Welcome to our August installment of READ LOCAL First—the world’s most extensive repository of Utah-related poets and writers. Today, we are proud to introduce creative nonfiction writer Natalie Hopkins.
Originally from Florida, Hopkins now lives in Utah Valley. She fell in love with creative nonfiction while studying for her undergraduate degree.
Last year, she won second place in the creative nonfiction essay category for “Wool Girl” in the 2020 Utah Original Writing Competition.
Hopkins works as an editor.
One morning in February, I go to the Jordan River to walk. It is a true winter morning: nipping cold and a constant, fluffy snow that coats everything in a downy gray. The river is iced over in patches but it is beginning to move again, and I am beginning to breathe.
I am surprised it took me so long to come, as an entrance to the trail is just a small distance from my home. I have always wanted to have a walk of my own, a familiar path by which to mark my life. There is a carnal desire in me to walk forever, less a fondness for exercise and more a need to outrun all the dust I kick up inside myself. Truth be told, the Jordan River is less than picturesque, a slow-moving, dull-colored river that more than anything shows the lack of rain in Utah’s desert valley. Where the trail bends around the point of the mountain, most of the surrounding greenery comes from a golf course that skirts the river—a stark contrast to the landscape of dun-brown reeds and rushes, cracked earth, shrubby mountains. I want the river to be more than it is. I want myself to be more than I am.
The trail is hushed by the snow, and I see hardly anyone else. What idiot chooses to go walking in this weather? I can’t answer, but I watch the robins and other little brown birds that I don’t recognize perching in the boney trees. By the time I return home, I am bathed in so much snow, my nose and cheeks dappled pink by the frozen water.
Men wrote in scripture that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, another river in another desert, named for the way the water flows down into the Dead Sea. Jesus rose from it to hear the voice of God singing through a bird in a language He spoke. I wasn’t baptized in a river. I was eight years old, arm broken and bound in a waterproof cast. After I was pushed down into the bathtub water, drowned in my second birth, I came up feeling unsure of how I was supposed to feel.
If birdsong is the voice of God, I hear it everywhere along my river—an unintelligible revelation. I don’t know which thoughts are God and which are me when all my thoughts make my chest burn with despair and hope and frustration and longing. I hear what I tell myself: that what seems narrow to us may be vast to God, that God carefully created infinite flowers and rivers, neurons and synapses to sing songs to us and teach our bodies to bear the trauma of living. I want to talk to that God and ask why I am meant to endure when everything in me begs to stop. I am always slithering away. When I quit dance lessons and volleyball teams and education programs, I would hide away in shame, covering my face with blankets like fig leaves. My mother, angry and tender at the same time, would eventually find me and pull me out again.
I read that in our earliest days, humans would hunt animals much larger and more powerful than themselves simply by outrunning and exhausting the animals. That humans would simply keep going out of necessity, desire, spite.
Jesus said they that endure to the end, the same shall be saved, but that is what terrifies me. I am only twenty-five years old, and I am already tired of outrunning myself, tired of slogging through life in wet, heavy clothes. How does one follow the river that goes on endlessly? If I don’t keep hunting the beast, will it eventually get me?
It becomes a ritual, returning to the river every Saturday morning, winding myself through with the water, watching it change as the seasons begin to shift. The spring sun growing lighter and sooner—the visual reminder of time’s devotion to changing everything. The body of a river alive—the melting snowbanks, the budding leaves, the ducks drifting and diving in the slushy water.
There is a quote that scuttles around the internet that says, You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body. The quote is often misattributed to C.S Lewis and, indeed, isn’t even quite a real quote but rather an amalgamation of various quotes of the same sentiment. I loved this quote for a long time. Yes! I would think. I am not my body! But what is my body if not my soul made manifest? The woman in me is so quick to deny that I have a body, especially in moments when it betrays me: the bloating of my fishbelly, the twitching of my eye, the trembling of my child voice.
When I first realized I was experiencing panic attacks, I tried to control my body. I would run until I couldn’t notice my breath racing, pick off all the skin of my lips until they bled, take expired Advil PM to pretend I could sleep at night. But I felt my heartbeat in every moment: standing in line at a grocery store buying canned goods for a pandemic, sitting in a desk chair typing endless words, lying on the couch watching news stories that gutted my chest. My heart was banging out a prayer my mouth couldn’t utter. Oh God, I am afraid. There is no room for God when anxiety is a whirlpool flowing ever downward. I was too alive, too aware of everything in my body.
I went to a doctor, who gave me a prescription and recommended therapy. I saw a therapist for a few months, wanting to benefit more from it, wishing I had more visible signs of mental illness, wondering if some part of me would always be unseen, a river rushing without witness.
I want to shed off stress and sickness like a snake, climb out of the pit of what-ifs that writhe around me. When do I ever know a thought that isn’t panic? I am a car humming in a closed garage, waiting for me to suffocate myself. I am a baby waking alone in the night, warbling for its mother. I wait with patience for the flowers to bloom, for the river to melt. I learn to mother myself, to examine my body and mind and say you’re thirsty, drink this or you’re anxious, let’s go for a walk, let’s write, let’s breathe. I find flowers along the river path, crepe white petals with yellow centers like egg yolks. If I were a flower, I think, I might be this one. One I cannot name but that exists regardless.
Isn’t it funny how most humans seem to agree that nature is a woman? I remember reading about Gaia in a book of Greek myths, her hair a swirling green that fell across the swell of her earth body, bisected by rivers and pools of water. I wondered whether she could feel me walking on her ground, the first woman to flower and water and wither.
I think of the few earth women of my religion: Heavenly Mother, Eve—two sides of societal femininity, too holy or too sinful, blamed or barely named. I think of how we hide these women behind veils of sacredness, as though we might ruin Her by speaking of Her. Does a bird ruin silence by singing into the air? Does a river ruin earth by running through it? I want to know the bird that Heavenly Mother created, the bird that Eve named, but I have no language for the landscape around me, within me, within Them. Can any exist in my mind if I don’t? I cry Mother, Mother in my prayers, hoping She will answer, that when I am still, I will know that She is God.
Do I ever know? I remember being asked do you feel you lack because you are a woman? and I said no. I remember being told you are blessed because you are slow to anger, and I said thank you. But shouldn’t I have been angry? Isn’t anger the right of every woman who ever walked alone beside a frozen river? Where are the raging women, teaching me to continue down paths that are often unforgiving, whispering we are here, we are here?
When I was twelve, I went to a camp for a weekend. The camp trip was just me and the other girls from my church in the backyard of my aunt and uncle’s house. The land around their house was always a bit wild: overgrown grass, giant flowering bushes that I could later call bougainvilleas, oaks draped in Spanish moss that blanketed the ground in shadows. A sky full of unpolluted stars that seemed more than stars, and at the back, a little lake.
On our last night, we sat around a campfire, watching the smoke and sparks disappear, feeling the too-near warmth but not wanting to move away into the darkness where mosquitoes lay in wait. Just a ring of women, young and old, sharing stories and lovely words of God and hope and faith that I wasn’t sure I knew how to believe. I wanted to believe in God, but God was the flowers I couldn’t name, the words written by other men, the water babbling songs I couldn’t understand.
When my turn to speak came, I said the only words I could—life is beautiful—and then I sobbed. I don’t know why. I am naturally quick to cry, but some dam in my heart came undone and overflowed that night. Rivers rarely run dry. I always thought that I was made of earth, but now I think maybe I am made of water.
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