One of my father’s favorite sayings growing up was “When man plans, God laughs”. As I child, I found this to be rather rude of the so-called God fellow. I pictured an overweight, bearded man with the voice of Morgan Freeman going “Ah ha, Bryn! You thought you were going to be successful?! How’s flipping burgers sound? Bahaha”. This is part of the reason why, when I graduated in May, I planned on not having a plan. I moved to Maine with little other than my Subaru and a few boxes of books, simply living day to day. I was determined to be anything other than the brunt of a cosmic joke.
As a guide, I’ve had several people on my trips that haven’t kayaked once in their life. When I say things like “paddle stroke”, “rudder”, and “capsize” the frequent response is a wide-eyed expression as though I’d spouted a third arm and slapped them upside the face. So I have to start with the basics.
I begin with a lesson on how to hold the paddle. It’s rather simple really:
“You’re going to hold your paddle with your hands about shoulder width apart. Make sure you have a nice loose grip and the keep the smooth side of the paddle, the side with the logo on it, facing you…”
This instruction prompts a flurry of activity, like windmills in a hurricane, as paddles are flipped, twisted and rotated to find the right position. Sometimes this happens before I mention that we should all spread out, which results in more than a few “THWACK!”s and earnest “I-don’t-even-know-your-name-but-just-smacked-you-upside-the-head-with-my-paddle-and-I’m-very-sorry!”s.
Finally, things will settle down and then one of my clients will look at me (usually with the paddle upside down and their hands placed in a death grip as far apart as they can spread them) and ask:
“Is this right?”
And I can’t help but laugh.
Shortly after arriving in Maine, I received a potential job offer from the military; they asked me to work for the ROTC detachment back at my alma mater. The offer would be for four months over the winter, feature excellent pay, and, best of all, it would allow me a nice hiatus with some old friends and the funds to spend part of my winter bagging peaks in Colorado. I jumped at the opportunity. I was offered the position, but informed that funding wouldn’t be confirmed until mid-September, though my employers were confident the money would come through.
And so I waited. Staying true to my goal of planning nothing, of living day to day. Clients frequently asked me what I’d be doing come winter (“You don’t still kayak do you? Doesn’t the ocean freeze over?”), and I told them I wasn’t quite sure I’d see when I got there. The funny thing about plans are, like kayak paddles, you don’t know how hard you’re holding onto them until they’re removed from your grip. And, in my heart, I’d been planning on returning to Chicago.
This past week I received and email that informed me the funding didn’t come through; I wouldn’t be going back. Atop the understanding that I wouldn’t be seeing some of my best friends, wouldn’t be able to save money, and certainly wouldn’t get to spend a couple weeks scaling fourteeners in Colorado, I was also struck by the realization that I was a few weeks away from being unemployed and homeless. This seemed a long fall from being the capsizing star of Outside Magazine TV. And then I remembered what my father said: “When man plans, God laughs”. I figured God was getting a good guffaw, while I, for one, was certainly not laughing.
I had received the email just before running into work for my evening tour, and didn’t have time to do anything but read it, which came about as easy as a sucker punch. As I introduced myself to my group, and started getting everyone outfitted, I was confused, a little scared and even angry. Luckily, I’m a really talented actor (have I ever mentioned that I was on TV once?) so I was able to hide it.
I started off my tour the same way as every other before it: “You’re going to hold your paddle with your hands about shoulder width apart…” followed by the usual chaos, and, sure enough, a client named Brenda holding her paddle up to me and inquiring: “Is this right?”
And then it hit me, the paddle that is, from another client next to me.
“Oh, my goodness! I just hit the guide! I thought I had spread out far enough. Oh, gosh, I am so sorry Brya-er…Brent…um…Brenden?”
“It’s Bryn,” I said, rubbing a bruise on my shoulder, “And don’t worry about it. Happens a lot.”
I turned back to Brenda, who was still holding her paddle up for my inspection. And that’s when it really hit me.
When I see my clients holding their paddles and confused looks, I’ve never laughed because I thought they were stupid (well, okay….never is a stretch, but most of the time). Nor did I laugh because I was annoyed, or because I delighted in their befuddlement.
Rather, I laughed because as I looked at them, as I saw what they thought was right, I realized they’d be in quite a pickle if I didn’t correct them. I laughed because I cared, and because I knew that with a quick flip, this situation that seemed so perplexing, so confusing to them, would be an after-thought soon enough. I laughed because as strange as it might seem at the time, once I adjusted the paddles and got them out on the water, it would all be worth it and it would all make sense.
And I realized this is what my father meant. Man plans and God laughs. He isn’t laughing at me. He doesn’t delight in any pain or confusion. He’s laughing because He’s looking at me holding my paddle of plans, seeing how I think it should be done, and realizing He’d better straighten me out quick. He’s laughing because He knows what He’s doing; He knows that He cares about me, and with that in mind- why not have a good chuckle? He’s laughing because He is God, and I can’t even figure out how to hold my paddle.
And when He’s done laughing, He takes my hands, loosens my grip, rotates my paddle, and fixes it.
See? He says, this is how you hold it.
“Ohhhh,” I nod, looking at it now and wondering how I thought it could’ve been otherwise before. “Okay. Yea. I get it.”
He smiles, and steps back to where He was, and continues His instruction.
As I took my tour out that night, I felt a sense of peace and delight that less than an hour before wasn’t possible. I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen next, didn’t know where I would work, where I would live, what my parents might say when I called them and told them “surprise! I’m moving into the garage!”… but I didn’t care anymore. I trusted my guide, and I figured I’d do what I’d been trying to do all along. I loosened my grip, and let Him adjust the paddle in my hands.
And God? Well, it’s simple really. God laughed.