519: As the New Year comes, glide into: “An Awakening in Canoes,” Part 1

1 Heading out in a canoe Soon, the world will glide into the New Year 5770 as experienced through the eyes, minds and hearts of our Jewish brothers and sisters. But, by the time the High Holidays begin on Friday evening, our Jewish readers won’t be reading our stories, so we’re starting early with a wonderful two-day story by Lynne Meredith Schreiber.
    Occasionally, ReadTheSpirit takes the time and space to publish special multi-part stories. One of our most popular was Patricia Chargot’s “Two Holidays and a Funeral: Letters from a Northern Pilgrimage.” If you care to read more, that “Two Holidays” page has links to other multi-part series.
    As readers, you’ve told us that what truly inspires you are real-life spiritual stories. Patricia’s popular series was described as a “spiritual travelogue” and a “family pilgrimage” by our readers. There are similar elements in Lynne’s story today. This is a journey that seems to take us far away—even to sea—yet carries us inward and homeward at the same time.
    Enjoy …

AN AWAKENING IN CANOES, Part 1

By Lynne Meredith Schreiber

2 Ocean Waves To paddle a canoe on a calm stream denotes perfect confidence in one’s own ability to conduct business in a profitable way. To row with a sweetheart means an early marriage and fidelity. To row on rough waters—you will have to tame a shrew before you attain intimate bliss. And if you’re rowing through muddy waters, you will have disappointing business affairs.
   
In dreams, water symbolizes so many things: birth, rebirth, renewal, a return to the safety of the womb. But it also symbolizes the future, especially if the waters are clear.
   
And when there is a canoe involved, the symbolism deepens. The canoe represents resolution of a challenge, containment of the issues within a structure that is solid and sturdy and unlikely to be broken. It is the national symbol of Canada, a nation spread so far along the cold and vast land of North America that its people are divided between those who love canoes and everyone else.
   
The first attracts fewer folks than the latter group, but canoe lovers’ voices are fiercer, their enthusiasm never dampened even by harsh conditions. The frail craft, originally made from the bark of a birch tree, thin cedar slats, spruce roots and pine gum, carries in its gulping path a huge metaphorical load of community and life’s journey.

   

When I got on the plane and settled into my seat with the seven magazines I intended to read during the five-hour flight to Vancouver, I anticipated a trip of solitude and contemplation, of beauty and reverence and inspiration in the moments. I did not, however, anticipate being over-run with new friends, and I did not expect a religious awakening in the far reaches of Pacific Canada.
   
I first saw Lisa loudly lumbering up the aisle with her husband trailing behind. At my row, they stopped, smiled apologetically and I rose to let them find their seats beside me. Still, I wasn’t expecting conversation or friendship—just a smooth ride above the clouds to my once-a-year solo vacation of hiking and kayaking and good food and long restful sleep.
   
But the fates had other ideas for me. My gray felt bag of runes tucked in my backpack and a set of tarot cards, too, I turned the pages of the magazines and somehow a conversation began with Lisa, whom I learned is also Jewish, originally from suburban Detroit and now a resident of Victoria, B.C.
   
By the end of the flight, she was preparing to fix me up with single men in metro Detroit and we had agreed that I would ride in their car with them to the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay ferry. He was an electrician, she an artist, and between them there was a son. She had another son from a prior marriage and was as close as a sibling to her ex-husband. They were hippies of a sort, from the wandering days of the 1960s, having migrated across the United States to final roost in the far reaches of British Columbia.
   
I heard the whole life story as the landscape changed from wheat-colored fields to luscious blue ocean waters and seaside cliffs where highways ended and sky began. We bumbled the car onto the ferry in a line of cars heading in similar directions, shut the motor, opened the doors and meandered toward the sun-bathed decks.
   
As we made our way between out islands and mainland, a pod of whales crested and dove alongside the ship. I stared longingly at their smooth break and curve into what had to be cold waters, I watched as we passed empty beaches in quiet coves, and then two more pods joined the journey and eagles soared above us in the clear late-afternoon sky. We ate food in the cafeteria and I watched the beauty of the Active Pass and I breathed deeply the air of contentment. My children were thousands of miles away in the embrace of their father and I had myself for comfort.

