I’ve never been in a kayak before. I’ve been curious– it seems like the Latest Thing these days, and I like water. I’ve been on canoe trips, one mild-white water trip in Reno, and a rowboat or two. So Larry signed us three up for a 3 hour kayak trip down the Platte River last Sunday just for fun. (The music kept playing in my head–“a three hour tour….”)
How hard could it be? I see the Platte nearly every day; driving or biking across bridges that span it. Around our area, it’s known to be very shallow. It has a sandy bottom, and during periods of draught there are areas where it’s completely dry.
Having been on a white water tour in Reno and a couple with youth groups over the ministry years, I remember there always being a guide; someone to tell us what to do and how to do it, and many times they were in my boat. I think that’s what I was picturing– at the very least someone leading us down the river to tell us when to stop!
Did I mention I’ve never been in a kayak? And I’ve never been in any boat on the Platte River. The others who gathered for our time slot were clearly more experienced than we were. They had waterproof bags to carry cell phones, and they carried small coolers of water and beer. Oh! We didn’t think there’d be room in the kayak for anything but our bodies.
At least we remembered the sun screen.
It was meant to be a family fun activity, but Sarah was first, then me, then Larry– getting into our boats. By the time I got situated, Sarah was long gone. I also– being a bit nervous about my kayaking skills and eager to prove them– quickly got out of Larry’s sight. It wasn’t long before I got stuck on sandbars, which were many, and had to push my way off of them. I began to dread that sandy, scrunching, plastic-against-sand sound as I came to another standstill in shallow water. Getting out and pushing the boat out proved to be like standing in quicksand, as the bottom of the river is deep, shoe-sucking sand.
I tried to keep Larry in my sights behind me, but he, too, kept getting stuck, and the mild current was strong enough to keep me moving forward even when I wasn’t paddling. I caught up to Sarah once or twice, but again, getting stuck, she paddled out of my view. I was doing quite well, actually; my arms were sore, but in that way that you knew at the end of the day you’d feel like you actually DID something and your body would sleep quite deeply.
The guide (who was never actually on the water with us) told us when we set out to always bear to the left. But at one point, I came upon a fork and looked to the left. Trees hung very low over the water, and the branches didn’t look like I could duck low enough to get under. At the same time as this critical moment of doubt, the current was stronger and my kayak was being pushed to the RIGHT side of the fork. Ok. No problem. Deep breath. So I paddled. And paddled. Until it began to look like I was heading into a dead end, a watery cul-de-sac. That was when I made a bad decision. If I’d just stayed in the boat, I would have discovered that the dead end was not, in fact, a dead end, but went around to the left and hooked up with the branch that I decided against following. All would have been well. Slight detour. No worries! But alas, I had a brief moment of panic. So instead of going forward, I decided to go back to the fork and go to the right instead of the left.
Easier said than done.
The current was strong enough to deter me from this. I got out of the boat–sunk in the shoe-sucking sand– and tried to push my boat against the current. After just a few feet of progress, I was out of breath. (Did I mention I have asthma? Did I mention that I DIDN’T bring my rescue inhaler? After all, in normal life I never have to use it…) I had to stop and stand still against the current, clutching the kayak. I tried to move forward again. My chest got tight, my lungs burned, and I started to feel dizzy. In the distance, I saw the last group of kayakers (who had paused on a small beach to drink their beer) go right at the fork. I was saved! I waved to them, hoping someone would come to help me. They kept paddling. I kept waving until all of them had passed out of sight.
My thought was No one is going to save you.
At first I was angry. They HAD to have seen me, I was right in their line of vision. But they seemingly ignored me. Then I realized that if I let myself go on with that initial indignant anger, it would take up more energy than I had at the moment. The only choice I had was to keep doing what I was doing. Anger wouldn’t help me. I sat down on a log sticking up out of the water and held onto the kayak, to catch my breath. I put on the life jacket that was in the boat, just in case. I took deep breaths. Don’t panic. Don’t scold yourself for not being better prepared. You have to deal with what you have.
Once I felt like I caught my breath, I pushed the kayak, sludged through the sand and made it to the fork. The current was still against me, trying to push me back. I paused again to breathe. Once I got into the boat the current immediately pushed me into some tall, long reeds and grass, but I was able to push my way out and get into the current that went down the branch I’d previously ignored.
I laid the paddle across my lap and just drifted, gulping in the air and whispering a quiet thank you.
I didn’t see anybody ahead or behind me and as I kept paddling slowly, allowing the current to carry me, I realized how alone I was. I saw a blue heron fly overhead and I watched its impressive wings spread above me, gliding and dancing in the air. I smiled. I felt completely alone, but I didn’t panic. I thought, you have no idea where you are, you don’t know if you passed the stopping point, and no cell phone.
