Growing up in Northern California, many of my fondest memories are deeply rooted within nature. From beautiful solitary hikes among the dense redwoods to doing yoga out on a stand up paddleboard in the middle of the Sausalito bay, every day in California felt a bit like a dream from which I never wanted to wake up. But few activities hold such a strongly nostalgic space in my heart as my summertime canoe trips down the Russian River with my dad.
When the weather was at its hottest in mid-July, my dad and I would pack up the car and drive the hour and a half north into Sonoma County, parking our car at a lot at the head of the Russian River. After renting a canoe, transferring our snacks and sunscreen into the canoe and donning our life preservers, we'd push off from the shore to begin the leisurely ten-mile paddle down the river. We only completed this journey together a handful of summers in my teenage years, but they made a lasting impression on me. These are a few of my biggest takeaways from my adventures on the Russian River with dad.
These canoe trips always started off fun and full of energy. Stoked to get back on the water, I'd paddle earnestly as I relished the hot sun warming my shoulders, taking in the majestic nature surrounding us; however, after many hours of baking in the sun, arms sore from repeating the same paddling circles over and over again, I would inevitably hit a wall. Sometimes it would happen all at once, sometimes it would slowly creep over me, but there would always come a point when I would get frustrated and impatient for the pickup point. The trip involved a ten-mile canoe trip down the river, with a pickup point where a shuttle would meet us, load up the canoes, and drive us back to our cars. There was one entry point and one pickup point--no wiggle room. Learning how to fight through the frustration and exhaustion, learning how to not become overwhelmed with the knowledge that there was no way to stop now even if I wanted to, that was my first regular practice of mediation. A few years away from discovering yoga, these canoe trips were my foray into leaning towards the uncomfortable, recognizing muscle fatigue as being not simply a physical struggle but a mental one as well, and discovering how to dig deep and relax. It was about relinquishing control and not giving up while appreciating the beauty and stillness that surrounded me. It was about remaining present, feeling difference between the resistance of the paddle moving through the water and the lightness with which it moved through air, unencumbered. It was about pausing my paddle strokes just to feel the gentle pull of the current gently carrying us downstream. The final few miles of the canoe trip were about feeling what it was like to be in my body, worrying not about the destination but remaining present and focused on the journey.
If you've ever looked for a good metaphor for the trials and tribulations of partnership, look no further--paddling a canoe with someone else will teach you all you need to know about the fragile, symbiotic relationship between two people. It is incredibly humbling to learn how to paddle a canoe successfully. The role that each of you plays is vital; a canoe cannot be paddled successfully with only one person. When working together, you are able to glide down the river with power and agility. When you fall out of sync, all bets are off. You change direction, lose your momentum, and devolve into a mess of miscommunication. I can't even put into words how satisfying it is when you get it right--that perfect synchronization between two sets of arms making symmetrical paddle strokes on opposite sides of the boat, switching every so often as you glide effortlessly along the glassy surface of the water.
One particularly journey down the river sticks out in my mind as the most memorable. We had only started our journey, probably still within our first two miles along the river. Everything was going smoothly. The current was strong, making our journey easy. We'd gotten into a rhythm of paddling which felt comfortable. In this particular stretch of the river we had a sandy, rocky embankment to our left and a wall of vines and tree roots outstretched from high rocks to our right, which formed a bit of a canopy of shade over the river. As it was a hot day, we had found ourselves hugging the right a bit, enjoying the cool shade as a contrast to our arms, sweaty from the heat and the paddling. All of a sudden, everything changed. The current started pulling us towards the low-hanging vines. I panicked, trying to help my dad paddle us to the left and away from the rocks and vines. Despite our best efforts, we got closer and closer to the rock wall. Without thinking, I started leaning to the left, trying to avoid the vines which were beginning to scratch my right shoulder. I was underwater. I was panicking, unsure which way was up, what had just happened, how did I get to air again? I reached the surface, gasping for breath, grateful that the river was neither very wide nor very deep. While dad righted the canoe, he shouted out for me to gather our belongings, which had begun floating away. We made our way to the embankment on the left to collect ourselves, him dragging our canoe, me with an armful of wet snacks and towels. I was feeling so emotionally overwhelmed as a myriad of feelings flooded my system. I was jumpy, the adrenaline coursing through my system now that I had a minute to recover. I was ashamed, knowing that my leaning to the left was ultimately what finally flipped us over. I was confused, as it had all happened so fast. Most of all, I was panicked--we were completely drenched, along with all of our belongings so early on into a journey which I knew we'd have to complete waterlogged and soggy without any dry towels. Having a hard time processing these emotions, I looked to my dad, trying to figure out how I should be processing these events. All these years later, I don't remember what his actual words were or his immediate actions. What has stuck with me all this time was his general sentiment which I immediately absorbed. We were fine, this was comical and we'd figure it out. In a high stress situation, my dad's first intuition was to laugh it off, concentrate on the hilarious situation in which we'd found ourselves, and to know that we'd figure it out. Neither of us had been injured, we hadn't brought along our dog this time to worry about, and this would be something we'd remember forever. I think about this incident often when I'm feeling overwhelmed or feeling like I've failed. I leaned to the left, I flipped over our boat and soaked our belongings. Failure. It would have been easy for me to slip into the shame which was my first instinct upon reaching the shore. Instead, my dad made it very clear to me that it was not my fault, it was not that big a deal, and it would help us be more careful next time when we found ourselves in a similar situation.
Failure is inevitable. We often don't successfully complete what we set out to do. It's of dire importance to recognize that the strength that failures hold over us originates from the way we let them validate our inner fears and shame. As soon as you break that chain, the power failure holds over you falls away, allowing you to see failures as important learning opportunities. I still maintain that failure is the most valuable way to learn things about yourself--how you handle setbacks, how to learn what you like and want, how you hold patience and space for others struggling with a communal failure. My trips down the Russian River with my dad were full of fun yet ultimately forgettable specifics, but that specific failure of a trip is burned into my brain as one of the most valuable specific lessons my dad taught me. As children, we ironically learn the most through the moments when our parents don't realize they're playing the role of teacher.
Happy Father's Day, Dad. Thanks for all the lessons, planned and otherwise.