When You Cannot Decide

You decide to stop for the night on the banks of a rushing, frothing river inside the Arctic Circle.

Marin Mikulic | Writer | Outdoorsman | Reader | 1*g9kODYf9flLa4FRqVgM91A
A photo by Diego Jimenez.

You unload the heavy pack and pitch the tent. You’re hungry but decide to hold off on the meal. First, you’ll wash in the river, knowing the waters are barely a breath above freezing. Your body refuses to even consider stepping into the river, but you have enough of a mind to overrule the body. You’ll wash. 

You find a natural beach on the bank where the waters pool. At least you won’t have to fight the pull of the river. The sun is almost kissing the horizon, painting the world in reds and pinks and all the hues of silence. You step into the waters, ankle-deep, and naked. The cold surges through your calves, knees, into your very heart, and lungs struggle to keep breathing. 

You force a breath. The air is cold. The river is cold. 

Using your traveler’s cup, you collect water and pour it on your calves and thighs, working up the nerve to let the cold touch the belly and the head. As the body adjusts to the sharpness, you pour water on your scalp and it runs down to re-join the river. Each droplet sears itself into your skin, prodding the body to be awake, awake as it had never been. 

Breathing deepens. 

You’re shivering now but allow your frozen knees to buckle, slowly, and kneel in the shallow water. The parts of the body that are now underwater are all but gone. Another half a minute and you feel nothing except the blade of your mind, sharpened to its utmost. You’re now only a spirit, bodyless, hovering above the glacial river in the deep North. Each breath reaches farther into the dark reaches of your psyche that have never seen the light of day. Then you dip your head underneath the surface and all thought vanishes into the river. 

On the other bank, a reindeer emerges from the shrubbery. It’s come to drink water in great gulps. High up in the sky a sea eagle, with its careful eye, sees the crown of the reindeer and then the animal itself.

Marin Mikulic | Writer | Outdoorsman | Reader | 1*lK9AY7DdCfFQvjafnnbj A
A photo by Thomas Lefebvre.

Down by the river, the reindeer lifts its head, suddenly unnerved. The eagle’s body stiffens for an infinitesimal moment, calculating the angle of assault, but then relaxes. The reindeer is too large for prey.

When your head breaks the surface of the river the horned animal bounds away, its belly full.

You, shivering, walk out of the river on feet devoid of all feeling. Your whole body is seared with the cold, but your mind is a single point, like a knight’s lance. You put fresh clothes on and, feeling the first whispers of warmth, grab the wooden walking stick, then sit on a large rock that is almost entirely in the river, a small peninsula. The rock emanates frost but you don’t mind. You’d been in the river and know the cold cannot touch you, not for a little while anyway. 

The sun is burning the horizon now. The edge of the world revels in a storm of color. In the later parts of the year, the sun slips beyond the edge and plunges the world into darkness, but in the summer there’s only a perpetual light casting deep shadows upon the mountains. 

You gather a towel tightly around your shoulders, holding the cold at bay. It’s almost time for you to go and rest, but you stay a little longer. After the many miles of the day, sleep won’t be a problem. Not today. Not in the Arctic Circle, so far from the cacophony in the South.

Now is the time to think. Thinking is what you are here for, in the great expanse, hoping to give your mind space to unravel. Space to decide.

Immediately your mind contracts because you don’t know how to decide. Your entire life you’d never learned the act of deciding and moving on. Every decision you’d ever made you regretted, and would have regretted the alternative too. 

“What if I had made the wrong call?”

That is how the doubt starts and, before long, you’ll spiral into trying to change the past or embrace anxiety that makes every tomorrow just a bleak repetition of yesterday.

What if I decide the wrong way?

The thought echoes. The day had been long, filled with miles upon miles, and your body is exhausted. And yet, what tires you is the mind.

The ceaseless chattering.

You bring your knees to your chest and watch the river play as it rushes past you down toward a little river island, and then beyond view. 

The river island is barely more than a scrap of rock, decorated with bushes of some plant and a single birch. The island is so small you can see, from your vantage point, that it’s entirely wet and hadn’t known a dry day in all the long years of its existence.

Everything is murmuring.

You can feel the murmur in your chest. It is there, unmistakable. You unsock one of your feet and lower it into the clear water. The shock of cold is immediate. You smile, thinking that’s what getting born must have felt before the river of life sweeps us all away.

“The river of life…” —you mouth and look at the river and the riverbed it had carved in the landscape for untold years. Life is much the same way — a gathering of energy unleashed upon the world. There it carves its own riverbed of habits, breaks against its own river islands, and flows into the horizon where it finally disappeares into the vast quiet. 

“Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” [1]

The glacial river of the deep North is hardly a stream but you remains quiet. The passage of water, like the passage of time, is best honored in silence.

You watch the river rush toward the river island, then split into two branches, like your mind does when trying to decide. Neither of the branches seems obviously better than the other. They stretch for a little while before turning a bend and vanishing from sight. If there are treacherous rapids on the left or menacing rocks lurking beneath the surface on the right, you cannot know. And yet you strain your eyes and strain your mind.

“Which way to go?”

The question rings out in the cold air. You’re sitting on a rock, far up in the North. Water flows beneath your feet, but you’re not there anymore. Your mind abandons the North and travels South, to the streets you knoww well, to the people, to the life you’ve led, to the decisions you’ve made, to the regrets you have, never knowing which way to go, but always hoping the choices would be as clear as the water.

They never are.

Marin Mikulic | Writer | Outdoorsman | Reader | robertbye
A photo by Robert Bye.

Angered, you throw your walking stick into the water like a javelin, watching it disappear into the foam only to appear again on the surface. The ferocious waters toss the stick to and fro, now sinking and now launching it into the air, but inevitably the stick nears the treacherous shores of the river island. You watch it skirt the rocks and the gravel of the island and continue on its mad dance down the right branch of the river. In a moment it would soon be out of sight and you already curse throwing your walking stick, knowing you’d have to carve another one tomorrow. 

Then a thought smashes into you conscience.

“It doesn’t matter which way we decide to take! Whether it is the left or the right, the rapids or the menacing rocks, the river will come to itself again…and it is the same with life.”

You jump to his feet, clamber down the rock and, pausing only to put your boots on, run toward the island and then past it. 

There, where the branches of the river meet, you find your walking stick unharmed.


[1] The line comes is from the “Open House For Butterflies”, by Ruth Krauss.