Roiling on the river
Commentary by JoEllen Collins
I was reminded of my frailty last month
when I went on a river-rafting trip down the main Salmon with a group of people
and expert guides. We spent six days on the trip, something I had wanted to do
ever since I moved here so many years ago. I had done some gentle kayaking in a
slough off the Columbia River, and I knew the guides would let me know if any
part of the rapids would be especially dangerous. We all had the choice of
sitting on the big yellow cargo rafts, paddling a smaller and lighter craft, or
taking one of the two- or one-man kayaks down stretches of the river.
Almost every activity in life gives one a
chance to test limits. Whether one tackles higher studies, tries a new exercise
regimen, or attempts to learn any new skill, nothing is accomplished without
some stretching of the mind, the muscles or the spirit.
I am not in fantastic shape and am older
than most active kayakers I know, but I was willing to try all of the rafts or
kayaks. As it turned out, the only problem I had was when I overestimated my own
abilities and got into a situation where I swallowed too much water. The skilled
guides were right there, and I emerged from the situation chastened but
grateful. At first I was just embarrassed. My need to be considered a good sport
overcame my good judgment. No one wants to admit to that behavior.
What I learned later, in analyzing the
incident, was more complex than I thought at the time. I realized that I had
looked back with my usual rosy glasses on my swimming prowess. (I used to body
surf in the ocean and could swim rather competently at one time.) A minor
impediment was that I hadn’t been in serious water actually swimming (not just
dipping) for more years than I care to count! I am not the young and vibrant
girl I was, a condition that dismays me and is something I choose to overlook in
other areas of my life.
Usually this bravado helps me try new
projects that are healthy for me, such as travel and writing projects that some
might find daunting. In this case, it wasn’t courage but foolhardiness that got
me in trouble.
The second reality I understood later was
that I hadn’t listened as closely as I should have to the instructions of my
guides. I had on a life jacket and should have been able to float easily. But I
hadn’t heard carefully the positions one should take in the water. I own up to
my responsibility for causing myself some grief and also testing the good will
of my guides, who were right there to pull me out. It reminds me of the
phenomenon of asking for directions at the gas station or from someone in the
neighborhood, nodding in assent at each leg of the description, then driving off
clueless. Whatever the impulse, I hadn’t absorbed the information as I should
The final thing I came to understand was
that I should listen to my daughters. They know I am a klutz and strongly
advised me not to take any chances at all on the river. They have seen me trip
all over the place and have a corner of their minds that fears the results of my
lack of grace. They have justifiably ordered me to stay off ladders, watch my
step, wear proper shoes, and keep my purse closed. As I get older, I sense the
shifting of roles here: instead of my worrying about their crossing the street,
they worry that I’ll hurt my self
doing something foolish. They may be
When my daughters became young women, I
accepted the fact that I couldn’t wrap them in rolls of metaphorical cotton,
couldn’t protect them anymore from life’s inevitable vicissitudes and hazards.
They were responsible for their own actions and safety. At the same time, I
hoped they had learned that life is a series of challenges, and that they could
be as courageous as possible in tacking all the opportunities that arise. It is
often a fine distinction between accepting one’s limitations and being stagnant,
between stepping up to a challenge that will promote vitality and growth and
engaging in a foolish flirtation with danger or with projects that are beyond
Somerset Maugham believed that we are all
bound by our limitations. Phillip, the protagonist in "Of Human Bondage,"
constantly grapples with his limitations. He is possessed of a clubfoot in an
intolerant society, and he wastes many years in a futile quest for a woman who
can only ruin his life. He can only find peace when he admits his flawed human
condition, as I might have remembered on the river that day.
Smug and bovine acceptance of what we’ve
been dealt? A desire to try risky or dangerous new things? Life, thank goodness,
has a multitude of options for all of us in between these extremes, whatever our
backgrounds or abilities. The cliché of testing the waters may be apt here:
maybe it’s just a matter of analyzing the currents—and one’s own
limitations—when one attempts the challenge of swimming in new places.