Laugh

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.

THWACK!”

“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.

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Betrayed

On September 5th, 1604 a French explorer by the name of Samuel de Champlain first laid eyes on a large island off the coast of modern day Maine. In his journal entry for that day he wrote “the mountain summits are all bare and rocky….I name it Isles des Monts Desert.” Thus the history of Mount Desert Island begins.

Actually, that’s where the history of Mount Desert Island begins according to a majority of history books featuring predominantly European origins. But what many people of European decent often forget is that our white ancestors were not the original inhabitants of the current day United States: Columbus was not, in fact, the first person to “discover” anything except perhaps the phrase “Your majesty, I believe I screwed up my calculations….”

The region now known as Downeast Maine, in which Mount Desert Island is located, was originally inhabited by the Wabinaki Confederacy: a union of five different Native American tribes. When Monsieur Champlain and “ses amis” first landed on Mount Desert Island, they found an indigenous people group that was hardly hostile. Even when the reputedly militant English founded a trading post in the region just south of the island, the local tribes continued to trade with them providing furs, moccasins, canoes, snowshoes and lifesaving survival tips for the strange land. And things remained cordial… for a while at least.

Slowly but surely, however, Native Americans in Maine began to see their helpfulness, vulnerability and naïvely warm greetings reimbursed with the loss of their land, freedom and, at times, lives. As the young nation began to flourish to their south and conflicts arose concerning northern borders with the French, the Wabinaki often found themselves quarantined and starved, decimated by foreign diseases or (at best) caught in the crossfire and forced to choose a side.  It was a lose-lose situation, the injustice of which is frequently marginalized in American history books.

Now, fast forward to the present day where I would like for you to meet Natalie and John.  Natalie and John were siblings whose family was recently on one of my kayak tours. Between them was a four year age gap and a rivalry about as cordial (and, at times, laughable) as the English and the French.

Can you see where this is going? Enter me: the indigenous (okay, not really…from Ohio and all), unsuspecting, helpful kayak guide armed only with my ignorant doofusicity and desire to help. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

We were out on a routine half-day kayak trip. With the sun out and shining, winds calm and an unusual amount of porpoises feeding in the bay; conditions could not have been better. I led the group (Natalie and John included) through the routine paddle lesson, even throwing in some extra tips for minimizing fatigue. I was in that good of a mood.

We paddled around two islands; everyone’s excitement peaked when a seal popped up just in front of one of the boats. After about 90 minutes on the water, we took a break on one of the islands in Frenchman’s Bay. I sat with Natalie and John’s family discussing her upcoming college plans as well as John’s aspirations as a sophomore in high school. With euphoria in the air, we returned to the water.

And that’s when our trip hit the allegorical equivalent of the Seven Year’s War. It started with a skirmish in which John accidentally t-boned Natalie’s kayak, the result of which was a near capsize.

Having watched the entire event, I noted the “accident” was about as unintentional as the Boston Tea Party (“come now, gentleman…we were drunk!” wasn’t quite as believable an excuse this time). Likewise, Natalie’s diplomacy was as pacifistic as the British:

“AHH! John! What is your problem?” (followed by furious paddling in an attempt to catch John’s evading boat) “This is why you don’t have a girlfriend!”

And this is where I got involved. As a kayak guide, I felt it was somewhat my responsibility to, well, maintain the peace. I paddled between their two kayaks and made my first (and probably last) attempt at conflict resolution.

“Okay guys, we can see through this. John, let’s not capsize Natalie, alright? Natalie, tell John you’re sorry for the girlfriend crack-”

My counseling was interrupted by Natalie swinging the paddle around me and into John’s back.

“OW!”

“That’s what you get, twerp.”

“Now Natalie,” I tried, “is that-“

“Hey Nat,” John interrupted.

“What?”

John splashed water straight across the front of my kayak into Natalie’s unsuspecting lap. To his favor…it was a good shot.

Natalie retaliated with another swing of the paddle, her aim a little less careful this round, and I was able to push my boat back, ducking out of the way just in time. Thus, the diplomacy proceeded:

            Thwack!

“Ow!”

            Splash!

“Jerk!”

            Thud!

“Butthead!”

