Blog

Stories from a life in progress.

Rowing out

My head is full of water metaphors lately.  On my tai chi teacher's blog, I'm in the middle of writing a series about habits and change, using rivers and unusual phenomena like tidal bores as jumping-off places.  In response to my frustrations of last week (actually frustrations which have built up over many weeks and months), I'm thinking about ocean rowing.

I was introduced to the idea by a podcast series from 2008, recorded by rower Roz Savage with on-land host Leo Laporte during the first leg of her solo row across the Pacific Ocean.  (Yes, you read that right.  Solo. Pacific Ocean.  ROWBOAT.)

It's been years since I listened to that podcast, but one part of the story is coming back to me now, the part which feels like the metaphor I need.

Getting away from shore is always an issue for human-powered craft.  The waves want to push you back in.  It takes some focused work to do it, whether you're rowing a boat or paddling a surfboard.  If you try it at the wrong time and place, you don't have a chance -- you're not going to beat a strong incoming tide.

Worse than that, Savage started her run from San Francisco.  At that latitude, the prevailing winds blow east, not west -- winds strong enough to blow her right back to California.  A sailboat can take some advantage of headwinds to go forward.  A rowboat can't.

Savage's first day blog report notes that it would take at least some 200 miles of progress before she would reach a latitude where the winds would start to help her.  Until then, it was constant work to go forwards, often in the very teeth of headwinds trying to send her backwards.  It was not uncommon to gain miles of progress in a day and then lose miles while asleep, even with a sea anchor to help maintain her position.  And there was nothing to do about it but sit back down and keep rowing.

It's a potent, daunting image.

As a metaphor, it's showing me two things.

First is that beginnings are hard.  They take extra time and work.  Getting out past the surf, out past coastal currents and adverse winds, out into the deep is just plain not easy.  Steady, constant, focused work is necessary to do it. 

Sit down and row.  That's all there is, but that simple thing is utterly essential.

Second is that external conditions matter.  Savage couldn't just pick a day and start.  She needed to get everything ready, and then wait for her chance -- several days of light winds to give her a fighting chance to get underway.  Once she knew the day, she also needed the right time -- middle of the night at slack tide.  Until the tide stopped coming in, she couldn't even row out past the Golden Gate Bridge, let alone into open water.

"Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.  Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain."  (Ps. 127)  Unless the LORD calms the winds, the rowboat doesn't get going either, I suppose.  And If the LORD doesn't foster her success, a writer won't succeed. 

The modern story of "you can make your own success!" is at least half fiction.  External factors can't be handwaved away.  You have to find the right way to work with them, to get them on your side so you have a chance.  Even then, there's no guarantee they won't roll you upside down and break all your stuff.

I think it's time for me to focus and get to work as a blogger.  This is what I want to do, and I think it fits into the bigger story of what I am made for.  I am tired of feeling like I paddle out just to get washed back on the beach.  I see that I need to apply more focus and stay aware that the work is hard but necessary.  

I also need to be aware there are no guarantees I'll get anywhere.  I can produce work, but who knows what it will ultimately add up to?  Work is necessary to starting something big.  Other things are necessary too, things outside of my control.  This is not a reason to give up and stay home.  But forgetting this risks disillusionment and disaster.

I'd like to row out.  I'd like to get properly underway.  Time will tell where I end up.  But I want to go.