3 Waters along the shore    
On land once again, Lisa drove me to the door of my bed-and-breakfast, a small house among houses near the shoreline, one block from the passageway between the Olympic Mountains of Washington state and the edge of B.C. Effusive in my thanks, I opened the door and pulled my suitcases out of the car. We hugged our farewells, friends now after so many hours of getting-to-know-you and the familiar glue of knowing what it is to grow up in a tight Jewish community in suburban Detroit. It was as if we were sisters of a sort and as they drove away, I waved and watched the old minivan disappear down the street.
    Up the steps of Binners B&B, the gray exterior of the house and the English gardens in full bloom all around the small front lawn, I stopped at the door. There hung a mezuzah, the tiny parchment insurance policy, a blessing from above to mark the house a home and recognize certain rituals of tradition that are hard to abandon, even by the most secular of Jews. I was so far away from what I envisioned to be a Jewish community—both in geography and in emotion. And yet I chose a B&B owned by Jews by pure coincidence. Or maybe it wasn’t.
   
They showed me to my room—a glorious continuation of spaces from jetted tub and heated tiles in the bathroom floor to a cozy queen bed with curtains on the French doors that led to the sitting room. The sitting room was mine to enjoy, with CD player and television and a laptop for my use. Windows all around and the sun rose early in Victoria.
   
I ventured into town for dinner at the Blue Crab Bar & Grill, a waterfront hotel dining room where I ate raw oysters fresh from the sea and a salad of fresh greens. The bay water moved as the world fell still. Though I had traveled long hours and many miles, I was energized. On sailboats outside the restaurant, with small Canadian flags fluttered in rapid wind. A maple leaf, a white cloak, the red that grabs attention against the soothing white of snow.
   
A glass of dark Shiraz and then another, I drank gem stones. So far from home, I thought of the plaque on the wall beside my office computer: What would you do if you knew you could not fail? And then I wondered: Is failing more proof of living than success?
   
My aisle seat on the plane, chosen by my father who gave me the ticket, was chosen for the leg room, the easy exit, the access to escape once the plane descended. Beside me, a coincidence? Friendship, guidance, a north star among unfamiliar skies.
   
I could see my country from the breakwater, a space I walked along after dinner to ease the tired that was creeping in. Snow topped the mountains, even in summer. It was June 21st, the longest day of the year, the sunlight stretching far into the night to kick morning in close. I walked forested paths, in quiet repose, in thought, in song. I wrote in my journal: I am like a sea plane, perched on the water, never submerged, gaining lift with momentum and incentive, wings spread to fly.

   

That night, I settled into the fluffy bed with a University of Michigan LSA Magazine, the Spring 2009 edition which had gathered dust in my office. When I travel, I finally read the periodicals I collect with good intentions. I don’t know why I don’t read them during the normal ebb and flow of my days at home. I become singularly focused on work and children and the sound of the air outside my office window and the way the house looks at the end of each day.
   
On the plane, an article by William Least-Heat Moon in the WSJ Magazine spoke of the power of travel, the coast of a canoe. Canoes were in my mind as I have learned to be aware of the signs and stories all around me. And then, in the magazine of my alma mater, a professor in a canoe on dry land, and the title: Everywhere, Canoes.
   
Vince Diaz. Canoe Cultures class. “Through canoes,” Vince Diaz told his students, “you will learn about yourself. Canoes are a platform for addressing issues.”
   
Raised in Guam, he became a strident “born-again native” and subsequently ardent purveyor of the Islander tradition, which was punctuated by canoes. The way a vast archipelago was settled by its own people—not European interlopers—was by virtue of the staying power of a canoe. And now, at the University of Michigan, he teaches students to build canoes as a way of teaching about cultural tradition. Canoes are “vessels that carry ideas as well as people, containers of culture as well as objects.”

   
What was all this talk about canoes? Why now? I had traveled to Canada for the mountains I would hike two days later and the ocean waters I would kayak after I slept that night—I had no intention or desire to climb into a canoe. But clearly, the message was finding me. There was something I needed to know.
   
