by Erica Goss
An immense sound, between a roar and a hiss, seems to come from all around. Being near so much water, thousands of gallons per second plunging from the edge of a cliff, makes me dizzy. The waterfall’s presence is wild, anarchic: a million faucets turned on full blast.
I haven’t seen a waterfall in years—years in which life delivered a series of blows in quick succession: my father was found dead after having gone missing near the Olympic National Forest, my husband was laid off from his job, our son was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, and my mother-in-law died from Alzheimer’s and cancer. I had no preparation, no guidance, and no plan for those days—days that shook what little faith I had had. Reeling from crisis to crisis, I prayed a lot during those years, even though I’m not in any way religious. Desperate and unimaginative, my prayers always started with the word please. “Please help me get through this,” I said to no one in particular. “Please give me strength. Please.”
I did not grow up around waterfalls. I grew up in the deserts and near-deserts of Southern California: Yucca Valley, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles. In San Bernardino, our next-door neighbors were Pentecostal. Over the backyard fence, I often heard their voices in high-pitched glossolalia. Even though my family attended no church, I understood that the neighbors were praying.
Recently, in early autumn, I was having coffee with some people I’d just met from the East Coast, when one of them mentioned a nearby waterfall. “Have you seen this place?” he asked, peering at me over his café Americano. I shook my head, more than a little embarrassed. I’d lived in Eugene, Oregon, for over two years and had not yet visited a single one of the numerous nearby waterfalls. “Well!” he said. “You can walk behind the waterfall.”
The waterfall’s pure extravagance is almost too much for me to bear. So much water, so fast, so loud. My shoes slip on the wet path behind the waterfall as I stare at it, hard. My eyes pick out individual drops and follow them into the pool, which is so clear I can see moss-covered boulders far below the surface. For once, I don’t think about what I am about to do next. I simply stand, watching the giant curtain of water ripple in front of me.
A group of hikers passes me on the trail, glancing curiously over their shoulders. I must look ridiculous, head bobbing up and down as my eyes follow the drops from the top of the waterfall down to the pool and back. This is not the first time a waterfall has embarrassed me.
Even though I now live in water-rich Western Oregon, I’m still that kid from the desert. The anxiety of drought will never leave me. When I see people wasting water—someone leaving a faucet running while brushing their teeth, say—my throat constricts. I start praying, repeating “please” under my breath.
My son stands next to me, gazing at the waterfall. Now in his late twenties and a survivor of those turbulent years, he is learning how to live independently as a person with a disability. He recently discovered the power of chant to help calm and focus his mind, and started chanting at a local church. After a few weeks, a small group of men joined him. The group thrives on spontaneity: no one signs up in advance, and there are no rehearsals. My son chooses passages from the Psalms, makes copies the night before, and hands them out to whomever shows up the next day.
Chant is not song or speech. It’s both and neither. It has no rhythm, key, or harmony. It possesses the power to calm anxiety, increase positive energy, and focus the mind. When I hear my son chanting at home, I stop what I’m doing and just listen.
A small, hardy group, the men who attend my son’s chanting sessions are well past middle age. They accept the copies of the Psalms he hands them, bow their heads, and wait for the opening note. Even though their voices waver, rarely achieving unison, they don’t seem in the least bit self-conscious. Something about chanting with other men allows them to open their hearts, to ask for help, to say please, in a way men usually don’t.
Chant notation is called “neumes.” The earliest notation, from the ninth century, shows neumes written without staff lines above Latin text. The notes seem to drizzle down the page like drops of water.
The hikers pass by again, this time from the opposite direction. As before, they stare at me. I wonder if I should pray to the waterfall as if it were a god, but all that comes to mind is the word that started so many of my other prayers: please.
I stop wondering what I should do and just listen.