl to talk to him with language I knew I probably couldn't understand, even if I could have heard it.  No one seemed to be moving, and my social anxiety was climbing, along with my list of things I could be doing if I had my obligatory picture and was out of there by then. 

Then, because I'd been delayed there, I got to see, along with maybe two hundred other people on the observation deck, and who knows how many along the falls themselves, in New York and Ontario, one burst of fireworks, the kind that really does burst open to show a circle of smoke stalks with sparks at their tips, the reflection bursting even further apart and reforming and maybe shimmering for a moment more than it did, in the falls. 


Each Sunday, I get to go there, and take pictures, and, like Susan Sontag and many others talk about, there's that anxiety that the picture will take the place of my actual experience, dampen it, get between me and it.  And it feels like proof of that that I can't remember many actual moments, other than the ones I've shared above.  But some do come back, which tells me that more are there, and my phone photos help fix them in my memory.  Of the many seagulls that circle in the waves of spray like giant flies or tiny fighter jets, and settle wherever people won't, I got to see one perched right on top of the white sphere on the light pole closest to the bridal veil falls, one Sunday, almost the same color as the light, as if he or she had found and claimed a tiny sun. 

Of the many other visitors I've seen there in whatever weather, I remember the three women who stood right along the rail closer to the gift shop than the falls, each with a different-colored umbrella, bright colors that I want to say were red and yellow and blue, but can't remember for sure.  They stood there not seeming to notice anyone around them, not putting on a show, just holding up those bright spots that matched because they did not. 

Of the many wedding parties I must have missed there, I remember the helicopter I saw rise above the falls a couple of weeks back, that might have held a bride and groom and pastor, since that's one way people get married there--it rose straight up, like it could just keep rising forever, like the falls seem like they will, and won't, but remind me of lasting things, that I can, and must, place my faith in.