Though it was probably a millisecond, time stood still. I can't imagine how freaked out my Dad was afterwards, but during the swim to the shore, he was calm and in charge. We walked back through the woods to the lodge soaking wet, in bare feet, me in his arms.
From then on I had an aversion to water and to boats for a long time. My Mom put me in swimming lessons, which weren't successful. One swim instructor even had the gall to throw me in. I guess she figured survival would kick in or something and I would magically begin doing the front crawl. Can you imagine a swim instructor pulling that stunt now? No, structured swimming lessons were not for me. I felt such pressure to conform.....the anxiety created by these moments are still real to me as I remember them.
One summer, when I was around 8 years old.......the sun came out and stayed...........and stayed and stayed and stayed.......it was hot for three months straight. Consequently, the amount of times hanging around pools, beaches, and such increased........opportunity with no pressure offered me a summer of playing in the water. I started with my big toe and eventually could put my head under water.
I learned to float and to trust that I was going to be alright when it was at my own pace. Faith in the water.....found me when I wasn't looking for it and when it wasn't being forced on me.
Canoeing came along the following summer when I went to overnight camp at age 9 for the first time. On the first full day of activities, my group had signed up for canoeing and I had to go. I was terrified as I hung back hoping that I could figure out a way of keeping my feet firmly planted on the safe ground. As everyone paired up and grabbed their paddles, this friendly burly male camp counsellor nicknamed Onions (I don't know why ) approached me to see if I had a buddy. I told him that I was too afraid to go out in the canoe. I told him what had happened to me.
Somehow, he managed to encourage me into the bow.........with lots of soothing words and enthusiasm......as he pushed off the shore and slipped into the stern. Onions continued to talk and to ask me questions which made the first foray less monumental.......like we were just having a nice conversation while we had an adventure. Along the way, he showed me how to hold my paddle which increased my confidence. He talked about canoeing as a journey. A fun journey, if you just went with the flow. And I was fine.......my trust in the flow happened because of the trust I had in a leader with empathy.
Every morning, from that first day, Onions would seek me out during breakfast to ask me what activity period I was signing up for canoeing. Everyday, I signed up. Everyday, he took me out. Just me, and we would share the journey. One day, Onions paddled our canoe past the point which was the boundary for the canoe area.
He kept talking in his soothing voice as we turned the point, paddling out of sight of the camp shore. And there on a large rock jutting out of the lake was a Great Blue Heron, perched like he was waiting for us. We shushed and drifted and looked in awe of the Heron majestically still......a gift of faith. A life lesson in taking a risk and in stretching boundaries. Letting it flow.
Camp and I were a good fit. I loved it from the moment I set foot on the now very familiar path which led down to the girls tent line. I belonged. I felt safe. I made lifelong friends, and I always knew someone older was keeping an eye on me. Eventually, I grew to be the one who kept an eye. Eventually I grew up to be the Counsellor in charge of canoeing, mastering the art of paddling.............and finding a deep connection to the pull of the paddle through the water.
There is nothing more spiritually enhancing for me than a solo paddle in a canoe.....gunnels almost touching the surface of the water, leaning just right, slicing through the calm........the canoe and the water an extension of me. It only happens when you let go a bit.....when you don't try so hard........when you don't go looking for the perfect stroke. Just like religion. Just like faith.
Swimming has never been my forte, though I learned......sometimes pushing hard and forcing myself to learn how to master the strokes well enough to be considered as a camp counsellor. That was my goal. I even had a few mishaps in the water again....once being trampled by a bunch of enthusiasts running into the water while I was coming out. Pushed under, fighting the sandy swirling water in my face, pressure on my back by another.....I was saved quickly by Skip, the Camp Director, who knowing I wasn't a good swimmer had been keeping an eye on me vigilantly. He pulled me out by the scruff of my neck....swooped me up and out onto the beach in one move. This time, it didn't cause me such anxiety. For one thing, I was a much more confident swimmer and I was old enough to know that I was being watched over by someone I trusted as much as my father.
For the last few summers as a camp counsellor, I went full circle and was offered the chance to teach the little ones who were afraid of the water. Me, a sinker..........and a bunch of non-floaters. Inch by inch, everyday we took our time learning together how to allow the water to be trusted. Initially I could see them trying to grab on......slashing and splashing with anxious limbs. But after more and more opportunities when the sun shone and shone........one by one they found their own way to put their faces in..........only to pop up with a big glorious smile of achievement.
Sometimes we just need time to be...........to learn to trust...........to take our own path, our own steps to meet our faith in the shallow end....or just around the point where the shore is left behind and a gift is awaiting sitting stoically on a jutting rock.
ps. a few years after I had moved on from my world as a camp counsellor, I took a trip back to Camp to spend a few days just hanging and helping out with the kids and the counsellors, some of whom were little ones when I had worked there last. Naturally, I gravitated down to the canoe racks for a paddle, and asked a 10 year old girl if she wanted to join me. We grabbed a canoe and headed out, paddling towards the point with me silently wondering about the Heron who greeted me so long ago. I started chatting away, asking her questions about how long she had been at Kawabi etc. She told me that her parents had been camp counsellors there years before. It turned out her dad was Onions. I told her about his gentleness with a little girl who was very afraid.......and of the Heron as I felt a warming reinforcement of serendipty.