This past week I finished two weeks of teaching English at a camp in the Czech Republic. Each day we had two hours of afternoon “Sport Activity”. One day, I decided to take my kids out on the river in a canoe. I took the girls out, first. They donned their life vests with giddy 10-year-old excitement and scrambled into the canoe with their paddles and as we shoved off, I quickly learned that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. They really did not know how to row together. From the back of the canoe, I’m yelling, “RIGHT, LEFT, Nooo! Noooo! TO-GETHER!” Only , no one moved right or left together because no one understood Right or Left in English. I realized that I should have gone over that lesson before we got in the boat.
Our goal was simply to get to the bridge about 2/3 of a mile down and simply turn around and come back. When I offered to take the kids out (my co-leader, who is Czech, was very much not interested in the task), I looked forward to a peaceful sail in the afternoon sun. Easy Peasy. I learned quickly why she refused. The boat was going all over the place. The girls were laughing and trying to get themselves coordinated with their oars while I was in the back freaking out because all I saw were explosive time bombs everywhere. At one point, a big branch rose from the surface in the center of the river like the Loch Ness Monster. The boat was coasting towards it and I had visions of the Titanic, and Jack and Rose.
I felt out of control and really was panicking. The drill sergeant in me took over and shouted, “You’re in charge here, Peppur! Get it together! You were a freaking Girl Scout! You’ve been in a boat. You know how to row. Just do it!” So I grunted, jammed my leg against the inside of the boat for support and leaned back into the boat from my bench, stabbing the oar into the water as a brake to stop us and then, using every bit of my core, I dug and pulled and dipped and pried the paddle into the strong water, to get us going again and away from danger, all while the girls “rowed”. I looked back at the Loch Ness monster and wanted to jab my heroic fist in the air to claim my victory. I turned back to the front and sighed in relief.
I’ll admit I forgot what you’re supposed to do…did rowing on the right make the boat go right or left? Was I supposed to stroke one-two on the right and shoot to the left for another one-two to make it go straight? I kept experimenting and waiting for success only to have to quickly dig in with the brake over and over again. A lot of our time in the river was moving about in circles like we were going down a drain rather than down the river Vlatava.
But, I finally got them on the same page, and they were rowing and shouting, “TO-gezer! TO-gezer!” with each stroke. We zig-zagged gaily down the river. The girls, with their sporty pony tails, were smiling at one another. The sun bounced off their rosy cheeks. They’d been looking forward to this and they were happy. I’d wanted to do this for them. They were worth it. I was happy. It was during these peaceful moments, where I’d casually take in the breathtaking view and wave, “Helloooo, Dobry Den!” to the sprinkle of onlookers who were owners of the country-side homes that were perched along the river; many of them stared at us with very blank faces and open mouths from their porches. We were a spectacle, I’m sure. With each smiling wave I was like, “Yep, yep! We’re a mess. Thank you. My doing. Everything’s fine. Having fun! Thank you!”
I thought about how life can be like this. You go for adventure, which some days, is just waking up and putting two feet on the ground to get out of bed. You try to be in control, you try to figure it out, you dig in; but as hard as you struggle against the water, the boat or your life, has its own purpose. Sure, you have to avoid the Loch Ness Monster, but sometimes our job is to just wave and say, “Everything’s fine!” Even when it’s really not. We must keep going and not struggle so much. And, sometimes in doing so, we find everything becomes just fine.
Thankfully, the girls and I finally turned around (we didn’t make it to the bridge). We got back to the docking bank and my Czech leader was there waiting with the boys and our main assistant who was there to help with the boating activity. I threw him the chain from our boat to pull us in. He looked at my face and with his New Zealand (wait, Australian?) accent asked, “Are you alright? Need a break, there?”
I looked at the faces of the waiting boys on the bank who were literally jumping up and down, ready to go for their turn, and I smiled, “Nope, nope. Let’s do this!”
