The story that Itzhak Perlman played a concert on a violin with only three strings appeared years ago. A string snapped and he finished the piece, “modulating and recomposing” in his head. Afterwards, Perlman was said to have offered this insight: “It’s the artist’s task to see what music you can still make with what you have left.”*
I think we find ourselves at times improvising with “what we have left.” We may have based a task or goal on certain emotional, mental or spiritual habits. They change. We find ourselves with only “three strings.” So how do we improvise with “what we have left” to stay focused on our goals?
I’m finding out. I have to admit a lot of bravado in my approach to water sports. I would boast to friends that if I ever capsized sailing, I would eventually drift to shore and get poison ivy. Kayaking? Who capsizes doing that?
Once I launched my sailboat when the wind was too strong, convinced I could handle it. The feeling of being on the edge of capsizing was terrifying. I made it, but that feeling hasn’t left me. Then I capsized my kayak, twice in deep water. Both times I scrambled to safety, but I remember panic as I fell into the river.
I’ve overcome those feelings to kayak regularly, but getting out my sailboat has been harder. I can’t blame the lousy weather totally…I have to admit my bravado is gone. Other life events have increased my feelings of vulnerability.
I’ll sail again, but I’ll have to improvise on three strings.
So, Lora, what ‘cha got left?
* There may be issues with this story. See Snopes.com for their research.
I checked my dignity at the beach before taking an advanced kayaking class offered by Pymatuning State Park. The challenge was to learn how to rescue someone (yourself or others) after capsizing in deep water.
There are several techniques, and to dump into the water, then hoist yourself onto a light, narrow boat is a feat, especially for us 50 somethings. Even with someone holding your kayak (from their kayak), even with a hand up. You slide onto the boat facing the stern, then turn, stuffing your limbs into the cockpit, and oh, by the way, maintaining balance while you’re at it. (Where did my paddle go?)
You couldn’t worry about how you looked. Our movements were awkward and decidedly ungraceful.
I tried different techniques: a “T” rescue, using a paddle float, and a strap. I accomplished two of the three, with leg cramps and lack of upper body strength prohibiting success in the other. The next day I was feelin’ it, limping around the house nursing bumps and bruises and stretched muscles. And that’s after six years of paddling.
What I learned mostly was what it feels like to be in that situation. How hard it is to rescue. To trust my life jacket to do its job so I could focus on other tasks. But maybe the most important of all: what to expect from myself if the worst happens.
We can find grace in awkward situations, when we’re caught in a hard place. It’s not always pretty. But who ever said grace is?
Where do you go when you need to find peace? Do you head to a favorite place when you feel disquiet or distress? How does it help you?
I’m blessed that I live fifteen minutes from Pymatuning, the biggest lake in Pennsylvania (which empties into the Shenango River), and a three minute walk from Conneaut Lake, the biggest spring fed (natural) lake in the state. My favorite poem, W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle Of Innisfree” reflects the narrator’s love for the water, what he found there, and what he carried with him away from the lake. Recently I desperately needed peace and that’s where I went to find it: I threw my kayak in the car and headed for Pymatuning.
God’s gift of peace through hearing the natural rhythms of “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” and the physical rhythms of paddling helped get me on the path to a spiritual peace.
God uses the natural to get us to the spiritual. Yeats: “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow/Dropping from the veils of the morning….” (If you’d like to hear a wonderful oral interpretation, listen to Anthony Hopkins’ recitation on the Poetry Out Loud website www.poetryoutloud.org.)
My favorite Scripture also reflects peace in encouraging me to have confidence, because I will see God’s goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13-14).
But I needed to go to the lake to be reminded of His goodness in my “land.”
A salute! as I near the end of a great season of paddling…some life lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Respect the River, or it will remind you of your place in the universe.
2. Prepare for the trip. You can’t bluff your way along. Sooner or later you’ll be found out.
3. When trouble comes, you can’t run home to Mom. You can’t quit. (There’s no exit.) You have to finish the trip. (Speaking from experience.)
4. Go with the flow. Understand the current and where it takes you.
5. It’s true. Still waters really do run deep. They offer a respite from active water. But they are more work to paddle.
6. Anticipate obstacles and plan ahead. If you hit them, they’re in charge.
7. Be reminded how big the world is outside of you.
8. If disaster happens and you go over, your life jacket will intervene. Let your Protection and Safety work for you while you get yourself to shore. And Stay with the Boat. Stay with the Boat. Stay with the Boat.
9. Experience is all fine and good, but stay humble. You don’t know it all.
10. Yes, it’s risky. But so is life. So go ahead and dare, and have fun while you’re at it.
I was focused after capsizing my kayak on the Shenango River.
I rounded a turn and saw a large branch, but figured I’d let myself slide off it and be on my way. But the current had other ideas. It trapped my boat against the branch and I was over, gasping and scrambling in the deep water. My lunch and paddle floated away. Water filled the unsecured dry hatch. My life jacket wasn’t tight enough; it was pushing up to my ears.
I was totally given over to getting myself out of my predicament. The mantra from rescue training rolled through my head: “Stay with the boat!” I grabbed at the edges of the cockpit, now upside down, and tried to find the bottom with my feet. Nothing. There was only room for one other thought: “Jesus!”
Finally I stepped on stones and fellow paddlers helped drag my boat to shore, empty it and round up my errant equipment. I caught my breath, shaking from cold and fright. I had to paddle soaking wet until we could stop and a friend handed me her dry clothes.
I thought I knew the dangers. But I had never imagined them strongly enough to prepare just in case, as necessary on the river. Now I have no trouble imagining the results of poor preparation. I lived it.
Imagination isn’t only useful in the “artistic” realm. God gave us imagination to help us think critically, especially while trying to figure out Plan B in deep water. My “bad example” has become a running joke in my kayaking group. Hey, I deserve it!
The wind had died and I was on my knees paddling my dinghy, bracing the tiller against my leg to keep the boat straight. When a puff of wind rippled the water I adjusted the sail to catch it, but soon was back to paddling.
But whether slowly bumping and sliding, sail limp, or driven by a brisk wind, a sailor has to remain constantly focused on wind direction and speed, the path of other boats, wave action, shallow water, and distance to shore. That’s one reason I love sailing. I am completely engrossed from launch to landing and unable to think about much else.
My other favorite water sport, kayaking, has its own rhythm and flow on lakes, but doesn’t demand the same concentration. (Rivers are another story!) In fact, often I allow my mind to wander and not into productive areas. I recall old frustrations, or try to puzzle through a perplexing problem. I finish physically spent, but too often not emotionally refreshed. When I sail, I arrive on shore exhilarated with hair standing up from being soaked and dried on the fly. For a while I am lost to the world: sailing is not that far from paradise.
Maybe this is “losing your mind” in a positive way. Do you have a hobby, work project, or activity that demands your total attention? Or said another way, that you focus your mind on and freely give yourself to? What do you discover in that absolute concentration? Next time I’ll tie in imagination and faith to this life-giving habit of mind.