Sunday, February 05, 2012

Dr. Michael Fleenor's Address to the Cahaba River Society

A River Runs Through It
Address to the Annual Meeting
Cahaba River Society
Birmingham, AL
February 2, 2012
Michael E. Fleenor, MD, MPH

One of my earliest memories of the Cahaba River Society was when Betsy, my wife, was working with Beth, Randy and Trisha on one of the first Cahaba River Fests at the Zamora Temple.   When the auction was over, I walked out with a piece of artwork.
It is a quite striking blend of various colors of glass including, white, clear, green, brown and light violet.  Diagonally transsecting that mélange of primarily earth tones is a stripe of blue.   A closer look will show that this mosaic is mottled, broken glass which was gathered up from shattered places sometime before and carefully put back together.   As with all stained glass, when the light shining through it is just right, it actually glows.  Perhaps this piece of art is on my mind more because it hangs from the window over the kitchen sink through which I gaze while washing dishes, something I somehow am doing more now that I’m retired!

The River:  Flow as Community
I was attracted to this piece of art because one of my favorite short books is A River Runs through It by Norman Maclean.  Most of us here, no doubt, have read this work years ago, and maybe some like me come back to it again and again.  It is a biographical account of the intertwining relationships between 2 brothers, their Presbyterian minister father and the women in their lives.  The setting is in Montana, centered along the Big Blackfoot River near Bozeman.   At the heart of it, it is a parable about coming of age:  coming to terms with youthful interests and pre-occupations which gradually or abruptly emerge into adult maturity.

Successfully emerging from adolescence is as much about how we make those big decisions as it is about the decisions themselves.  Although I don’t have anyone specifically in mind in this audience, it is unfortunate some of us never move out of adolescence despite chronologically being adults and if I’m absolutely truthful myself, there are behaviors that still are stuck in that stage of my life, which to me is a personal case in point, that the patterns that shape our lives are largely formed by the time we reach late adolescence.  So, short of some life-changing, enlarging experience, how we deal with adolescence sets the variations of the theme for the legato or staccato notes of the music our lives will be blended into the harmonies or cacophonies of sounds around us.

I cannot help but think too that this story could also be a parable about our struggle toward maturity as a local community. . . And like all who go through adolescence, it begs for similar community reflection.  .  .  about values and principles that last for not only our more temporal lifetimes but for generations to come.  The mark of transition into adulthood from adolescence for individuals and communities, I believe, is moving away from a sense of urgency, anxiety and even fear that leads to folly;  the need for self-satisfaction which, not infrequently, is at the expense of another; the need to quell the overwhelming compulsion to make good impressions rather than dealing with deeper matters about whom we really are;  the struggle to put the pieces of our life and the pieces of the world into a cohesive mosaic that gives some sense of order out of sometimes overwhelming brokenness and chaos.

Pausing to deal with some of these more lasting issues is the importance of annual events like the one tonight.  They are opportunities to celebrate not only the successes but the challenges of the previous year and years, since just as a river in both infinitely changeable it is also changeless, changeless in those matters that are most important.
It is a time for recounting our journey around uncharted oxbows that cause us to question if any progress has been made at all toward the attatainment of our mission in life . . . or maybe even the mission itself is questioned, yet surprises us when we round the bend and see clearly ahead again.
It draws us through languid pools that pull us into the river itself so that both river and we are indistinguishable.

Sometimes more than we’d like, sucks us through strainers that are so harrowing as to threaten life and limb.

And it pushes us past islands in its path that if they are revisited over and over again, may be submerged or prominent depending on the ebb and flow of the river that holds them. 
Rivers carry us all along their course.  But rivers also create boundaries between islands and shoreline that need to be bridged.  As such, the story that rivers whisper are narratives about what makes us community.

How can we bridge these “islands in the stream” (as Hemingway might call them)?

(1)  Recognize the boundaries that divide us and why they emerged.  Sometimes these boundaries are scoured by run-off and other times they are dry as sand and gravel and no longer relevant.  In any event, this requires looking at the present through the lens of history and contrasting that with the aspirations and/ambition of our vision of the future.

(2)  Turn over rocks in the river to expose and discuss “first principles”.  What I mean by this is to recognize and explicitly state what is most important to each “side of the river”.  Often there are hidden agendas that are driven by respective postures of each “side of the river”.  These differences can be healthy if confronted in open dialogue but when that is neglected they are frequently destructive and some can be catastrophic.  The Cahaba River is the river that runs through most of what we continue to see that divides us in Jefferson County between economic and environmental sides of the river.

(3)  Determine the source of the river.  In other words, root causes.  This is closely related to the “boundaries that divide us” issue but requires a new paradigm than what we’ve tended to use in the past.

Most of the provincial non-holistic models of the past have generated more heat than light, I’m afraid, so I suggest a physico-sociological model for community health.  It is a rather simple model that could be applied to communities like our own that frequently become hamstrung on putting ideas to work because of the putative complexity of issues.  This model has 4 simple components for a health community:

a.    Socio-economics – good jobs and good incomes
b.    Education – schooling that provides a future
c.    Sound individual life choices – personal choices that keep our neighbors in mind.

These three are the islands in the stream of the larger flow of
d.    Environmental health, which is both the physical (air we breathe and water we drink) and socio-cultural environment (our cultural heritage and the way we think as groups) which surround and often saturate the 3 other islands.

And just as Maclean relates to maturation of himself and his brother in his novel (and this process is not a painless one), our community challenge today, as it has for the last 3 decades is to connect the islands of SES, education and sound healthy individual life choices and to build bridges across those rivers that divide us.  In Mclean’s parable, the unifying activity, fly-flshing, required that all parties wade into the water together.  Despite the differences on both sides of the shore, that is where true community is found.

Since its inception, CRS has been dedicated to stewardship of the environment, and most specifically of the Cahaba River, which I believe is an emblematic vision of what is best for all of us.  My hope for CRS is that it will continue to be both ever constant and ever changing just as is the river that is its namesake.  And as the Cahaba River sustains life and health and promotes a wide range of diversity in thought and opinion that is critical for a healthy community, my hope is the CRS will have the same end in view.

Whatever our direct relationship to rivers, they are a symbol of the flow of relationships in our community and how we deal with decisions involving upstream determinants of what we decide to be what is best and right and the downstream consequences of those values, for in the flow of those rivers in time, those decisions based on those values will take us all to the same place.

So, what IS important to leave behind? 
While sitting with his father watching his younger brother fish on the bank of the Big Blackfoot River McLean listened.  “As always, [it] was making sounds to itself and now it made sounds to us.”  He admits even now, “I am haunted by waters.”

As light filtered through the trees casts its lengthening shadows to nestle the river in its arms, if we but listen to each other and to the river, the river too will make sounds to us.  It is whispering its answers.
We all should be “haunted by waters”.

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