Forward Paddle

“The water will go from black;

to dark blue;

to blue;

to light blue.

Then white.

Just beyond that white is where you’ll find oxygen.

That’s when you’ll wanna breathe.”

This is what our guide is telling us right before we careen down the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall, Tutea Falls on the Kaituna River.  We were quickly debriefed before departure, about how to curl up into a ball–should you fall out of the boat or should the boat tip over.

“Don’t try and swim because it won’t work,” he said.

As we neared the roaring edge, I said a whole lot of expletives silently said to myself as if in prayer.  Then the boat went vertical.  Because the boat went vertical, we all tipped out in slow motion.  People and paddles were airborne then we all splashed and churned like helpless rats in gushing water.

Then it was dark.

I curled into a tight ball, knees in front of me.  I didn’t try and swim, I just resigned to the magnificent strength of the powerful water as it thrashed, swirled and gurgled us like turds down a gigantic toilet.  Black, dark blue, blue, light blue.  Holding my breath, I waited for what was next, hoping it was white foam, wondering how long it would take before I got to the oxygen.

Before the rough rapids, during a slow part, our guide made light conversation, “So.  What’s everybody doing here in New Zealand?”

We all looked at each other, trying to establish who would speak up first.  It was a complicated response for nearly everyone in the raft.  When no one was quick to answer I just said, “I think we’re all still asking ourselves that very same question.”

A few nights before the year’s end, I dreamt of riding front row, on a wooden train-like roller coaster.  I was wearing a blindfold but somehow managed to see through it.  I even wore a seat belt.  But when I looked back at the train-like roller coaster trailing behind me, I was startled and confused to see that it wasn’t even on a track.  We were just gliding, floating with the curves and turns of the landscape.  Yet it didn’t matter; whether or not it had a track had no bearing on the fact that I was on it and it was forging ahead at high speed.  As soon as I awoke, the lesson was not lost on me: let go, trust and try not to worry about that which doesn’t concern you.   Perhaps maybe even try and enjoy yourself from time to time, you’re safe in your seat belt.

The truth is, I didn’t even really want to go rafting.  I got roped into it and actually tried to say no but no one was going to let that happen.  I came to terms with the fact I was going whether I liked it or not by deciding that the whole thing would be a metaphor for my life right now.  What better way to start off the new year, than with a terrifying adventure?  One where you’re barely aware of the dangers, barely even conscious of the risks, one where you must sign on the dotted line waiving your own rights in the matter.

I could have easily cried as we paddled toward that drop off but there was no point.  No turning back, I had no choice but to dig that paddle in.  At that moment no one else seemed to exist except those people in the raft with me and the man guiding us, yelling for us to “Forward paddle, forward paddle, forward paddle!”  I wasn’t thinking about anything else in that moment, not the twenty-one foot drop ahead, not the roaring waterfall, not the exotic surrounding vegetation, not even how terrified I was.  My whole being was tuned into my yellow paddle, the motion of rowing.

By concentrating on the task at hand, I was letting go of my fear.  What I see now, though, is that not only was I letting go of my fear, but I was moving forward, propelling myself and the others in my raft.  Even though I was in the front row and couldn’t see anyone but the tattooed Aussie beside me, I knew I wasn’t alone.  We all worked together toward the big plunge, not knowing if we were going to succeed and resurface in tact, or fail and tip over.  I did all I could: I paddled forward and hoped for the best.

Seth Godin, author, teacher and creative extraordinaire says we all have a lizard in our brain.  “…the little (but powerful) part of your brain that lives in fear will do what it can to hurt you.”  (That’s from his ShipIt pamphlet) It’s the part of us that says we can’t.  And so we don’t.  Because we’re afraid to fail or get hurt.  In my case, the lizard in my brain isn’t little.  It’s living large and until recently it’s been totally and completely in charge.

Had my lizard had her way, I would have bailed.  I would have opted to get out of the raft or I would have never gotten on in the first place.  I wouldn’t have experienced that fear, never communed with powers beyond myself and I would have missed the whole thrilling metaphor.

While I knew rafting would be a metaphorical experience, I didn’t know how profound a lesson it would be.

Against your will you’re on a quick moving river, about to face some fierce rapids and the highest rafted waterfall in the world.  The guy who’s job it is to keep you safe asks, What is it you’re doing here in New Zealand?  You can’t answer.  You’re scared.  All you can think of is, Not this.

