Wet hair hung limply around my face as I hunched over the steaming soup, a feeble attempt to channel every bit of its warmth into my frigid body. Even though the sun was shining, it would be hours before my tense muscles could relax and I would feel truly warm again.
This is the story of how I didn’t die one time and why it matters.
I was lucky enough to find myself in one of my favorite places on earth for the majority of my twenties. The lush green surroundings, fantastic foodie vibe, and forward-thinking ways that make up the DNA of Seattle played a critical role during my formative third decade. It is where I learned how to use public transit and became a coffee snob. It is where I met some of my very dearest of friends and some of us started Ethnic Dinner Club. It’s where I once entered a legitimate roller-blading marathon and learned how to say the word quinoa (it’s KEEN-wah. You’re welcome). It’s where I learned, as my church pastor Earl Palmer taught, that Jesus is ALSO for me. It’s where I flailed into my nursing career and met my husband. It’s where we bought our first house and brought our first baby into the world. It is a sacred place and will always feel like coming home.
Even still. At the end of the day it is, for better or worse, a very big city with all the frustrations of big city life. Sometimes you just have to hightail it out of there for a weekend. For Ben and me, one of our favorite ways to do that was to head to the San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound.
The San Juans are a collection of sleepy, beachy Pacific Northwest islands that sprawl out around the Sound. There are over a hundred of them, but three main ones that really embody the “weekend getaway” vibe. San Juan Island itself is the gateway to the rest of them and Friday Harbor is its gatekeeper.
To celebrate our
first anniversary Ben’s remarkable ability to tolerate me for a whole year, we decided to spend a weekend in Friday Harbor at a Victorian-style bed and breakfast. It was as dreamy as it sounds: beautiful grounds, cozy reading chairs, delicious homemade breakfast using ingredients from the onsite garden. Oh, and did I mention shelves and shelves of old VHS tapes? *swoon*
You guys. I’m not sure how it happened. But I coaxed Ben into watching not one, not two, but THREE movies on that Saturday of our weekend getaway. I’m playing fast and loose with the term “watch” here, because it is really hard to watch a movie with you eyes closed. Like if you might be sleeping, for instance. Which I was doing a lot of. Because, as you may remember, I am a nurse and the nightshift struggle is real. Now, if you know Ben at all, you know he doesn’t do well to sit idly inside when there are outdoor adventures to be had. But we had only been married for a year at this point. Bless him.
His patience finally wore down about halfway through What About Bob?. Fed up with my comatose “movie-watching” come Sunday morning, he convinced me to board a 2-person kayak with him and go exploring.
Several things should be noted at this point:
- I am not exactly what you’d call a “boat” person. I didn’t grow up around boats, I’m not a great swimmer, and I get seasick very easily.
- Our anniversary is in March. Quick little side note about the Pacific Northwest in March: the weather is highly unpredictable and apt to change at a moments’ notice.
- The average temperature of the water in the Sound in March is about 46 degrees, or about ten minutes to hypothermia.
Sounds like a recipe for the perfect first anniversary bonding experience, amiright? Nevertheless… we boarded that kayak and headed towards an uninhabited island about ¼ mile offshore . It seemed close enough and really didn’t take long before we found ourselves on its sandy shore. It was a beautiful sunny day, albeit cold, and the water was calm. We basked in the sun on the beach of our own little private island, dreaming about life and what the future might hold. But after a while, the wind started to pick up and we agreed it was time to head back to shore.
Back in our kayak, we donned our neoprene “skirts” to keep us “dry.” From our little island, we needed to head back across the bay to the sandy shore from whence we came. This was across a little bay/inlet. We had to cut diagonally across this bay. No big deal except that as the wind had picked up, so had the water. White caps began relentlessly splashing over the side of the kayak, making it impossible to gain headway in the direction we needed to go.
Here’s the situation we found ourselves in. (Please reference the highly technical diagram above should confusion arise. And it will. Because a tender-tummied non-boater with mediocre swimming skills is trying to explain this nonsense to you.)
If we allowed the water to push the kayak where it wanted, we would end up crashing into the sheer rock cliffs that lined the rest of the bay. But if we went directly to the small sandy beach, the waves would surely capsize our kayak. Thankfully for me, Ben knows a thing or two about boats.
You see, while my fight or flight response had me wanting to bee-line for that beach, that haven of safety, Ben knew that the safest way to get there was actually to go off course. He knew that when the white caps were coming one after another, we actually needed to paddle directly into them. Then, when there was a break, we could paddle as quickly as possible toward the shore until another set of waves picked up, in which case we would have to go off course again.
We did this for what seemed like an eternity, paddling into the waves then toward the shore, along a zig-zagged course not unlike a staircase. I was overwhelmed with fear and soaked to the bone despite my “skirt”. Because I was in the front of the kayak, I took the brunt of most of the crashing waves. Yet I was thankful for Ben’s confident presence the back, as he was ultimately steering our crazy little boat to safety.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t die that day. After a lot of hard work and some cursing we made it safely to shore, a bit like two drowned rats, but otherwise intact. I stood there in shivering shock as Ben exclaimed, “I feel so alive!” We’ll see, love. We’ll see.
Why am I bothering to tell you all this?
I often think of the kayak when I’m facing hard stuff in life. Stuff like broken relationships. A baby in the NICU. Unexpected adoption hurdles. Death. Disappointments. Failures. Disillusionments. “That’s not how I thought that would go down” moments. It’s given me a depth of perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise. For instance, I realize now that if I want to see progress, I have to overcome the challenges right in front of me head on, like the waves that day. If I choose to scramble toward safety, the trials of life are liable to come crashing over me, catching me off guard, and toppling me over. Let me explain what I mean by this.
I’m talking about that hard conversation that needs to happen with a friend.
Setting boundaries with your kids,
Or your spouse,
Or your boss,
Or anyone, really.
Making that phone call.
Writing that letter/email.
Quitting your job.
NOT quitting your job.
Choosing to be vulnerable.
Choosing to listen.
Showing love when it’s so hard.
Sticking with it.
Making a hard sacrifice for something better.
Saying no so you can say yes.
This looks a lot like being brave.
And get this: being brave usually doesn’t look very glamorous. It looks a lot like work. Because it is. Being brave is rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. When we choose to be brave, we render fear powerless. And once we do that, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish. Brave is hard but it’s good. It takes us through the work to the other side, to this crazy place called peace, knowing that we’ve done our absolute very best and no one can ask for anything more. And I know for a fact that THAT is worth the effort.
Clearly God still has some kind of work for me to do, since he didn’t let me die a cold, miserable death that day. Why this matters: If you happen to tempt death and find your soul still firmly planted within your living, breathing being…well…you better pay close attention too because your work isn’t finished yet, friend. You have people to love, places to go, and a world to leave just a little better than you found it. Do what makes your heart sing. Be brave, work hard, have the courage to be humble. We only get this one quick little life. Let’s make it count.
I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: don’t ever get in a kayak in the Puget Sound in March unless you like tempting fate…and maybe have a dry suit handy.