Posted by: Jane
"Do not go gentle into that good night . . . / Rage, rage against the dying of the light"
I will always remember September 30, 2012 as a day of raging.
We awoke that morning with adventure in our hearts and adrenaline in our veins. The day before, Rob and I had arrived at Waterfront Lodge, the gateway to Victoria Falls in Zambia. With three wide open days on our hands—and, presumably, money to spare—our tour group had been ushered into a large on-site amphitheater. There, an impressively produced marketing video teased us with all sorts of once-in-a-lifetime experiences: Frolic with the lions! Climb atop an elephant! Take a bungee plunge from Victoria Falls Bridge! Soar the skies in a microglider!
The choices were seductive, and somewhat overwhelming. Eventually, however—using an unscientific formula of adventure ( + ) duration ( - ) cost ( + ) gut feel—we were close to settling on a choice or two.
Rafting the Zambezi River topped the list.
“I’m a guide,” offered a 50-ish, wiry, weathered and confident blond to my left. He’d obviously overheard our deliberations. “If you have any questions, I can answer them all.”
- How were the conditions? I asked.
- Superb, he said.
- What class? I wondered. (As if I had a clue).
- Class V. Best in the world. Best time to be here.
“And,” he added, “we’re fully insured. Medical evacuation, all of that.”
Sign us up.
The next morning, September 30, we were back in the same amphitheater, watching a safety demonstration straight out of Laurel and Hardy. Designed, I’m sure, to set us at ease, the performance actually created a false sense of security—a feeling that, despite Mother Nature’s power, nothing could possibly go wrong on the river.
- If you fall out of the boat, we’ll throw you this line, said one guide.
- Don’t wrap it around your neck, quipped another.
- Hahaha! chirped we would-be rafters.
Soon enough, we were on the river. Nervous energy snapped through our systems like electricity crackling through a power line. We were ready. We were adventurers. The pre-rafting video proves it:
“Hoo-ah!” we shout, hoisting our oars overhead.
We launched at The Boiling Pot, just around the bend from the cataract. The name alone should have clued me in: This rafting trip would be no Denali River, no interior Bali. In stark contrast to both—where I’d experienced Class II rapids, believing they were hard core—the Zambezi churned and raged. Still, it was exciting. This river was one of, if not the, best rivers for whitewater rafting. Whatever that meant, Rob and I would bring home a real souvenir: The knowledge that we’d done something most people hadn’t.
The first rapid was a thrill. We floated under Victoria Falls Bridge, waving to the bungee jumpers high above, right before shooting through the roil and popping out the other side—just enough water in our
faces, just enough jostling through the torrents—to awaken an exhilarating anticipation for the next.
One short run later, we approached our first bona fide Class V: Morning Glory.
“We can go left, or we can go right,” our guide, Voster, offered. “No flipping that way.”
The six of us in the raft looked sideways at each other.
“Or,” he added, “We can go right down the middle. No guarantees then!”
Our raft chose the middle.
Later, watching the video, the whole thing was over in 30 seconds; yet it felt like a total loss of time, space, and reference. “Get down!” Voster shouted, and our raft slammed into the central entrance to Morning Glory—a significant pothole topping the longest rapid of the river. Before I could take a breath, I was face down in the raging river, ripped from the safety rope and stripped of my oar. I was vaguely aware our raft had capsized—and acutely aware I was alone. As the roaring fury pushed me under, spat me out, and swept me below again, I did exactly what those of us familiar with the water know not to do:
It’s difficult to describe, even now, the horror of those seconds. I didn’t want to die. Unable to escape the violent surge, I was certain I would. And yet I raged and struggled—to swim, to breathe, to scream.
Succeeding at none, my panic intensified. I can’t do this to Rob, I recall thinking. Where is Rob? Where am I? Will they even find me?
I didn’t sleep for two nights. Closing my eyes, I’d replay the experience over and over, trying to make sense of it, breaking into a cold sweat. This close, my psyche whispered. This close.
The post-traumatic realization was, for some reason, even more chilling than the experience itself. I became somewhat obsessed—talking about it to anyone who would listen, showing the video to anyone who would watch.
Rob was patiently encouraging: Talk it out, he’d say. It’s okay.
Then one Saturday morning, near the height of my preoccupation, I happened to log into Facebook.
There was a message from my college roommate. “I can’t believe it,” she began. “Collette died.”
Collette was a casual but ever-present friend at BC, a best buddy to my roommate and a vibrant presence. I’d lost touch with her after graduation, but had reconnected on Facebook a few years ago, catching up on her life: A military husband, whom she adored; a beautiful little girl, whom she adored more. The family moved a lot for work, traveled a lot for pleasure, and smiled a lot out of happiness. Subtle clues pointed to a victorious bout with breast cancer; while keeping her own experience private, she publicly cheered for early detection, research funding, and others facing the same battle.
Collette was 41 when she died. Her daughter was six.
I could say more, could try to analyze the bigger meaning, but that would cheapen the lesson I’m trying to teach myself.
I’m grateful for second chances.
