I dreamed the waves in the ocean got real big near an island. A bunch of us wanted to capitalize on the opportunity for fun. One guy asked, “How can we have the most fun?” I said, “Sure, there’s surfing, but ocean kayaking is a lot of fun. You paddle out over the crests of the waves and ride them back in.”
Water as a symbol is also so rich, you could write a thesis on it. (Maybe I should have written my thesis on it. Instead, DePaul University offered a chance to teach your way out of writing a thesis, and I opted to teach more writing classes.)
In dream theory, the conditions of the water (and your feeling in and about it) tell all. Is it clear or murky? Threatening or inviting?
Now I know it’s what you make of it.
Since my Outward Bound semester course in ’97 was such a life changer, it’s a constant reference point for me. I try not to bore friends and family with stories about wilderness survival, but, it’s hard, because these experiences were pivotal in my development.
There was a whitewater kayaking component in Costa Rica. Take eight young people (I was 23 years old at the time) who’ve never done physical challenges of this caliber, and surprising reactions to the challenges emerge. I loved kayaking. But I also took several beatings. We started practice in local swimming pools, then graduated to increasingly difficult rivers (lower Parrita, upper Parrita, Naranjo, Pacuare…) until we spent five days on Rio General.
The major skill to learn in whitewater kayaking is a roll. This takes a lot of core muscle, coordination, and presence of mind while you’re submerged, riding upside down in the fast-moving current, with rocks and other obstacles smacking you on the helmet—those are what create both the danger and the fun.
There’s something called a “strainer,” which is a fallen tree. It can be one of the most deadly dangers on the river, because if you land in it or on it and get entangled with water rushing over you, you become a permanent part of the scenery.
First you learn to roll in the swimming pool, then the ocean, then the river. If you succeed on the river, in whitewater, it’s called a “combat roll”—at least, that’s what we called it, cuz you do it while you’re live, in action. I did a couple of combat rolls on the river, usually after tumbling down rapids or losing control once I hit foam after going over a 14-foot waterfall. But this one time, I tipped over, and set up to do a roll; everything felt right, and I thought for sure I’d roll back up without having to do a “wet exit” (where you have to pull off your spray skirt and slip your body out of the kayak, swim to the riverbank, hopefully with your boat and paddle still in hand, empty gallons and gallons of water out of your kayak, then get back in, secure your tight neoprene skirt, and shove your kayak and yourself back into the cyclonic water). You count to three to get your bearings; set up your paddle perpendicular to your boat and high near your head, then SNAP your hips while pushing against the water. When the maneuver succeeds, it’s an awesome feeling. This time, I set up about three times, and then couldn’t hold my breath any longer.
When I came out, my team said they saw me setting up repeatedly, but I was caught in a giant standing wave.
I have unfinished business, and becoming a better whitewater kayaker is on the list of things I really, really wish I could do, but probably won’t have the chance to.
So, while there are lots of metaphors around water, the wave—particularly the standing wave—are floating in my mind today.
Have you ever been caught in a [metaphorical] standing wave? Do you know what it feels like to try, and try, and not progress? What do you do? You could also stop and play in a standing wave for a while…
My good friend Gene-Manuel recently posted a Thomas Edison quote on Facebook that I liked. The anecdote goes:
An assistant asked, “Why are you wasting your time and money? We have had failure after failure, almost a thousand of them. Why do you continue to pursue this impossible task?” Edison said, “We haven’t had a thousand failures, we’ve just discovered a thousand ways not to invent the electric light.”
Is discovering how not to do something, or how not to speak to someone, or how not to tie your shoes just as important as learning how to?
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”