When I was a child, I spent one month every summer at a sleepover camp in northern Wisconsin. Camp Birch Trail, on Lake Pokegama, was nestled beneath tall old trees. The waterskiing point was reached by a ten-minute traverse along a path cut through old growth and then, the little tinny dock jutted out ten feet or so into the still lake. Counselors encouraged the littlest girls to pee outside the cabin door if they had to go late at night instead of walking through dark woods to the wash house for fear of bears.
   
Once each session, every group of girls had the good fortune to take a three-day trip down a quiet Wisconsin river. We paddled canoes, rarely reaching rapids, almost bored by the meander. I certainly was. At night, we beached our canoes and put up tents, lit a crackling fire over which to cook spaghetti and hot dogs and corn and in the morning, pancakes on the dying embers before we pushed off once again.
   
As much as I love to travel now, I would be OK if I never climbed into a canoe again. I remember those journeys as slow and long, untold miles ahead around bends of a river with such sameness I wasn’t sure we had moved. It was a burden I endured as a part of camp; all my friends and I really wanted to see in the miles we traveled was was a glimpse of some of the boys from a nearby camp journeying along the same river.

4 Waters and a leaf     In B.C., what did I need to see? I hiked up Mt. Finlayson in Goldstream Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, and along the steep trail I befriended the Bergmans. We danced around the specifics of our lives, sharing general notions and descriptions of what we do when we’re not scaling mountains. If not for their conversation along the tree-covered paths, I would surely have turned back for the altitude strained my intake of air. And then, as we stepped delicately along the one-foot-wide trail between sheer rock faces just under the summit, it was the gentle voices of people I had come to know in short order that coached me down from the precarious top.
   
At the mountain’s base, as we exchanged contact information, I learned their surname and acknowledged our shared Jewish heritage. In my hybrid rental car, I careened toward Butchart Gardens and afternoon tea on the patio as my lunch, a hummingbird fluttering and dipping its beak into a basket of bright pink flowers.
   
That night, someone suggested I dine at Canoe, a restaurant on Swift Street. I didn’t—I was too tired from the day’s activities—but I recognized the metaphor. Back at the B&B, Binners and Edward regaled me with tales of their Jewish brethren in Detroit—prominent leaders in my home community and synagogue members as well—and I recalled the trail of conversation with the Bergmans, how our lives were marked by milestones and the rituals we assign to them.
    Everywhere I turned, there were Jews in British Columbia. Lisa called and emailed—did I want to meet for dinner, would I like to take a day trip together? I begged off. I had come this far to hear the silence and know my own voice, but the fates were forcing me to focus on my Jewish identity.
   
The following day, I stumbled upon a used bookstore tucked down an alleyway in Victoria. Just in the door, a bell ringing as it shut slowly, I came upon a vivid display of five books, all about canoes. “I have to buy these,” I told the proprietor. I fingered the smooth covers of Fire in the Bones: Bill Mason and the Canadian Canoeing Tradition and The Canoe: An Illustrated History.
   
On vacation, it is easy to lose sight of simple directives like budget and patience. I didn’t need additional books, certainly not tomes bestowing the virtue of a pastime and a method of travel I had no intention of adopting. Still. I bought three and arranged for shipping across borders.

   
The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfaction. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known. (Sigurd F. Olson, The Singing Wilderness)
    My canoe was becoming clearer to me. One year prior, I had divorced my husband and jumped full-force into a new business. My life was dotted with change and framed by freedom. Add to that the fact that I’d spent ten years prior trying to live as an Orthodox Jew in a rigid, closed community. I was coming out of other people’s expectations and into my own and now it was time for me to claim my own freedom and listen to the lessons in the reeds.
   
I was giving in to the notion that it didn’t matter what was around the next bend of the river—I was here in this capacity, in this moment, in this setting and I’d better soak it up. Along the path, every sign was pointing to the importance of not losing my treasured identity. Just figure out what being Jewish means to you, the air whispered. It’s yours for the discovery; don’t abandon what matters.

READ the Conclusion of “An Awakening in Canoes”

Lynne Meredith Schreiber has written five books and thousands of magazine articles. She is the Chief Creative Officer of Your People LLC, a Michigan company that provides community-focused marketing and public relations.

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