For approximately half of my life, I’ve been on a quest for water. Around the age of 11, when I read a novel about a 16-year-old girl rowing the Grand Canyon, I developed a deep fondness for the concept of navigating waterways via boat. Anyone who’s ever lived with me, traveled with me, or gone to school with me knows to look in the closest body of water that will float a boat if they need to get ahold of me. Writing this, I feel incredibly blessed to recollect all the water I’ve found in the past decade, in the form of countless, beautiful Wisconsin lakes and streams. It’s been a fruitful quest. However, when I turned 16 and paddled a whitewater kayak for the first time and lapsed deep into whitewater fever, my quest became incredibly defined. I wanted water that was falling off rocks and landing far below where it began. I wanted water that funneled a river’s width of force into narrow canyons and slots; I wanted water that formed roiling, bucking waves; water that disappeared into ravenous holes and never came out the same. I wanted water that would scare me, teach me, and push me to grow. Why? When asked this question, I think my answer is usually, “Why not?” The water is there; someone has to do it!
I’m blessed to have landed my dream job, teaching kayaking and interning for Girls at Play in Asheville. Talk about the ultimate fulfillment of my water quest! In the past 6 weeks, I’ve paddled about a dozen sweet runs all within a day trip’s driving distance from here. In the Midwest, we’ll drive all day to reach one river. When I park at the grocery store and realize that my car is just one of a handful of separate vehicles with whitewater boats lashed to the top, I still feel a sense of victory that comes from not sticking out like a sore thumb everywhere I go. Not that this would be a bad thing, but here I’m continuously reminded of where I am: a river mecca, a land brimming with other water questers! Logistical positives aside, though, that water here has been everything I’ve hoped for. In small but delightful steps, I’ve found those waves, holes, waterfalls that scare me, educate me, transform me. Furthermore, I’ve found many times more amazing people than I’ve found rivers. The people, actually, are quite similar to the rivers in many ways. Some are a bit intimidating; many have shared invaluable knowledge and advice, and many have left an impact on me simply with their stories and personalities. How incredible—a fruitful quest.
So, given that I’m finding all that I desired to find, it might surprise you to hear me tell of the sudden storm of doubt that blew in and started buffeting, quite harshly, the self-erected pillars of my quest. I could sense it coming one sunny Saturday morning on the French Broad, a few moments after I heard a very gentle “plunk” of something falling into the water, quite close to my boat. About half a moment after I realized that this plunk was created by the GoPro that had been, but was no longer, attached to my helmet. Stunned, I reached up and felt the case, empty and gaping open, the latch having been rejected into my lap. How did this happen? I still grapple with this question and come up short. The bottom line is, it happened, and things happen in the river. However, I felt indescribably guilty at having allowed something of value to be ruined at my hands. Later in the day as I considered this notion, I forgot that we’re dealing with a camera here. Something valuable, indeed, but also not something crucial to survival. However, I couldn’t shake the thought of “I wrecked something important.” As I let myself think these thoughts, dwelling on feelings of fatigue and stress and homesickness, my thoughts spiraled into that very poignant question: “Why?” For the first time in quite awhile, I took the time to ask myself why I was doing what I was doing. Why chase waterfalls? What made me think I could keep track of humans on the river if I can’t even hang onto a camera? Why chase waves when there are people at home that would really appreciate my presence right now? Suddenly, “why not” no longer seemed to be a legitimate answer.
The storm of why’s lasted a few days. A whole new surge came on Monday afternoon, as I sat in the sweltering waiting room of an auto mechanic, mulling over how much money I was putting into my somewhat archaic vehicle. Why am I here, putting all of the money I make into this car so that I can drive myself and my boats to the river? I thought of the boat I’d just unwrapped from the plastic the week before, and the check I was fixing to write for that other new boat I’d basically committed to buying. What am I doing, putting all of my money into this sport, when I’m already waist-deep in student loans and looking at grad school in a couple of years? What is this doing to those other aspects of my future—I need to pay for school if I’m going to be a scientist; I can’t be poor forever if I’m going to support a family one day. Am I messing up something important? Heck, I’m not even that good at kayaking. Maybe if I were a more advanced boater, with prospects for competition and sponsorships, it’d be worth it now, but I’m nowhere near that kind of boater. Sure I’m a decent instructor, but there are lots of good instructors out there. Why did I ever think that me, Angela Como, coming down here to chase water, was a good idea?
During this week, if you were to ask me what I’d learned on this summer’s part of my river quest, I’d probably say that I learned it’s possible to become so attached to a dream, so obsessed with doing what it takes to get there, that you lose touch with your reasons for doing so. I’d still agree that this is a pertinent lesson. However, I’m happy to impart that there’s more to the story. Through patience, prayers for clarity, and intentions of higher self-awareness, I discovered some great bits of fortune to satisfy those little “why” beggars in my head. I was paddling the Pigeon River with 16 gracious ladies on an impossibly gorgeous day, and I realized that I was hardly floating in water. I was floating in the infectious energy of their smiles and their friendship and their gratitude for what they were doing. Ah—this might be an okay reason for being here. By leading this trip, I am helping provide an opportunity for all of these smiling faces to be out here on the river. The next day, I paddled section IV of the Chattooga River with a kind and awesome couple who’d dedicated their Sunday to enabling my personal first descent. In my opinion, the scenery along section IV of the Chattooga is some of God’s finest handiwork. To be totally immersed in beauty with great people is awesome enough; to be able to join the water in it’s falling path, to follow the waves as they funnel into tiny spots, to get tossed around in one of those hungry holes and come up feeling refreshed—to be so wholly unified with the beauty, is indescribable. Finally, my mind had been quieted. The doubts, the why’s—they stopped, they were answered entirely by me simply being where I was. I relished in this mental silence, relished in letting my heart take over the matters that my mind had lately been battling to control.
Breathing, praying, and doing meditative activities (in addition to paddling) such as yoga, running, writing and playing music have helped me keep a quiet mind. In this state, it’s much easier to listen to my heart. I remember so many reasons to simply be grateful for what I’m doing. I consider all of the people that I have been able to impact through my skills as an instructor, many of whom have likewise impacted me with their gratitude and their own stories. And I consider something that I heard Anna remind a kayaking student, early this summer. She said, many of us think that we’ll make it one day. But really, there is no making it. There’s no making it! There’s only being. We can’t actually “get” anywhere in this life, but we can choose who and how we are being in the moment that we’re living. Thus, I’m probably hard-pressed to “find” what I’m questing for anywhere but in the moment I’m in. And having faith in myself may be the only way to really find it. Something my dad likes to say is that we are human beings, not human doings. In trying to evaluate ourselves based on what we do, we’ll likely get swept up in that storm of doubt. But in appreciating and attending to who we are being, we are much more likely to find peace.
My goal is to focus on how the river influences my “being,” because I know that it does. How, not why. In unifying me with God’s creation, I believe the river helps me to be more of who God wants me to be. Whoever and however the river is helping you to be, I encourage you to pay attention to it, and to celebrate it! In the case of a scary rapid, a tiring day on the water, or a river trip that entailed some sacrifice to make it happen, be cognizant of those “why’s” and allow the river to help you quiet them down. A river is a noisy thing, always singing. Sometimes it sings softly and as the rapids grow, it bellows. How lovely that we can find such silence in its ongoing song.
See you on the river 🙂