“Did you really just call me a-“ Thwack!”

Despite her decently aimed paddle strokes, Natalie had the disadvantage of minimal upper body strength. Thus her strikes against John’s splashes were about as effective as Native American arrows against European cannons. She soon retreated to safe distance from John’s boat, soaking wet and looking fairly defeated.

And here’s my mistake: I felt sorry for her. Like the Wabinaki tribes who realized our ancestors weren’t going to survive a Maine winter without a good amount of health, or that the French (even in the 1700’s) set a low bar in the realm of military success, I realized poor Natalie would be subjected to repeated splashing for the remainder of the trip, were I not to intervene.

I paddled up beside her boat. “Hey Natalie,” I said, “let me help you out.”

She brightened a bit.

I unstrapped my bilge pump from the boat and handed it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s a called a bilge pump.”

“Okay…”

“So look, you put this end in the water, like so, then just point this little nozzle towards John, pump the handle and…”

I shot a stream of water across her boat in demonstration.

She smiled. “It’s like a super soaker!”

I nodded. “Use it wisely.”

“Oh, I will.” And with that, she paddled off in the direction of John’s unsuspecting boat and I felt pretty darn charitable.

Where John had brawn, Natalie had wit. Knowing John would eventually be bored with just paddling and return to his go-to pastime of soaking her, Natalie didn’t say anything but waited patiently. She paddled just ahead of his boat, showing no signs of hostile intention and slowed to a stop about a kayak’s length away.

John took the bait.

And it was with great amusement that I watched as the gears begun turning in John’s head (“I’m gonna get her good this time”) and he paddled up to Natalie’s boat. On the opposite side, however, Natalie gripped the bilge pump in one hand- waiting. I watched John pull alongside her boat, rear back his paddle, Natalie lift the bilge pump and before he could ask “What the deuce is that?” unload a full shot of salt water into his unsuspecting face.

Wonderful. For a brief second, I felt somewhat similar to how I’m sure the Wabanaki did upon their white friends successfully growing their first stalk of corn, or whooping with their momentary allies as the opponents army retreated into the woods.

Natalie looked my way and I gave her a thumbs up and a smile.

John looked at me and said, “How could you?”

Actually, what he really said sounded more like “Phothef co-thptpt yo-uthhh” on account of having to constantly spit saltwater from his mouth. I think he had learned his lesson.

Time was running out on our kayak tour, so I directed my group around the last bend in the island and towards our take out spot. Natalie’s boat was hanging back a bit behind us, so I sent the rest ahead and hung back to congratulate her personally.

My boat drifted up next to hers.

“Natalie,” I said turning back to face her, “Allow me to congratula-“

PPWOOOOSSSSHH!

And that’s when I got a small taste of the pain, bitterness and betrayal I’m sure the Wabinaki must have felt all those years ago. Oddly enough, it tasted quite similar to salt water.

I didn’t know what to say.

“Are you kidding me?!” Were the first words that came out. (Actually, just to follow suit, it sounded more like “Awre youthe kiduthdinth me?!”)

She shrugged. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist,” she said.

Perhaps I should have been mature here. I am, after all, a “professional” guide. But all adherences to my title went out the window and I drove my paddle beneath the water’s surface, unloading a full stroke of water into Natalie’s face. Natalie shot back with the bilge pump.

Upon seeing the commotion, John (much like the French, I should note) figured now would be the time to join, especially since he was still bitter about me giving the pump to Natalie in the first place.

So there you have it: yours truly, a professional kayak guide with two boats of clients on either side splashing him mercilessly as another day’s work came to an end. By the time I finally reached shore, I was soaking wet and in the mood for a good pout. The rest of the group, however, seemed to enjoy the entire scene immensely, and couldn’t stop talking about it the whole drive back:

“Man, did you see how good Natalie got our guide!?”

“What a shot!”

“Did you see his face?!”

Guffaw, guffaw.

So now I never let anyone borrow my bilge pump, ever. I don’t care if they’re being swarmed by a barrage of teenage campers and are about to be drowned in splashes, or even if they just capsized their boat. I will assist them and help them, but as for lending out my weapons of mass destruction, it’s not happening.

That, my dear friends, is what you call “learning from the past.”