The Exceptional Plunge
It was one of those end of August days in Iowa where it so badly wants to turn into autumn, but the 75% humidity that hangs in the air won’t let the temperature drop enough to make it so. A slight breeze blew threw the slightly overcast air at Gray’s Lake, the old quarry turned into a man-made body of water/walking trail/free place to take our children to play. It had a feel of an early fall day, with the bustling wind moving the leaves and the graying sky making it seem later than it was, but the humidity left our clothes sticking to us with any slight movement and our hair matted to our foreheads with sweat.
My wife and I hadn’t expected to let the kids play in the water. We held strong, because we didn’t bring a change of clothes or a towel, and the gross lake water would stink about our economical sedan for a minimum of ten days and the sand would be everywhere for roughly a week and a half. Our kids, six-year old daughter and 3-year old son, are a clever crew and also my wife and I were too tired and irritable and continue the fight. So, it became “no way, you can’t play in the lake” to “only wade in up to your knees” to “okay, but keep the water of your shirt” to “okay, just, don’t drown.”
I stood in the water near the shore and watched as my children frolicked in belly-button deep water. They splashed and hugged, and I felt silly for putting up so much of a fight on letting them play. They were having an enjoyable time, and an almost fearless time considering they couldn’t swim.
As the sun finally started to emerge from the clouds, a parade began to march down the beach and to the water. Men and women, dressed mainly in business casual and lead by a well built man in a gray suit, poured out of the parking lot towards the lake. The man in the suit waded out into the water, followed by a woman in white and a man in a white button-up shirt.
The man in the suit spoke a bit, and then grabbed the other man and dunked him into the green-ish water. The crowd applauded. A couple, who moments before had been swimming together, stopped and spooned in the water and watched. More people began to stream out into the water, young and old alike, to take their turn to be baptized. Even a mother and daughter had joined the group, still wearing bikinis. My son threw sand at my daughter. She yelled.
A couple of days later I took my son to a different lake. This one made by a large, Army Corps of Engineers project and blocked by a large dam. On the other side of that dam, was the Des Moines River. To prevent flooding and to continue the flow of the river, there is a large spillway. After a few days of heavy rain, the water rushed through the spillway and splashed and churned and made for an impressive site, and one that I knew would impress a young child.
Watching the water move was hypnotic. The movement and the power was calming. The noise of the water drowned out any other sounds and even thoughts. Standing maybe twenty-five feet above the water, all my son and I could focus on was the crashing. Its constant movement, yet unpredictable fury was almost calming. It slowed my heart rate and became meditative.
My son grabbed handfuls of gravel from the ground and threw rocks over a chain link fence protecting us. The water moved so violently that there was zero splash from the rocks entering the water. He found a couple of bigger rocks and threw them in one at a time, and still nothing. He threw in a stick, and it floated into the whitecaps and was destroyed or, at minimum, was rendered invisible.
The water poured and smashed and whipped. The green water turning into a white froth at the point of impact with the river. It would take a very large object and a very large leap to disrupt that movement, and even then it would only be for a moment as the rushing current would whisk whatever it was out into the stillness downstream, or that something would simply sink and never be seen again.
I stared and he continued chucking. My concentration broke when I realized he was trying to throw in his shoe.
The mid-morning sun shone from a window into her eyes. The light formed a sort of “Phantom of the Opera” mask on her face that would get broken up when her long hair fell in front of her face. I asked her if she wanted to move and she just stated simply and politely that she was used to it. It was hard for me to look directly at her while she spoke because I felt so bad for her, so I found myself looking at a photo collage just past her shoulders, the two degrees on the wall just to the right of those or, simply, the floor.
I sweat a lot anyway, but it was warm in her office and I was a little nervous as this was a big step for me to seek help, so that sweat was a little more profuse. The leather on her couch stuck to my arms and pressed my shirt to my back, so it too stuck when I would squirm in my seat and cause it to twist around my somewhat ample belly.
She slid off her flip-flops and tucked her legs underneath her. It forced her to up a little higher, and the ray of sunshine streaked across her chin and neck instead of her eyes. Her long brown skirt draped down to the floor and made her look like a she was a comfy ghost.
“Here’s what you need to consider,” she said, “you need to consider exactly what you want from work. What you are getting out of it”
“I don’t know,” I said, my eyes drifting back towards the floor. “I want to support my family, but the idea of work has gone from a nuisance to terrifying. I can’t tell if it’s laziness or what it is, but I just can’t take ‘a job,’ ya know? Even ones that keep me away from people, I still think about co-workers, bosses, auditors, whatever.”
“Well, sure. You went through some trauma; I can understand a bit of uneasiness. But what do you want to get out of work? What is the balance? The end game?” she asked.
“I don’t want to go back to the hospital.”
“That’s what you don’t want. What do you want?”
“I don’t want to be poor.”
“Then get a job and stick to it. Work hard at it and take promotions when they’re offered.”
“So then it isn’t just about money is it?” she asked.
“I guess not.”
“Think of it this way,” she said, “you plan a road trip to California. Halfway there, there is a detour. You take that detour, and it is annoying, but you take it and it takes you back on the road you want to be on. Right now, you are just driving around with no destination, so if a roadblock or a detour comes up, and you take it, it doesn’t matter in the long run, because you don’t even know where you end up. You may even be right back where you started. You need a destination. So, what do you value and what do you want to do and how can you do it?”
“I’m a pretty good writer and I like it,” I said.
“Okay, so do that.”
“I don’t know how to make money from it. I mean, I do, but even then I can’t pull the trigger.”
“What scares you?”
“I’m not scared.”
She glared at me. She rustled her fingers in her hair and sighed loudly.
“What if I fail? I have so much tied into my identity of being a ‘good’ writer that if I fail, I don’t have that anymore. So many people have told me how good I am, what if I’m not? What if they’re just being nice?”
“So, you value being exceptional. You don’t want to work a regular job. You don’t want to be poor. You want to be exceptional.”
“I guess, I mean, I don’t see myself as…”
“Then be exceptional.”
“I wouldn’t consider myself as…”
“No, this is a goal,” she interrupted, “I don’t mean exceptional like ‘better than everyone,’ I mean it literally. You are an exception to the norm, or at least that is what you value. Start from there.”
“Here’s what I want you to do. Write it out. Write out what you value.
Here’s what I value:
- I value this stupid taunting blinking cursor and my ability to spew forth whatever is clogging my mind.
- I value people taking steps to better themselves. It is tough and it sucks, but doing what it takes, be it through religion, exercise or just zen-like patience.
- I value the freedom I have to spend time with my family. I value the ability to pick my daughter up from school or take them to the doctor or take care of them if they’re ill or just take them to the park if I want.
- I value the ability to eat and pay rent and have water and a phone and access to this website from my couch. I value a trip to a restaurant or a weekend excursion. I value a celebratory toy or a trip to the grocery store that doesn’t leave me riddled with anxiety.
- I value my wife not worrying anymore.
- I value the ability to notice the little things. The things that make every day life tolerable.
These are my values. This is my destination. Please let the detours be short and painless.