07/07/2014 04:30 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2014

A Slender Tether Between Us

Torrential rains hit the Midwest last week, turning some of the roads here in Dubuque into small rivers. Someone posted a picture of a man kayaking down East 22nd Street. A truck waited at an intersection in the background, suddenly domesticated, turned into a bystander, strangley hesitant and uncertain in this world become strange.

We stand, mouths agape, at such scenes, of places so familiar that they seem inviolate, incapable of changing. And yet, in a moment, they do transform, they become strangers to us; they act like chaos, devouring great chunks of normalcy, of routine, swallowing them like a swollen river swallows the banks that would otherwise seem to define its boundaries.

The weather channel warns that most flash flood fatalities occur in cars that are swept away by as little as one foot of water. A report comes over the media that a teenage boy has been swept down a storm sewer, in a city not far from here.

"How," I wonder, "did that happen?"

Of course, we can guess: fascination with the awful, the awesome ferocity of waters suddenly released. . . .

I was not immune. Stranded in the house for one too many hours, the rain having died down, I asked if anyone wanted to venture out, and got one hardy volunteer, my three-year-old son, Gabriel.

So we hopped into the compact car, even though I thought perhaps the minivan would be a better choice. I don't have a kayak so, of course, that's not an option.

Drove down to the Dubuque River Walk, alongside the Mississippi, to get a first hand glimpse of the river itself, how high it was. It was still within its banks, and that was a comfort. But it was high, lapping up against the highest step of the gazebo built to overlook the river.

It seems like the rising of waters, like the howling of winds, the way natural disasters transform or savage our worlds, is something that will always captivate us. It signals that we are still sojourners in this world, that our human citizenship does not render us immune to our earthly habitation, its groans and eruptions.

But I wonder if the idea of kayaking down the street testifies to our belief that we can turn every chaos into a conveyance, that somehow we believe, through ingenuity and adaptation, we can overcome the river that would overcome us. Maybe.

Alas, such thoughts are too deep for me . . . for me and Gabriel, that is. Standing in the rain, Gabriel complains, "I'm cold!"

"Me too," I say. "Let's get back in the car, where it's warm. . . ."

And so we run, protected for the moment by a river held in check by civil engineering, domesticated for human consumption. Gabriel holds my finger as we run back to the car -- a slender tether between us, nothing compared to the forces around us, and yet, at the same time, far more powerful than all of these.

I think of Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam, the iconic image of the hand of God and the hand of Adam reaching, almost touching, across a watery expanse.

As we cross the parking lot, a woman drives up in a truck, pulls up as close as she can, to see the river, to watch it, from the supposed safety of her vehicle.

Thrilled by it, perhaps.

And warned.