Capsizing a Canoe & the Kindness of Strangers

November 26, 2017

I made the mistake of trying to reason with my ex-husband the other day. Yes, I know, when will I ever learn? But at this point we've wasted over a year of college tuition on legal bills. I'm likely to shell out another $20K over the next six months (yes, really). My lawyer doesn't anticipate any resolution until next September. And this pointless fighting over what is so damned clear - C belongs with me in Massachusetts - because of my ex's denial about his health, his career's demands on his time, and my need to create long-term stability for our son and prepare for the day when his father won't be able to work and contribute to his support (I'm anticipating that will come sometime in the next five years).


I tried to talk to him about it. It didn't go well. And then, because no one knows how to push your buttons like someone who lived with you for six plus years, he texted - Well, wait until all your lies come out in court.



Pre-capsizing, with my new ex-MIL. Photo credit Douglas Lewis, aka Grandpapa



Quite honestly, I've been wracking my brains since that text trying to figure out what the hell I've lied about. See, as utterly scary as it was (and is!) to live my life openly, to claim words like 'survivor,' 'domestic abuse,' and to talk about my life's experiences, it's also been incredibly freeing. I have nothing to hide. No, I haven't publicly told all my stories. That's because, as Brene Brown would put, you have to earn that level of trust. It's not due to shame anymore, however, it simply isn't time to tell those stories yet. But I've come a long way from the up-tight, control freak I once was, hiding my secrets and my shame behind the hyper-competent exterior. Books like Brene Brown's have helped, but so has therapy.


I remember walking into therapy one day after I'd been working with the therapist for a few years.


"Can I be honest with you about something?" my therapist asked.


I shrugged, "Sure."


"When you came for your first session I had no idea why you were here. You were pretty, well-dressed, professional. Had a good job, an intact marriage. I had no idea why you needed my help."


I had to laugh because that facade - put-together, competent, in-charge, needed no one -  was one I'd spent my whole life constructing. I hid behind my intelligence and my job, my wardrobe and my perfectionism, terrified that if I let the 'real' me show others would reject me. I didn't want to talk about my past, I wanted to pretend it had never happened. If my first forty years of life were about cultivating a facade of perfectionism and competence my next forty may be about tearing that facade down.


The past few months I, the woman who once prided herself on never asking for help, on being the friend that other people came to for advice, hyper-organized and juggling more balls than a circus clown, have needed a LOT of help. And the outpouring of support has been mind-blowing and humbling. Friends helped me pack boxes, carry stuff in and out of homes, and run errands. Other friends picked my son up from school and kept him at my house until my flight got in, let us crash in their spare bedroom, or borrow their car while I was in town. My realtor cleaned my basement. My boyfriend picked up cat food and dropped it off at my apartment when I texted - panicked - during a layover, "I forgot to pick up cat food and everything will be closed when I land!" I have been touched, time and time again, by people's kindness, but these were all my friends.


This past Friday I had cause to be deeply grateful for the kindness of strangers.


I spent Thanksgiving in Austin, Texas with my son and his grandmother (my ex-MIL), Uncle and Grandpapa. Wednesday was a marathon of three flights down, then a traditional turkey dinner. Friday we went to Zilker Park. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm, and I couldn't get over the fact that I was wearing shorts (!!!) at the end of November. C had a *blast* playing soccer with his Grandma and Uncle while Grandpapa and I took pictures. He waded in the stream and counted turtles on a log. After lunch at Chuy's, a Mexican place, we decided to go canoeing.




Barton Creek in Austin, TX. Pre-capsizing.  Photo credit Douglas Lewis, aka grandpapa.

Now, if you know me at all you know that I am NOT outdoorsy. AT ALL. My grandfather is a panoramic photographer and I have camped, hiked and canoed in Montana, Idaho, all over Washington and up into B.C. I hate it. LOATHE it. I also don't really like the type of outdoors person who tries to convert you to loving these things as zealously as a religious person - well, have you *tried* it? Rock-climbing is great! It's such an endorphin high! Yes, I've tried it. It hurt my hands and broke my nails and I hated it. I have tried it all. Trust me.


But I'd do anything for my kid, including climb into a canoe, settle myself onto the metal bench, and within five minutes wish I'd spent more time on upper body weights in the past few months. We paddled down Barton Creek, smiling at the other families we passed and stopping occasionally for photographs. After making it into the main river we stopped just before the Bat Bridge and decided to head back before our hour rental expired.


