On mountains, a rabbi and the West Coast
February 20, 2013
I have had the great good fortune, because of the hard work and dedication of our staff and board members, to get to spend a month paddling on the West Coast. Before I tell you about it, I hope you’ll humor me and go first to the scene of a climbing program a couple years ago.
Here’s the scene:
A tall, lanky young man is about two to three body-lengths up the wall. He climbed there quickly and elegantly. Now, though, he’s stopped. He curls into himself and begins to shake. He starts to look down, and we can see that he’s crying. A chorus of shouts, coming from every last person on the floor of the climbing wall, demands “DON’T LOOK DOWN!”
He makes himself as small as he can – squeezing his arms to his chest, squeezing his legs together, squeezing his eyes tightly closed. Multiple shouts erupt now. “Don’t look down!” “You can do it!” “Put your right foot on the blue hold!”
He’s stuck there a while longer. Then he wrenches his head upwards, (we assume he opens his eyes), and this time, he climbs to the top of the wall.
* * * * *
Fast forward a few years to San Francisco Bay, just last month.
We’ve “gone out the Gate,” as they say – which means we’re on the ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m in the water next to my boat. After watching three other students, I clip my tow line to the deck line at the bow of my boat and swim toward the cliff, my boat following on tow. There’s a ledge above the water, and another one below it that gets covered and uncovered with the swell. I watch the water go up and down; and eventually head in to the cliff, put my hands on the cliff wall above me, grasping it ever so lightly because of the mussels attached to it. I put my feet on the lower ledge. As the swell comes over the ledge, it lifts me gently to a standing position, my hands on the cliff wall at chest level now instead of over my head. I step up to the next ledge, and then one ledge higher. When the next swell comes, I discover I’ve successfully landed on a cliff face two feet above the swells.
I spend some time watching as the water rises and falls below me. Eventually I jump back into the water, swim my boat out from the cliff, and get back in. I have to get one of my fellow students to un-clip my tow line because I’ve left it clipped to the bow of my boat where I can’t reach it!
Steve, one of the coaches, moves us along to the next challenges. We paddle as close as we can to powerful dumping waves (a dumping wave releases all of its power at once, straight down in a powerful wall of water; these aren’t the gorgeous spilling waves that release their energy gradually over both time and distance, somewhat forgiving if you happen to get yourself in the impact zone…). We paddle as close to the cliffs as we can, in and around rocks, look for the perfect timing for runs in slots between rocks when the swell will carry us through, over rocks that will be exposed 30 seconds later when the swell has passed.
This Midwest girl falls behind, unable to quickly read the interaction of Pacific swell and rock. Steve and the other coach Jen have a short conversation while I watch a few swells come through the next slot before I run it. Jen paddles back to me to tell me that the rest of the group is going to go on and we’ll spend the time I need to watch the swell at each feature – to find me crying after successfully running the slot. I’m having an amazing time; in a month’s time the Pacific has changed my soul with its swell, its salt and its wildness. But it’s just too much information, too much stimulus that I have to respond to, too much new experience to process in too short a time. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed, and poor Jen finds herself confronted with a student who’s tearful for most of the rest of the afternoon.
Like the young man on the wall, I’m at my limit. Like the group of other young people on the floor of the climbing wall, Jen gets me past my limit and beyond. When we launch from a nasty dumping beach after lunch, several people get caught by the sucking of the waves racing back to the sea into the wall of water of the next wave. I time it right and use a good strategy; when I’m past the break Steve remarks, as I drop from my back deck to the seat of my boat, that I had a better launch than he did.