I blew off the question like a coward because it wasn’t one I could easily sum up.  I couldn’t respond without really telling him my whole life’s story.  I couldn’t decide which answer would fit best, there were so many.

Because I have a failed marriage (?)

Because I didn’t want to go “home” to the States yet (?)

Because it hurts to face my failures (?)

Because I wanted to feel what it was like to get as far away from everything as possible (?)

Because I hoped the landscape would heal me (?)

For solace (?)

To write a book.

To make something.

To make something of myself.

To decide what it is I want in this life.

To figure it out.

Follow love.

All of the above.

Instead of answering his question, I had to crack a joke.  Responding truthfully would have required both more explanation than I wanted to give as well as a potential admittance of stuff I’d rather not admit.

Maybe the answer is this:

I’ve come here to get over myself.

I’ve come here to get over stuff that scares me.

I’ve come here to learn how to let go.

Much to my surprise, I am learning that letting go happens in baby steps.  Sometimes you have to force yourself to take plunges you’d rather not.  I left a job of nearly ten years, sold my nice Mercedes, gave away all the stuff I could and freight-shipped the rest to a country I’d never been to.  This all equates to “black” or Scary Step number 1.  “Dark blue” or Scary Step number 2 consisted of all the adjusting I had to do upon arrival.  Accepting the transition, the uncertainties, the failures or the things I regret.  Then there’s the grieving that comes when you leave one life for the next, when you realize you’ve abandoned part of your identity in the process of leaving where you’ve been and all you’ve known for some time.

That’s the emotional side.  Then there’s the practical side of things that make it seem as though you’re moving backwards, without progression.  No longer are you driving a dependable nice car but a dirty 1988 Nissan Sentra with no power steering, a left-hand gear-shift and a right-side drive.  You have to learn how to drive on the other side of the road and remember which way to look first–right, not left–at every stop sign.  Merely crossing the street might mean the difference between life-or-death.  You come close to death more than once.  You have to wash dishes by hand because you have no dishwasher.  For reasons beyond your knowing you need to learn to be okay with pooping in public toilets.  You have to skip Christmas with your family for the first time ever because you can’t afford to get home.

Baby steps.  Ascending through various shades of blue while holding your breath.

As I write this, right now, a dear friend sends me two strikingly relevant quotes:

“A fish cannot drown in water. A bird does not fall in air. Each creature God made must live in its own true nature.” (Mechthild of Magdeburg)

“Part of the blessing and challenge of being human is that we must discover our own true God-given nature. This is not some noble, abstract quest but an inner necessity. For only by living in our own element can we thrive without anxiety. And since human beings are the only life form that can drown and still go to work, the only species that can fall from the sky and still fold laundry, it is imperative that we find that vital element that brings us alive… the true vitality that waits beneath all occupations for us to tap into, if we can discover what we love. If you feel energy and excitement and a sense that life is happening for the first time, you are probably near your God-given nature. Joy in what we do is not an added feature; it is a sign of deep health.”  (Mark Nepo on Mechthild)


In reading these quotes, it has officially been brought to my attention why I am here.  To learn to ‘live in my own element.’
Sometimes, that element is a wooden train-like roller coaster without a track.  Sometimes it’s a Mercedes, sometimes a dirty old squeaky Nissan.  Sometimes the element might take the form of a raft.
Forward paddle, forward paddle, forward paddle.
Let go let go let go.
Don’t try and swim because it won’t work.
When it’s the darkest remember you’re wearing a life vest, you’re not alone and there’s a guide in the raft with you.
It’ll go like this:
dark blue,
light blue then bubbles.
Just beyond that, you’ll resurface, breathe and be really surprised to see a guy in a red kayak right there waiting, making sure you haven’t drowned.  He calls out to you, You alright?  He tells you to swim his way.  You manage to swim over to where he is.  (Where had he been this whole time?  How had you not seen him?)  Choking a bit, still treading water for dear life, you’ll wonder if you’re out of danger yet when the guy in the red kayak says, “Swim toward the cave!”  What cave?  You look to where he’s pointing.  There’s a cave.  You make your way over.  “Kick kick kick,” he hollers, “Kick HARD!”  The current is rough but you get to the cave.  Everybody does.  The guy in the red kayak yells at us, “Can you stand up now?”  Sure enough, you’re shocked to find that yes, you can.  So you do.  We all do.
Then we get back in the boat and head down the next waterfall.

3 thoughts on “Forward Paddle

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