The boys, six of ’em, clamored into the boat. I grabbed onto the sides; it was rocking so badly. “Oh my god; oh my god,” I said under my breath and prayed as we pushed off. The boys were yelling at each other, in Czech, trying to organize themselves. This was different behavior from the girls. I decided that this time, I would let them find their way. I wouldn’t fight so hard to stay on course. I watched them point and direct and figure out what to do to get the boat on track as we sailed off. The first time we sort of went off course, I did my RIGHT, LEFT yell. But, this time, when I yelled LEFT or RIGHT to them, they literally turned and looked at each other, had a quick conversation, in Czech, and all of a sudden they all stood up and started moving from the left to the right side of the boat and changing paddles in between the maneuvering. They thought I meant to move right or left if they were right or left handed! The boat rocked dangerously and I had to just put my head down, grip the sides again and pretend like I wasn’t scared shitless. “It’s fiiiine. They have life vests. You don’t, but they do. You were a Girl Scout. It’s fiiiiine.”
We got a little further down the river than the girls. They rowed faster and worked together a little better, but with much more yelling. At one point I looked to the right and our Director was waving wildly at us and shouting in Czech to the boys to “Speak in English! English!”. She said some other stuff I couldn’t hear or understand. She was there to capture pictures. I think she was in shock. I waved back and shouted, “Everything is fiiiine!”
As we neared the bridge, one of the boys pointed to a sign on the left bank that read, “Pozor!” (That means “Caution”.) They got quiet and were all staring at me. The Leader. Expectant. Waiting for direction. The water casually licked the sides of the boat like ice cream as it drifted along in the calm. “Oh, should we turn around?” I asked with a sly smile. They nodded quickly, “Yes! Ano! Yes!”. I laughed and said, “Let’s do this!” I dug in with the brake and they quickly paddled left to turn us around. We got the heck out of there and we headed back.
We got into a rhythm and we enjoyed our trip back down the river. I watched them from the back; them as new comrades and boys being boys paddling down the river, and me being me.
As we neared the end of the trip, and the docking bank came into sight, the boys wanted to swim. I said, “No.” They asked again. I said, “No.” They asked a-gain. I said, “Ne, Ne, Ne. No. No!” After the fifth time of “Please, Peppurrrrr, can we jump” I yelled, “Jesus! Sure, go for it!” Because honestly, what did it truly matter? It is camp. They had on life vests. It’s water. It’s fun. It’s what you’re supposed to do. I sure as heck wasn’t swimming. Well, they jumped from the boat and guess what happened? When they jumped, the boat tipped over and I tipped with it. I was clenching my teeth, digging my fingers into the side of the boat and using my core and holding onto the bench seats with my legs in a python grip trying not to fall into the water. That all turned. out. to. be. purely. useless. I finally let go and toppled out of the boat and splashed into the murky river water, which was much deeper than I expected, and then I panicked because my feet touched and sunk quite rapidly into goopy gloppy seaweedy quicksandy I-don’t-know-what shit, of which I am quite terrified because I know Jaws or leeches or some other shit like The Creature from the Black Lagoon lives in that shit and was waiting to grab me and I started screaming and splashing and flailing; ok, screaming, splashing, flailing and laughing because I couldn’t get out fast enough and plus, the boys and everyone else on the bank were having so much fun and laughing, that it was a shame to not join them.
I finally climbed out and stood on the bank, dripping and covered in bits of black shit that I screamed at and flung off of me until I realized they were too big to be leeches. As the New Zealander tied up the boats, his eyes laughed and his dimples danced as he said, “That was funny as shit.” And it was. I watched the boys run off whooping and laughing, swinging their life vests and jabbing their oars in the air in victory. While I dripped, I was so thankful that my hair is natural and that I actually like to swim and blah blah and then I realized that my shoe was not on my foot. “Oh my god!” I said to my Czech leader and some of the girls still on the bank and looked into the dark water. “My shoe!” It had been captured by The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This shoe was my only sandal, the only one I owned here in the Czech Republic, and given to me by my brother and sister-in-law and affectionately called The Jesus Sandal because that’s what it looks like. “I need my shoe!”
I was ready to let the shoe go. I was going to be ok without having it. This was a life lesson.
Before we knew it, one of my girls jumped in, even though, really, we all yelled at her not to, and she somehow rescued my shoe! It was a true miracle. Like a boss, she dug around in the murk of which I was so afraid; she crouched down into the river, her chin skimmed the surface of the water. Her blue eyes bright. Her young brow determined. She pulled out my shoe and raised it high above her head, full of smiles. She was my hero because she didn’t give a shit about the shit in river. She gave a shit about me and I her.
I am thankful for their lessons.