Reminder from a River

It feels like I am clinging to shore above a massive waterfall. My heart pounds against my life jacket, the paddle slips in my clammy hands, and my limbs have turned into silicone replicas which don’t make any promises to follow my brain’s commands. W in his bright orange canoe has already made the next move and sits in the eddy below the drop, looking up at me and wondering what the heck is holding me up.

Our friend Mike spins his canoe into the eddy next to me. “Well?” he asks, encouragingly.

“I’m done. I’m not going to do it. I’m getting out here.” I say, but don’t actually make a move to get out of my canoe.

“This would be the place to do it, if you’re taking out,” Mike says.

I look downstream at W, who pats the top of his helmet, the whitewater paddler’s sign language for, “Are you okay?” I consider giving him the proper response, returning the helmet tap. That would mean, “Yeah, I’m okay,” an accurate statement since floating safely in an eddy, however freaked out I feel, is pretty much the definition of being “okay” in whitewater.

Instead, I give him back a couple hand tilts, the international sign for “kind of” or, in this case, “Your wife has gone insane. She’s terrified of that tiny, insignificant drop you just paddled over.”

Anxiety does weird things to a person. Earlier, looking at the rapid from shore, I was joking when I called it a drop to myself. The elevation loss is about a foot. Maybe two. Just below me, the river narrows and big rock outcroppings constrict the options to one chute which forms a couple waves. Yes, the curling water could toss my boat and a hit at the wrong angle might fill up my open canoe. I could flip. But that’s about it for consequences. Beyond the drop is a mellow stretch where it would be easy enough to recover or swim into an eddy if necessary.

My perceptual apparatus is still intact—I can see that it is no deadly waterfall. I tell myself there is nothing dangerous about it. All I have to do is make a wide turn downstream to line up and take a few aggressive forward strokes to power through the waves and across the current into the eddy below. It’s an off-side move, which makes it more challenging and scarier. Even though I’ve made much harder moves in places with much bigger consequences, I think to myself, I really don’t want to do it.

I decide to get out. But the thought of giving up here doesn’t give me any of the expected relief. Before I even secure my boat to hop onto shore, I realize that once I’m out of my canoe without finishing the course, I’m likely done in my solo boat for the weekend. A worse sensation comes over me: that horrible feeling of giving into fear, which doesn’t feel safe at all.

Fortunately I remember just as vividly what it feels like to defy fear, what it will feel like to sit in that eddy next to W: happy, calm.

“I’m doing it,” I say to Mike and he gives me a big smile.

As I cross the eddy line into the current I have a moment to reflect that it’s never as scary to actually start making a move as it is to contemplate what could go wrong. Because all that is in my head right now is doing it right. “Drive, drive, drive!” I tell myself.

I’m safely in the eddy next to W, though “I did it” competes in my mind with “That was perilously close to disaster.” I settle on “That wasn’t so bad” as Mike joins us.

A slightly bigger drop and the most challenging slalom gates on the course are still below us, but ideas of giving up are gone. I have won the Battle of Bad Thoughts for today.

Where the current is strongest, I find myself making my most precise moves—surfing across waves on my off-side, carving tight S-turns, and making it through tough gates. I finally remember, “Hey, I can do this. I’m actually good at it.” Turns out, I’d somehow forgotten.

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