But I felt strangely calm. For which I said another thank you. Larry and Sarah often tease me about how because I’m from New Jersey I know how to “adjust,” because it’s a line in the song, “I’m From New Jersey.” It’s kind of a joke precisely because in the past I’ve had plenty of moments that I’ve panicked or did NOT adjust well to what was going on.
However, I had a long stretch of river where I had no idea where I was going or if I was going to end up in Lincoln or some other state, or get out and find a road to flag somebody down to help me… and I realized a lot of things.
No one is going to rescue you.
For a lot of my early life and early adulthood I thought I needed rescuing. Mostly from men. I was convinced that I was too weak, too sensitive, too “unprepared” to do things on my own. I was stupid. Helpless.
But I’m not. Even as I achieved a lot of things throughout my life, there was still that underlying self-doubt and sometimes self-loathing. Voices in my head saying You can’t do this. You’re weak. You too emotional. You’re too intense. Too, too, too…
As I took breaks, and let the kayak carry me, I put my fingers in the water, letting them drift across the surface. Or splashed my face with river water. I felt an overwhelming peace. And in influx of memories. Of when I DID overcome. When I did big things, even when the anxiety threatened to consume me, or people who were supposed to love me kept saying, but you can’t! you can’t! I did things. I moved halfway across the country. Alone. Because of a crazy notion that God was leading me that way. Even pastors back East said, you’re crazy! Why would God lead you to do that?
And yet coming to Nebraska was like the John Denver song, “he came home/to a place he’d never been before/he left yesterday behind him/you might say he was born again…” I did that.
No one is going to rescue you.
I went through a lot in pastoral ministry. During the hardest of times, I did want someone to rescue me. To say, “yes, you’ve been wronged, let’s make it right.” But life doesn’t happen that way, as we see time and time again in much bigger issues and situations. I had to figure it out. No one could tell me what the right answer was, or the right direction. I was fortunate to have Larry drop into my life, a man who believes that women are human beings with gifts and not inferior at all to men. His gentle, gracious love in my life provides space for healing and growth. But he has never tried to rescue me.
You are your mother’s daughter.
I smiled and talked out loud to God in the loneliness of the river. My mother was a warrior. She and I weren’t as close as I wanted, but she had so many battles in her life to fight. I realized, too, in the quietness of the water and the heat of the sun, that my mother was enormously strong to be able to live the life she lived. To keep finding ways to use her gifts without being shut down. She struggled a lot, too, with depression and anxiety, but through that, she soldiered on. Sometimes she crumbled. But then she got up and embraced life and went after it with intensity and passion. I didn’t always give her credit for that, because I didn’t think she should have had to fight so hard for her life. But it was what it was. My father was not as liberated as my husband is. And she found her way to share her joy and faith in the ways that she could.
I have her toughness in me. I realized that again. Or maybe I didn’t fully know that before. My father didn’t like emotion, so both my mother and I alarmed him with all our intensity of emotions. But emotions aren’t wrong. They aren’t weak.
My mother was not weak.
She was a warrior.
I. Am a warrior.
Life doesn’t have to be so scary. The Church and I are separated, likely divorced, but that doesn’t mean I have lost my way. God smiled on the river. I was so alone. And yet not. I had no idea how the day would end, how the stories I would inevitably tell would play out. Not knowing was suddenly ok.
The pains of the past, that sometimes get triggered awake again, are still there. But they don’t define me. I had to tell them in order to heal. I still do. But not as often. And not in the same way.
One, two, three bridges. How many bridges did the guide say we’d pass? I couldn’t remember. Or maybe I didn’t hear him because I am hard of hearing. My arms and neck were aching, but I’d managed to find a rhythm to the rowing, discovered how to see any sand bars ahead of me and maneuver around them without getting stuck.
I started humming “The River” by Garth Brooks. “and I will sail my vessel/till the river runs dry/like a bird upon the wind/these waters are my sky/I’ll never reach my destination/if I never try/so I will sail my vessel till the River runs dry/there’s bound to be rough waters/and I’m sure to take some falls/but with the good Lord as my captain/I’ll make them through it all…”
No one is going to rescue you. But it’s ok. You don’t need to be rescued. You got this. You always did.
I sensed my mother. The woman who dug up enough large slabs of rock in the Poconos to build a rock wall around the perimeter of the property when in her 50s. With no help. The woman who loved to learn new things and to do new things and did all things well, it seemed. The woman who signed up for Pilates on her 80th birthday and did it regularly for the next 7 years. That stubborn, stubborn woman.
She would have done the kayaking trip if there was someone to go with her. And she probably would have forgotten the water too. But would have adjusted. And done it.
As I came to one more bridge, a flock of birds came flying out all at once, and I felt for a moment like I was on a Hitchcockian movie set, but once my vision recovered from the mass of feathers, I saw my husband and daughter waving frantically at me from the shore. I laughed. Of course they would be there to guide me in. Of course.
I was never really alone.