* * * * *
Fast forward another two weeks, and I’m back in Chicago listening to my priest and fellow paddler Bonnie Perry talk about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Rabbi Heschel tells us that people must experience wonder, they must have mountain top experiences, in order to develop the passion and stamina to work for social justice. I look at my hands, with their already-fading but still distinct drysuit tan lines – the bottom of my hands pale where the sleeves of my waterproof clothing covered them for a month of paddling, the rest of them tanned brown and cracked. It’s a visceral, kinesthetic reminder of the mountain top experience I just had. And mountain top it was. I paddled with migrating gray whales in San Diego where I watched one just yards from my boat repeatedly lift its massive head out of the water and dive deep; in Baja California where one swam right under my boat, so close I could see the barnacles on its back; and in San Francisco, where one came right in under the Golden Gate Bridge, playing in the same ebb current we were playing in. I paddled in Mexico through little slots between rocks, across overfalls that you have to time to ride with the swell or get stuck on the rocks that create the feature, among huge sea stacks with giant Pacific swell. I saw gorgeous, long period waves breaking at Point Loma at the entrance of San Diego Bay; and waves jacking up to huge heights out of nowhere against the ebb current, breaking in slow motion all the way across the shipping channel under the Golden Gate Bridge. I paddled at night in San Diego Bay with the city lights as the backdrop, successfully finding the spots Jen had set us to find – including the dock at the restaurant where dinner and a beer were waiting. I saw beauty in some of its wildest, most inspiring forms; and at its most serene. And I landed on a cliff wall.
* * * * *
I am reminded of that young man who stopped on the wall, came down multiple times, kept getting back on the wall, cried and shook and squeezed himself up as small as he could get – and then climbed to the top of the wall. I’m reminded of other young people in our programming who have mountain top experiences; who do what they thought was impossible. The young man who describes seeing the whole of Chicago from the top of the outdoor climbing wall; the young woman who describes watching the “water just open out in front” of her kayak.
The mountaintop takes courage. To get there, you have to risk not being good enough. You have to risk falling or failing, or just falling behind. You have to risk fear. You have to risk depending on someone else for help.
When you get there, it delivers joy. It holds a mirror to your finest, bravest, most joyful self; and demands that you live into it.
The best part of my job is watching when this happens for our young people. As one young woman said, “I have learned to be a better person at home in the streets and everywhere else I go.” Rabbi Heschel is right. The mountaintop demands our best self; our best work. Just as for that young woman, my own mountaintop demands that I be “a better person at home in the streets and everywhere else I go.” It demands that I continue to work to make this city safer for our kids; that I work to make sure they have access to the resources they need regardless of their race, their socioeconomic status, their sexual orientation, their national origin or any of the other factors that make life so unfair and treacherous for them. That I keep bringing Chicago youth to their own mountains and periodically remind them not to look down until they’ve reached the top.
The mountaintop demands that I, like it, see these young peoples’ best, bravest and most joyful selves; and that I help hold the mirror so that they and the world can see the same.
I have no idea what the mountaintop will demand of each of them.
I do know that whatever the demand, it will make this City and this world – its streets, its homes and everywhere else – a better city and a better world. These young peoples’ best, bravest and most joyful selves are a force to be reckoned with. They will show us what this world can be.
Steve Maynard is a Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach and the head paddling instructor at SUNY’s Expeditionary Studies program in Plattsburgh, NY.
John Carmody is also a Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach and the owner of Sea Cliff Kayakers in Boothbay, Maine. John was the primary coach for the 5 Star training in San Francisco where this post comes from. On the day of the vignette I share, I was with the half of the group working with Steve and Jen, so John doesn’t make an appearance in the story. If you’re a paddler and you have an opportunity to work with John – YOU SHOULD TAKE IT!
Jen Kleck was the first North American to become a Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach. (I was in great company in San Francisco!) She is the owner of Aqua Adventures in San Diego and the coordinator of the Baja Kayak festival in Baja California. You should go to Baja Kayak Festival, the first ever Baja Rock Garden Symposium, if you have the opportunity – April 11-14, 2013; and April 10 – 13, 2014.
Bonnie Perry is the rector (senior pastor) of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago – and the 4th woman in this country to earn her BCU 5 Star Award.