To “Find the River” And Then to Cross It – An R.E.M. Reflection on Immigration

A photograph of an El Salvadoran father and his small child face-down and washed ashore on the edge of the Rio Grande has quickly haunted the minds and hearts of many here in the US and abroad. It intensifies the already tense debate on immigration and the ethics of how to treat so many who seek to come to this country in hopes of a better life.

That father and daughter were embraced in each other’s arms when they washed ashore. He was 25 years old. She was 2. The mother saw them succumb to the waters of the running river.

An NPR report on the local radio station as I was driving home with my youngest child today was desperately trying to objectively discuss the story surrounding this stunning photograph while preserving its humanity. That’s a very hard thing to do.

That image of the river will probably stay in my mind for days.

As a high school English teacher, I try to highlight the use of symbols, tropes, and motifs. I ask students to constantly find repeating images and the repetitive use of objects and actions that extend far beyond the physical and apparent.

I ask them to look for rivers and bodies of water: the Mississippi in Huck Finn, the creek that frames Of Mice & Men, the rushing river waters in As I Lay Dying, the Congo in Heart of Darkness, the frozen sea in Frankenstein. Water can take a character to safety, offer baptism, give cleansing. It can also bring devastating floods and show nature’s power over humankind.

And then there are songs – poems set to music. Many times I will have students explicate the meaning of a favorite song, one that has personal relevance. Poets and songwriters tend to be able to talk of stark realities while exploring their effects on the Everyman. That’s why I reread them or listen to songs repeatedly throughout life.

“Find the River” has always been one of those songs that allows for me to actively reflect on my ever-growing past. Slow, melodic, and methodic, “Find the River” almost seems like a lullaby for the end of a long day that spans years. Fittingly, it is the last song of the album Automatic for the People.

Listening to that NPR report a few hours after seeing that photograph online, I thought of this particular R.E.M. song. Much like the “ocean is the river’s goal,” reaching this country was the goal of that nuclear family and still is the goal for so many who want to live a different life, one that allows them to build pleasant memories with others that will become fodder for reflection.

But the obstacle for these two (and so many others) is not in “finding” the river; it’s in crossing the river and knowing that the other side of the river may not be welcoming. The river in R.E.M.’s song seems to be a channel to wash into the great expanse of the ocean and the hereafter, where all eventually “empty to the tide.” Maybe it is the wish of the song’s narrator that in life one gets to live fulfilled with few regrets, but no matter what happens in life, we all will go “to the ocean.”

However, for these two that flow through life was cut short.

I cannot in any way place myself in the shoes of people whose lives are filled with just surviving – with just “finding the river” and then to find that the river is unforgiving and is a boundary meant to keep them out and apart from.

My life has been one of “privilege” where I get to live by the river and wade through it whenever I choose.

That father and daughter will never get “to pick up and chase the ride.” That alone should make us as a country think more about building more bridges of promising and effectual immigration policies for those whose sole aim is to “find the river” –  especially in this “Christian” republic.

Because whether we are privileged or “weary,” we will all eventually go with the tide.


Find the River” from Automatic For The People

Hey now, little speedy head
The read on the speed meter says
You have to go to task in the city
Where people drown and people serve
Don’t be shy
Your just deserve
Is only just light years to go

Me, my thoughts are flower strewn
Ocean storm, bayberry moon
I have got to leave to find my way
Watch the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
Nothing is going my way

The ocean is the river’s goal
A need to leave the water knows
We’re closer now than light years to go

I have got to find the river
Bergamot and Vetiver
Run through my head and fall away
Leave the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
Nothing is going my way

There’s no one left to take the lead
But I tell you and you can see
We’re closer now than light years to go
Pick up here and chase the ride
The river empties to the tide
Fall into the ocean

The river to the ocean goes
A fortune for the undertow
None of this is going my way
There is nothing left to throw
Of Ginger, lemon, indigo
Coriander stem and rose of hay
Strength and courage overrides
The privileged and weary eyes
Of river poet search naivete
Pick up here and chase the ride
The river empties to the tide
All of this is coming your way