Friday, August 03, 2007

Paddling with the tide

Why is it that when something wakes you up at 4 am, no matter what it is, everything feels soul-crushingly terrible? Is it the dark? Is it the hour of the morning? When it feels like the entire universe, save you, is still and sound asleep and peaceful? Is it the quiet?

It dissipates with sunrise. That's always how it is. Nothing feels as insurmountable when the day arrives. Sometimes all you can do is force yourself not to lose your shit, and to just wait for morning. And breathe. And then the sun rises and the cold fear subsides, and you can organize your thoughts in a positive way. Suddenly everything is more manageable.

I cannot even remember what woke me. But I jerked out of a dream heavy, breathless, my eyes searching wildly in the dark. The first thing I thought of was a phone number.

My friend Andrew called my parents' house last night, and they called me to give me his number. He's an old Peace Corps friend of mine and we caught up several years ago for the first time since saying goodbye at the Lima airport years ago. During the time we were out of contact, it wasn't that he was ever out of my life; he just wasn't in it. If that makes sense.

Anyway, he emailed yesterday, and apparently the tone of my response made him want to talk to me, to know for certain I was fine. And he'd lost my cell phone number. When we were chatting he listed the two numbers he had for me. The 202 one that he rattled off went straight to my stomach; it's B's number. Long deleted from my cell, but not from my mind.

And so, in the blind panic of a 4 am awakening, massive responsibility and regret suffocate me. I should've this. I should've that. My mind is filled with horrible should haves and could haves. One leads to another. To another. To some I've never even thought of before. I have a litany of things I've done wrong, mistakes I've made, decisions I would re-do in a heartbeat.

And then I start thinking about the story Andrew told me last night about paddling through the Everglades. He takes a week-long camping trip there every year, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.

He said that it's too easy to get up every morning and drive to work, and go to the gym every day because you need to stay fit, and go to the movies every other Wednesday, and watch Jon Stewart every night, and catch up with the same friends, friends you dearly love, every Friday, and do your grocery shopping Saturday mornings. . .

You see where I am going with this. Sometimes you need to shake things up. To remind yourself that the universe is vast and life is short. And travel, particularly when you travel alone, teaches you so many things about yourself and the world.

(I didn't say why camp alone somewhere that they might never even find the alligator that ate you to fish out your remains?) I said I would be flat out terrified to go to the Everglades alone, much less camp there for a week. Andrew reminded me that I'm strong. And that I have traveled plenty alone, and I realize how empowering it is. But the truth is, I'm strong but not that strong.

Where am I going with this meandering missive? Here is where I'm headed.

He said that when you canoe in the Everglades you have to paddle with the tide. You go in with the tide; you come out with the tide.

He wanted to get to a particular spot. And when he sat down with maps and tide charts, he realized that in order to get in and out with the tides, he couldn't paddle both ways in the light. Either in or out would be in pitch dark. For where he wanted to go, those were the options. He decided to canoe in in the dark.

He managed both in and out with no problem. It was fantastic, although he had a momentary crisis when pulling up against what he thought was a mud bank but turned out to be an enormous alligator. Who promptly swam away. But holy shit!

Anyway. He decided to go to the same spot the following year. He had a GPS, and he knew all the coordinates from before. And it was fine until he second guessed himself. He stopped to check, turned on his lamp, temporarily blinding himself (in the pitch dark!) and didn't realize his canoe got turned around. So for a while he was paddling the wrong way. It all wound up fine. But there was a lesson learned.

And so this morning, when I awoke hyperventilating, skin pricklingly hot, arm hair standing on end, and berating myself for poor choices, and reminding myself to breathe, and breathe some more, the phone number led to Andrew led to the Everglades. And to paddling with the tide.

And what I realized is that I think I've finally learned to do that. For a long, long time I was either stuck swirling along with the current, whichever current was strongest, or battling against it. I didn't realize you could pick your current and paddle with it, and it would make things smoother along the way.

I'm not talking about taking the path of least resistance. I'm talking about figuring out the paths that work for you, the ones you like, and then paddling with them. And sometimes you have to paddle in pitch dark and trust that you have made the right decision.

It's not that my 4 am existential crisis burst immediately into chirping birds and rainbows. Far from it. But I did have a little epiphany. I have, slowly slowly, been choosing paths that I like. Ones that come naturally to me and make me happy.

Of course, sometimes I capsize, and come up sputtering and splashing. Every once in a while I am terrified of drowning. But more and more I think I am paddling with the tide.


  1. Oooohhh, I love this story. Paddle with the tide, a fantastic epiphany.

    Watch out for alligators, too.

  2. What a lovely and truthful post, Lisa! Life is full of coulda, woulda, shoulda's. But I believe every decision taken - and not taken - is the right one because it teaches us something new about ourselves.

  3. Your revelation reminds me of Sun Tzu:
    "The formation of life is like water. The water's formation avoids the high and rushes to the low. So life's formation avoids the insurmountable and rushes to the surmountable. Water's formation adapts to the ground when flowing. So then life's formation adapts to obstacles to achieve victory. Therefore, life does not have constant force, or have constant formation. Those who are able to adapt and change in accord with obstacles and achieve victory are called divine. Therefore, of the five elements, none a constant victor; of the four seasons, none has constant position; the sun has short and long spans; and the moon waxes and wanes."
    (for us non-military minds, "army"="life" and "enemy" = "obstacles.")

    Nicely written. Sublime epiphany. Divine.

  4. HKW - Thank you! I should've thought about that - there's always the running into alligators (or warthogs!) possibility!

    G&D - I'm not as unwavering as you are in the belief that choices made are the right ones. But I'd like to be.

    Jordaan - Thank you, my friend. That's so lovely.

  5. This is an interesting metaphor. It didn't remind me of Sun Tzu, though. It reminded me of Musashi's Book of 5 rings.

    "In the construction of houses, choice of woods is made. Straight un-knotted timber of good appearance is used for the revealed pillars, straight timber with small defects is used for the inner pillars. Timbers of the finest appearance, even if a little weak, is used for the thresholds, lintels, doors, and sliding doors, and so on. Good strong timber, though it be gnarled and knotted, can always be used discreetly in construction. Timber which is weak or knotted throughout should be used as scaffolding, and later for firewood."

    Meaning that everyone has some useful purpose in life, if they make the best use of their strengths and weaknesses.

  6. Brilliant. Revealing. Deeply personal. Inspiring.

    Thank you.

    Oh: and it's true. I'd vouch for you.

  7. Your writing is getting more wonderful by the week. I've been very impressed...

  8. HIN - Interesting, and I think it is true that you have to find best use of your strengths and weaknesses to figure out your place.

    Justin - Thanks, thanks so much.

    Anon - What a lovely thing to say. I appreciate it.


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