Thursday, January 20, 2011

how's it going

I recently finished reading this marvelous little book:

which I would really highly recommend. I have 5 passages marked that I really liked, and there were probably more that I would have marked had it been my copy of the book and if I'd had a pen nearby (as it is, I was tearing off bits of the scrap paper I was using as a bookmark and hoping I would remember why I had stuck it in that page).

One of these passages tells the story of her artist friend who lived nearby on an island in the pacific northwest. She was visiting him one day and asked how his work was going. And he responded by telling a rather long and involved story of another fellow who had lived on the island.

(I'll try to paraphrase it.)

Apparently it was very common for these islanders to scavenge logs out floating in the channel to use for building. This other man saw a good log out there and rowed out to get it. He tied onto it and then started the attempt to row back to the island. But the tide then changed and pulled the log and him further south even as he continued to row north.

(ah, I'll just quote it)

"He was rowing to the north and moving fast to the south. He traveled stern first. He wanted to be going home, so toward home he kept pulling. When the sun set, at about nine o'clock, he'd swept south the length of this beach, rowing north all the way. When the moon rose a few hours later - he told us - he saw he'd swept south past the island altogether and out into the channel between here and Stuat Island. He had been rowing though those dark hours. He continued to row away from Stuart Island and continued to see it get closer.

"Then he felt the tide go slack, and then he felt it coming in again. The current had reversed."

"He kept rowing in the half moonlight. The tide poured in from the south. He kept rowing north for home - only now the log was with him. He and his log were both floating on the current, and the current was bearing them up and carrying them like platters. It started to get light at about three o'clock, and he rowed back past this island's southern tip. The sun came up, and he rowed all the length of this beach. The tide brought him home."

"He pulled up on his own beach. They got the log rolled beyond the tideline. I saw him a few days later. Everybody knew he'd been carried out almost to Stuart Island, trying to bring in a log. Everybody knew he just kept rowing in the same direction."

And then he said
"So that's how my work is going."
"You asked how my work is going, he said. That's how it's going. The current's got me. Feels like I'm about in the middle of the channel now. I just keep at it. I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in."

So, I don't know why exactly, but this struck me. That is just how things go sometimes. Life. It's like this. And some might say that is pessimistic, or fatalistic, or irresponsible. Don't we create our own destinies? Don't we choose our happiness? Don't we control the things we do and the way our life goes?

Well. No.
Not always.
I don't think we always do.

Sometimes we get swept out beyond where we intended to be and the only thing we can do is to wait for the tide to change. Sometimes we just keep rowing in the direction we want to go even when we can see that we are constantly slipping the opposite way.

Sometimes the only thing we can say about an experience, or a goal, or a challenge is that we didn't give up. We didn't stop rowing. Sometimes the wait is long and everyone on the shore is pacing, concerned and alarmed, wondering what is going on, what is going wrong, where you are and what's taken you so long. But sometimes it's just all we can do to keep rowing and wait and hope for the tide. Sometimes that's enough.

So, sometimes, perhaps you might ask me, or you might ask someone else, "so how's it going?" how's the 'work' going? how are you? how's life?

And, sometimes, I might respond by telling you a story about a man on an island, who saw a log out in the channel that he wanted to bring in, who rowed out for it and got caught in the tide and kept rowing towards home all night long until the tide changed that brought him back.
And that's how it's going.


Anonymous said...

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. You have a wonderful way with words, Kristen. And I loved the story. It's so true. Sometimes we just have to keep rowing and wait or hope for the tide to change. Love you!

Mom B. said...

I didn't mean to publish that comment as Anonymous. I hit the wrong button!

heather b. said...


Do you know what island it was? One of the San Juans, no?

Kristen said...

yes, Heather, I had to go back through and look, but it was indeed one of the San Juans. How did you know, smartypants? ;)

Mr. Sessions said...


Well said. It is a great metaphor for how I feel many days. As I teach kids each year, I get a new crop. I look them over and see while they are not where I want them to be yet, I can see the future for each one and I keep pulling them into deeper water even if they kick and scream because I know that only the great swimmers can handle deep water. What I would like to add to the metaphor is that swimming against the current takes a whole lot of grit, patience, and endurance. Especially patience I have found. Thanks again for helping me to think about things. laird

Morgan -Ing said...

Such true statements. We can't control much, I'm learning. Most control is an illusion. Just have the breathe and keep on going.

Colleen said...

Love Annie Dillard, I should read this one. She really knows how to dig in and say something truly profound. I love that analogy. And I agree, sometimes life throws us some curveballs and all we can do is row. Nicely put.

Tricia F said...

good stuff

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