Awhile ago I told a friend that my dream life would include paddling on the ocean every morning. It’s part of that fantasy-dream life that includes that two-room cottage in a hippie beach city, that we’ll buy after I’ve sold a few bestseller books or hit paydirt in some other manner. I remember as I told my friend this, thinking of all the logistical hurdles that kept me from paddling: a boat, the skills, the time, etc.
So it really was cooler-than-cool when a new friend invited me along to go outrigger canoeing on Newport’s Back Bay a few months ago. And it was hardly any wonder that when she told me about her paddling team that I was eager to try it out. So fast forward a few months–I’ve joined the “novice” women’s team and I’m having a blast learning how to paddle.
The irony of this wasn’t entirely evident until attended my first novice practice. Because we’re just learning the ropes, us newbies are practicing on Sunday mornings and not with the regular team yet. We push off from the beach at about 9 and return around noon. It’s three hours of various drills, sprints, and pointed advice on technique. We switch positions in the boat because each seat has different responsibilities. And most of all, we’re building up our endurance because the races are miles long and we’ve barely just gotten the feel of paddling through the waves (most of our practices are still held in the harbor as we toodle around Lido or Balboa islands).
What didn’t dawn on my until the first practice, was that the beach where we launch…it’s just across the street from the LDS Chapel where I first met John, where we held our wedding reception, where our son was blessed, where I taught early-morning seminary, where I worshiped for most of my adult life. And as I turn right to the beach, all those SUVs turning left are my LDS friends who are pulling into their Sunday meetings.
This really gave me pause on the first morning of practice. I reflected on how much I’ve changed in the past five years, how when I was even a lukewarm Mormon I never would have considered joining a sport team with practices on a Sunday morning, because of injunctions about keeping the Sabbath holy and because of my obligations to my ward.
This week my coach announced that she was teaching me how to steer the boat. The steerer sits in the back of the boat and is basically in charge of keeping the other team members on track–most literally because the steerer sets the course for the entire boat because they are the boat’s rudder. Using special strokes to keep the craft going in the appropriate direction, the steerer also calls the ‘start’ of the paddling and watches to make sure the other paddlers are in sync. My coach, during the time I was training gave me tips on how to keep a team together, how to help the boat move successfully toward a destination. I was amazed by the trust my teammates had in me, because the canoes are precarious and the ocean current is strong. A slight miscalculation on my part would result in all of us landing in frigid water, which was especially undesirable given the chilly winter temps on Sunday (and we all saw another team with a seasoned steersman tip a boatload into the bay last week, so we were well aware of the risks).
So we zig-zgged around the channel a bit until I figured out how not to ‘overshoot’ with my steering strokes. My boatmates were calm and never expressed concern about my efforts. As we pulled into shore and finished cleaning the canoe, my coach told the other team members (who were in other boats) of my success at steering and they congratulated me on my efforts–a few even offering applause. It was a kind and rather unnecessarily embarrassing gesture, but I loved how it made me feel part of the team.
As I drove away from the beach area and passed the LDS chapel I thought a lot about the way I used to feel a part of the Mormon team. I felt a thrill every time I entered that building and felt its echoes of memories and special occasions. It will never cease being a holy place for me. But when I get out of the canoe and feel the bone-deep satisfaction of having paddled hard, having felt the thrill of being on the open ocean and the rhythm of the waves, of seeing dolphins playing in the surf, of having dry lips and chapped cheeks from hours facing into the sea wind…I can’t help but feel joy that I’m steering my own boat these days. I don’t have the surety of the ‘final destination’ that I used to when I spent my Sundays on the other side of the street, but I’m okay with that. The open water offers me more now. And I’m up for the challenge.
Picture above not mine, but is of the same kind of canoe that I paddle in with my team.