Anyone familiar with my history knows that water is central. As much as I have a great love of the ocean and find the water extremely healing, spending hours at a time in Maine near the ocean edge, it’s also been a source of great pain. Over the course of my life I have learned just how powerful water can be and how quickly life can change when you encounter water in a violent way, leaving its mark in ways that run currents deep within my very being that will flow through me for life.
Yet, there I was finding myself kayaking nine miles down the James River, not allowing that deeper fear of water to stop me from enjoying what I love most, just being outdoors and breathing in the air breathing through the surrounding forest, coupled with a refreshing splash of water with each dip of the oar pushing me forward. There are elements, though, that still arise that sense of fear and anxiety within me as I venture down the river. There’s something about keeping your eyes forward when you enter into an area of more rapid flow over the rocks, fearing getting caught up in the shallowness of the water and the rocky ground below.
It wasn’t far down the river when I found myself hitting one such area and getting hung up on a rock, unable to turn the kayak forward. The automatic response is one of fear and anxiety, as if going to tip over and falling into the water. I’m not sure why that would be such a fear knowing that it’s late summer and the water has a refreshing feel to the skin’s touch. Rather quickly, in trying to break myself free, the kayak tipped just enough to allow the water to begin to enter it; the flow coming directly into its opening. There was not much I could do to stop it, but without fear or any anxiety, I simply sat there and allowed things to happen as it was. The safest bet on the water is to not grow anxious in an anxious situation, even though it feels most natural.
It was then that I realized that I couldn’t do it alone. There was no “pull myself up by my bootstraps” in this situation, but rather the help of another was going to be required to dislodge me from the situation and set me free to further the journey down the river. All seems so simple after being dislodged but the experience of becoming hung up, the anxiety leading into that rapid, the letting go and allowing yourself to drift as you enter the experience, and knowing that the water has a mind of its own, allows you to recognize that much is out of our control and the help of others on the journey is a necessity.
There was a day when I would not have even considered going onto the river in that way. It became much easier to engage the river from the sidelines and simply “remember” what it was like during the days when I wouldn’t think twice about doing it. Sure some of it comes with age and wisdom, but for me it was that deeper sense of fear of what would happen to me and being turned upside down, out of my control, knowing that the river has a mind of its own, just as life often does. It’s easier to engage life from the sidelines and to simply be a judge of what’s going on. It is though a less fulfilling experience of kayaking and even life. Allowing ourselves to engage the fears and anxiety, even when it seems like the kayak is filling quickly around us, will always open us to being hurt but it’s the only way to experience life and love. The two accompany one another and even complement one another more than we can even begin to imagine.
As I’ve taken the time to reflect, and even laugh at, the experience on the James River, I think about how far I had come from that day back in October 2003 when I thought my life was coming to an end on the Youghiogheny River. The sense of panic at that time, along with tremendous fear of being trapped, had led me not only to great regrets in my life but has also opened the door to greater understanding of the human condition and how easily it is to no longer jump into the river and simply sit on the side wondering and regretting a life that could have been. It’s only in picking up the oar, jumping in the kayak, and even becoming lodged in the rocks, that reminds you that pain accompanies life and yet nowhere near the pain of loneliness that comes with disengaging from life and all it throws at us. With the help of others and a simple awareness of the real reality around us allows us to flow humbly down a river, enjoying every minute of it, and yet never becoming swallowed up by its great power.