Peace Like A River

Two weeks after Dominic was born, Mike announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.


In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if”. After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping merrily over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers, but they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

The Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos

(Update: In an irony of the sort you never want to live through, the day after I posted this my mother in law slipped on our stairs here in Laos and Dominic broke his femur. We are back in Laos now, but must return to Thailand for follow up in two weeks. Continued thoughts and prayers for good healing appreciated.)

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38 responses to “Peace Like A River

  1. that was really beautiful , and just what i needed to hear today as I grapple with my own fears. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Lis. 🙂

    It is helpful to remember that, when the 2 1/2 year old is afraid of the monsters and the 8 month old is teething…peace like a river isn’t silent.

    Love and miss you, Friend.

    • Monsters. Sigh. Teething. Sigh. I keep thinking D is teething but no teeth appear (which is good because he’s recently also taken to biting me). Sigh. Miss you too.

  3. Love it- I really like your reflections on what ‘Peace like a river’ actually means, and that a riverine peace is not still.

    Also your tale of being anxious over Mike’s bike-ride brought back a humorous memory of a 3-day ski mountaineering trip Aaron and I took in Canada a few years back. He and Kirstyn had been married about 18 months. We loaded the car and I was sitting out in the cold waiting for him to join me. We were heading up to the Rockies with our touring skis and big packs and would spend the 3 days ski-mountaineering wherever our hearts took us. We were both stoked.

    Aaron took a while joining me. When I quizzed him on his absence, he looked abashed and confessed that Kirstyn hadn’t let him go easily. Normally very calm, rational and pragmatic, Kirstyn had suddenly decided that Aaron was going to fall down a crevasse or get taken by an avalanche, and had all but begged him not to walk out of the door, convinced she would never see him again.

    To this day I’m not quite sure what triggered the outburst- after all, Aaron is perpetually off in the hills doing something adventurous, and Kirstyn is often with him. However when we were crossing glaciers and avalanche-prone slopes, we did rope ourselves together on that trip. The justification was as follows: If I fall down the crevasse, Aaron’s much bigger than me and will be able to haul me out. If Aaron falls down the crevasse, his bulk will drag me down with him, because there’s no way I’m going back to face Kirstyn alone…

  4. Well said. 🙂

  5. Thank you. Peace like a river… the river at our house looks muddy & is definitely approaching rapids… but I wont let fear be the boat that carries me along it. Love to you! 🙂

    • Yeah, rapids. I neglected to mention that the Mekong is divided by waterfalls that make the river un-navigatable by boat. I’m sure there’s something in that for some future post, though.

  6. Pingback: Say a prayer for Dominic | Lisa McKay Writing

  7. This reminds me of a story someone told me (I think she saw it in an interview on TV): a 100-year old woman was asked if she ever stopped worrying about her children. Her answer: when they had moved into a retirement home.
    This kind of fear won’t leave. So good to know that God is watching over us, and with us, whatever happens. You are so right. I want to turn toward gratitude instead of worry, too.

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  9. Thank you for this, Lisa. I just found your through Emerging Mummy carnival. I have always loved that hymn too but really hadn’t thought through the actual imagery of peace like a river. Really powerful. I’ll have to think through that in relation to the rivers that I grew up with and love.

  10. I love this post. I also found this blog through emerging mummy. I used to live in Thailand and have lots of friends in Southeast Asia. I’m dying to go to Laos. Do you ever eat at Joma?

  11. This was really beautiful. Thank-you. It’s so important to find peace even if it’s form has shifted.

    Stopping over from the Practices of Parenting Carnival (

    • Thank you. I’ve been trying to leave a comment on your own post but blogger hates me. We’ll see if it goes through. If not, here it is: “There is nothing like the feeling of that tiny hand grabbing yours and that happy sigh that follows, is there? Thanks for this post. So thoughtful, so … sensible. It can be so hard to remember to just trust your instincts though and not worry too much about self-sufficiency and routine when you’re being bombarded with advice.”

  12. I love this. I had never made the connection of what a river is really like, but you captured it perfectly, and added a much richer picture. Thank you so much for sharing. I am so happy to have found you through the Practices of Parenting Carnival. 🙂

  13. Absolutely beautiful, Lisa. I loved this line: “I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.” Amen and amen.

  14. Ha ha ha. Wish that pun was intended! I loved the entire piece!

  15. Love reading about a mother who is in my field AND has lived/is living overseas. I like the way you don’t try to eradicate fear, but learn to “listen” to it while not letting it take authority.

  16. Be the imagery, a better understanding of peace and what it can be for all of us. Very nice!

  17. Wow, I really never thought of that line that way before but you are so right….rivers have somewhere to go and with intention. What a beautiful descriptor of Peace.

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  19. I can so identify with this, the battle with fear – and for me, panic. I love the truth of Peace as a river – not still or calm necessarily. Thank you for sharing, and I will be praying for your son. My daughter broke her arm at 1 and it was one of the most stressful months of my life! Casts and kids, they don’t mix.

    • Thanks for reading. Yes, casts and kids, don’t mix at all. It’s so hard to see his little body weighed down by that plaster and he keeps tugging on it and screeching with frustration at some points. Of course, at other points he seems to forget anythings wrong, so I’m glad that he doesn’t seem to be in pain anymore. That’s a huge, huge, relief.

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