By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
As we turn into the parking lot, big fluffs of cottonwood fall from the sky like heavy clusters of snowflakes. They’ve even dusted the branches of the trees with a thick layer of frost-like fuzz.
Closer to the lake, the air is clear and we can see a group erecting tents on the shore and a sort of altar in the water.
This must be the revival we saw signs for, I think. I didn’t know people still did that, at least not in the Northwest.
“It looks like you guys came prepared to get wet,” Patrick says, looking at our quick-dry shirts. He’s teaching the stand-up paddle boarding yoga class we signed up for on a whim. (It seemed like a perfect kick-off to our pending move to Bend — land of the fit and adventurous.)
As I step into the cool lake, shoes already filled with sand, I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake. On shore, a bag full of life jackets sits untouched. I should have grabbed one, I think as the water begins to lap against my knees. It’s too late now. I hemmed and hawed on shore, ignored my partner’s better judgment, and caved to a silent peer pressure. No one else was wearing one.
I know how to swim. Technically. But somewhere between childhood lessons at the local aquatic center and swimsuit-avoidant adulthood I’d developed a fear of being submerged.
I tell myself the water won’t be that deep. We aren’t going out that far, and the lake is shallow this time of year.
“When you get to your spot, stick your paddle in the water to see how deep it is,” the instructor says. Proper paddle boarding form dictates that the paddle should be tall enough to reach from the ground to your upstretched hand.
I tell myself I won’t fall in. I’m notoriously good at flailing without falling – on land, on ice, and, surely, on water.
Fear doesn’t set in until I’m kneeling on the board, attempting (and failing) to navigate to the anchor line. Every move I make seems to send me into the center of the lake, toward deeper waters, further from the fiancé I quietly assumed would rescue me if I went overboard.
Eventually, I make my way back to the group and hook onto the line meant to keep us from drifting off. I stick my paddle in the water to test the depth. I meet resistance about a fist in.
I tell myself that I have excellent balance. That I am cautious and careful. I try not to think about the fact that there is a “technique” to falling that I neither understand nor am likely to remember.
Soon, the gentle lilting of the board on the water, the intention of my breath, and the awe-inspiring (if upside down) view in downward facing dog begin to soothe my nerves. When the entire group makes it through a series of sun salutations without so much as a splash, I start to think: I can do this.
Down shore, a large group has gathered by the revival tents. A preacher delivers his sermon in Polish over a microphone and a long line of believers dressed in white approaches the water.
Our yoga teacher apologizes for the smooth jazz emanating from the religious gathering and I wonder if the Saturday morning revivalists think we’re heathens. Yet, we’re engaged in an almost Biblical act of faith — separated by only a few inches of fiberglass and plastic from walking on water.
Continuing to place faith over fear, we move on to tree pose. On land, I’d be standing on one foot with the other tucked above my knee and arms stretched toward the sky in no time. Grounded and expansive all at once, I’d be, perhaps, a little too proud of myself, too.
Balancing on one foot is tricky enough on solid ground. Add the unpredictable bumps caused by wind or wake, and it’s a completely different task. On land, balance is about stillness, focus, control. On water, it’s all about the counter balance, the ability to respond to change with even-tempered grace, to anticipate and even acquiesce to each ripple as it approaches.
Carefully and calculatedly, I wriggle my left foot in toward the center of the board — heel, toe, heel, toe — while letting my right foot slowly graze toward it. Such a narrow stance is precarious enough, but I am determined. I gingerly lift my right heel, and then my toes, letting my foot hover just above the board for a moment before placing it down again. Breathe in; repeat.
My focus is so intense I don’t realize I’m falling until I’m underwater — and panicking. Frantically clawing for the surface, I manage pull my head above water and reach for the board. I’m in shock, but I tell the instructor I’m fine between coughing up lake water and struggling to remember how to right myself.
Soaked but alive (dramatic, I know, but the fear is real), I am suddenly filled with an indescribable vitality. Before long, the sounds of my classmates’ subsequent (and repeated) baptisms are punctuated by joyful laughter. Like we’ve all been let in on the joke — it’s not about controlling our bodies or conquering our fears, it’s about letting go and giving in.