On my wall, I have an artist print of the swinging pedestrian bridge built in 1936 as part of the New Deal’s WPA that is one of the landmarks of the small community I grew up in. One of my earliest memories, it was back when thousands of butterflies used to inhabit the park and the fireflies came out of the summer, is discovering that bridge. Spanning 71 feet, it was constructed of stone, wood planks and wire.
I was holding my grandfather’s hand and remember the first tentative steps I made onto that bridge. The terror of it swaying with each step. I was clutching his hand as tight as I could. Back and forth, back and forth, side to side, the wood creaking with each step my 3- or 4-year-old legs took. It felt like everything was going to collapse around me.
Then came the slow realization that this bridge was not going to collapse. It was solid, built to last. All my worries and fears dissolved. The sound and the sway that terrified me a few moments earlier became a source of joy. My fingers slipped out of my grandfather’s hand as I ran back and forth across the bridge, trying to put as much force as I could into each step to try to get that bridge to move as much as it could.
Several times I would even jump with both feet to increase its swing. I even placed my feet as widely as I could to get the maximum momentum that came with each step. I ran and ran and ran some more, even squealed a time or two. I am sure my grandfather hoped all this activity was going to wear me out. Looking back, it was one of those perfect moments of childhood.
After an extremely hard winter this year, the flood waters rose up and sheets of ice slammed into the bridge, tearing it apart. Some of the boards shattered. There was some structural damage. It is going to cost thousands of dollars to fix.
The other evening I stopped by the bridge. The butterflies disappeared decades ago, at least in the numbers they once were. It was too early for the fireflies to make their presence known. It was just sad to see all that damage.
Looking at the jagged mess, I thought about all the other flooding that engulfed the state, the roads covered, the basements flooded and the property damage. I remembered the other major floods that wrought havoc on the state over the years and reflected on the news footage of the waters rolling through locations like Houston, Louisiana and California.
As you get older, you start to realize that life can be like a flood at times.
You can be enjoying a perfect day. The sun is out. The weather is fine. Everything in your life can be going along just as planned.
Then the floodwaters come. They seemingly come out of nowhere, even when their approach has been forecast for a long time. They can overtake you quickly or, inch by inch, slowly engulf your world.
It can be that phone call in the middle of the night or a slight tremor that just appears one day. You can have a perfectly healthy 8-year-old kid and the next thing you know you are in a hospital room. You can be at work, wondering what you are going to have for lunch, and a few seconds later find yourself in the boss’s office hearing the words, “I’m sorry, but…”
We all know that couple who seemingly had it all together, then the floods of life came, and they left each other in search of fairer weather. Addictions, bills, affairs, physical problems, acid words or wrong steps can be like sheets of ice being pressed against a bridge by a flood of water. They can eventually tear everything in your life apart.
In just the last few weeks I learned of a young woman, kids still in the house, who had a stroke, a guy who moved halfway across the country to take a new job, only to be fired in an organization shakeup that had nothing to do with him, and another individual with a brain tumor, fighting for his life. It seems like every day we learn about something awful that has happened to someone we know. Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
If a person has some warning, he or she can work as hard as one can to prevent some of the flood damage of life. Sandbags, in a symbolic sense, can be piled up. Water pumps used to divert the flow. Valuable items can be taken to higher ground.
Still, even with all the hard work in the world, water can still find its way in between the cracks or the sheer amount of water can overwhelm all the efforts in the world. There is nothing worse than that sickening feeling of being totally exhausted and knowing there is nothing you can do.
The worst part about a flood is a person has to helplessly standby until the waters retreat to assess the damage. It can go oh, so quickly or seemingly take forever. Some things can be saved. Other objects need to be pitched. An item or two will be kept even though they will never be the same. They carry their damage for life. We all know those people who still carry with them the devastations from the floods of childhood with them. He or she is never completely structurally sound. They might be able to hide it for a long time, but eventually, that damage starts to show.
It might take weeks, months, or years for the true cost of the deluge to be fully known. What follows is a lot of hard work. If a person is lucky, he or she has family, friends or neighbors to help with the repairs. Even then, sometimes all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put things back together again.
While life at times can feel like a flood, when you look back at it, it is more like that old swinging bridge when I was a child. When you walk across it on unsure legs, it can be terrifying. It seems like with each step it wants to collapse on you. As if it is suddenly going to give way and you are going to tumble into the water below, swept away to never be seen again. You want the ground beneath you to be solid, but it always seems to be swinging and moving with each step. It can be disquieting.
There are those big moments that are totally scary: your first day of school, the time you do something in front of a large group of people, the first time you get behind the wheel of a car or flirt with someone you like, hoping he or she feels the same way. When you look at the face of your child, hold him or her, and that realization that this helpless creature is totally dependent on you. Inside there is that fear that comes with being a good parent that you might screw everything up.
Think of some of the fears you have had at times in your life. How am I going to pay all these bills? What if they realize I am a fraud because I feel like one? The worse case scenarios go through our minds all the time. When you look back on your life, you can laugh at some of the things that kept you up at night worrying. They never came close to happening.
That bridge is swaying back and forth, back and forth, side to side. It can make you frightened, scared and sick. Life is amazingly messy and unsure. But if you give in to those feelings, and we all have at times, we miss out on what could be our most joyful moments, the things that make us look back and smile. We lose that wow that comes with life, the happiness of existence. If we don’t embrace the insecurity of the swaying motions of life, we miss out on so much.
Life is built to support us. It is a joyous and beautiful thing. I don’t know what your butterflies, fireflies or grandfather’s love are or will be. I just know that if you take the risk to find them, run back and forth, jump, and even laugh, as life sways around you with each step, you will discover the marrow of your existence, the poetry of your life.
Trevor Soderstrum is a Story City native who has been writing columns for about 10 years or so. He’s been all over the world, and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He loves to share his stories.