Posted by: Jane
There was nothing remarkable, that Monday morning a few months back, that forever burned an image of the weather into my mind. Was it crisp, cool-but-not-cold, and cheerfully sunny as it had been on September 11, 2001? I don't remember. It could have been; though I think it's more likely to have been overcast and humid—the remnants of a weather system that was supposed to have delivered Tropical Storm Irene
to Vermont. What a bust: As I gazed out our front window on my way out the door for work, I couldn't identify a single branch out of place, a single storm drain on the verge of overflowing, not even one wind-blown shingle.
"I'd love to be a meteorologist," I muttered to myself (and not for the first time) as I headed to a job I was sure carried more accountability than yammering in front of a blue screen on camera. "How can you possibly fumble this one?"
Chatter around the office that morning focused on the Storm that Wasn't. Some co-workers had an annoying commute to work due to a few downed trees; others had a little water in the basement; still others had lost power for an hour or two —but so what? The collective mood was one of palpable disappointment: That after all the adrenaline-fueled trips to the grocery store for batteries and food, Nothing had Actually Happened.
No matter that much of the greater Burlington area was still dealing with record flooding from the spring thaw; we craved a little excitement. Irene had failed to deliver, and now, to our dismay, we actually had to get to work.
When the first reports began to trickle in, they seemed . . . if not unreal, then somewhat distant. Some roads were washed out; some basements were flooded; but—as we were learning—certain areas of the state actually had experienced significant rain overnight. In that context, the damages made sense. And while they were unfortunate, we told ourselves, things could have been far worse.
As many of you know from the national reports, they were
far worse. But for those of us in Chittenden County who were chained to desk jobs and sequestered in meetings, it took until mid-day that August 29th to actually learn about it. And as powerful as the images must have been for those of you out of state, they were heart-rending for those of us in-state. Completely unpredictable flash-flooding in almost every county meant that neighbors lost homes. Friends lost businesses—some for the second time this year. The farmers we know and love lost crops, animals, and their livelihoods. Entire towns were obliterated.
And then something remarkable happened: Something you've also likely heard about. These friends, farmers, neighbors and towns stood up, looked around, and said, "What the f*&k can you do?" Then they got to work. Perhaps even more remarkable, people they didn't even know showed up to help. They built websites to organize volunteers. They brought trucks, backhoes, rakes and buckets to muck out homes. They cooked meals for hundreds of people. They offered vacation homes and spare rooms to house the homeless. The list goes on and on; and I know I can speak for more than myself when I say the reponse has been inspiring—and will continue to be for years to come when I remember how Rob's and my adopted state stood together to be Vermont Strong.
So, this Thanksgiving, as I reflect on the hundreds of blessings I have in my life, this one stands out: That in a state where residents can easily view each other through the suspicion of ideology (all of the kale-munching hippies in Burlington can't possibly have anything in common with all the hicks jack-lighting deer in the backwoods), the stereotypes fall away when it really matters. No one cares if you voted for Barack Obama or John McCain; they only care that you're a human being, and that you could use a little help. It gives me hope for the future, and is the lesson I will carry with me. Irene, you've been a royal bi-atch, but I thank you for that, and for the chance to witness, and participate in a very small way, in the resilience of the human spirit.
Wishing you and yours a safe, healthy, happy Thanksgiving focused on the gift we all are to each other.
Posted by: Jane
A few days ago—when writing a description for MLK Day of Service
for a client—I stumbled across this quote from the Reverend himself: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
I’ve been pondering this question all week—and am embarrassed to say that I can’t really answer it. Sure, I’ve always had grand ideas when it comes to volunteering and serving the community—and sometimes I actually do something about it—but for the most part, when it comes to executing those ideas, I fall flat on my face. The reasons are predictable: Work is too stressful. Weekends are too short. I’d rather go for a run. I need to sleep. The reasons are also lame: How much time do I actually spend on the couch, enjoying some wine and watching Anthony Bourdain? If I were to answer that—which I won’t—I would say a lot.
But then I got to thinking: “Doing for others” doesn’t necessarily require a lofty intent. It can be as simple as giving a truffle to a friend who’s having a bad day. It can be as easy as punching a few digits and asking, “Is there anything you need?” of a relative living alone. It can be as fast as carrying an elderly neighbor’s groceries into the house. And yet—as each of you has come to know about me—I still fall flat on my face.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve each done something for others this year—and I know this because I’ve been one of the lucky recipients. You’ve watched our cats. You’ve bought us dinner. You’ve gone out of your way to serve gluten-free goodies, despite the inconvenience. You’ve helped paint our house. You’ve become foster parents to a 1950s-era stove. You’ve laughed at my juvenile jokes. You’ve shared even more juvenile jokes. You’ve been there. You’ve listened. You’ve thought of me.
This Thanksgiving, as I contemplate ways I can improve my own “doing for others,” I’m grateful for this: That no matter how self-absorbed I am—no matter how many times I fail at delivering that truffle, picking up that phone, or carrying those groceries—you accept that about me, and expect nothing more. While I don’t say it enough, I am truly fortunate to have you in my life.
May you find yourself surrounded by good family, great friends, and the warmth and comfort of home this year. Happy Thanksgiving!