Turning around, going against the current, no clue why but our canoe capsized. I felt it start to happen, tried to lean against it, but - nope. Upside down in a chilly river. My first thought was for C. Even though he'd been wearing a life jacket I still grabbed him by it's back and hauled him close. His swim lessons paid off - he'd started kicking and paddling already - but he was shocked and scared. I glanced over and saw that my ex-MIL, Catherine, was all right and had grabbed her purse.  We tried to flip the canoe back over and get C inside it, he climbed in and started to cry. The canoe was full of water. I vaguely recalled that we'd probably have to tip it over again to empty it.


"C, you're going to need to get out of the canoe again," I told him in my calmest, everything-is-fine, Mom voice.


"No!" I heard the note of hysteria in his voice and steeled myself for a battle. And that's when the kindness of strangers came in.


"Can we help?" another couple had seen what happened and paddled over. A woman on her paddle board pulled alongside. "Here, pass the little one to me," she said. We handed him along the side of the canoe, and three strangers helped get my child up onto her paddle board. She unzipped a waterproof backpack and pulled out a fleece to wrap him in when his teeth started chattering.


We quickly realized that it wasn't really possible to turn the canoe back over in the middle of the river's current so, pulled along by C's Uncle and the first couple in the canoe, followed by the woman on the paddle board, we swam the canoe over to the river's edge. An Indian-American family, out on a walk, had stopped when they saw what happened. Their teenage son waded out and helped us get the canoe out of the water. The Auntie grabbed my kid and hauled him up. Someone handed me my shoe - which had come off my foot when the canoe capsized. And within five minutes my son had started laughing and telling people about the Great Canoe Capsizing of 2017 (and how we'd lost our phones at the bottom of the river and you should never canoe with a phone). People of different races, creeds and ages saw that we were in trouble and didn't hesitate to do what they could to help.


Could we have made it back to shore without help? Yes. But it would have been a lot harder.


It's a heavy-handed metaphor for life but a true one. We can go it alone, wrapped in our supposed perfectionism and never taking any risks. But life is hard enough as it is. Why make it harder? And perhaps I needed the reminder, when so much of our country is showing its worst colors, that there is good in humanity.


I've needed so much help these past few months because of the ongoing custody battle with my ex-husband. Because I dared to want to advance my career, to move to a place that is 'home' to me, to find love again. To think that I have a right to be both a mother and a human being with wants, desires, dreams and ambitions of my own.


I have no doubt that my ex-husband will claim I've lied about things when/if we go to court. He filed a last minute affidavit prior to our last court date that was full of a breathtaking amount of half-truth's, items taken out of context, and lies. For example - he claimed that my son had no friends in Massachusetts. I've texted him multiple pictures of C hanging out and playing with friends when he's been here. He included pieces of my writing in his affidavit - claiming that it would embarrass our son to find out someday that I'd - GASP! - had sex after my divorce. He excluded any of my writing about abuse, of course.


It is still mind-boggling to me that he included this piece, here, in which I describe his actions - trigger warning - sticking his fingers inside me while I was asleep, without obtaining consent, and acting with a shocking amount of entitlement to my body - without realizing how bad it made *him* look. If ever you wanted an example of's willingly submitting a piece of writing which implicates you in a non-consensual sexual act to the court.


My life has been full of capsized canoes. Of plans gone wrong. Of wading in a chilly river, with a lost shoe, and trying to figure out a plan for what's next. I might have to capsize that canoe again before this battle is over. While I'll admit I've grown tired and felt defeated at times - the constant, okay, that didn't work, so what's next? - can be wearing -but somehow I keep going and coming up with the next plan.


Have  I lied in my life? Yes. But the person that I've lied to the most has been *myself* It'll get better, he'll be nice again if...Maybe this job will be different, maybe this time I'll like the career I've hated since Day One...I can change him...Sure, those jeans fit.  Big lies, small lies, all related to my own denial and fears.


Like my mother, I've been a stubborn optimist in some relationships, holding on to men that needed to be let go. And that desire to hold on tied in directly, of course, with feeling unlovable and unworthy, which came from my childhood abuse and later rape...and became a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of shitty men. To be clear, men that I chose and brought into my life because I hadn't yet done the work that I needed to.


Whatever half-truths or lies or out-of-context bullshit my ex comes up with in court I have a surprising amount of peace about what he'll do or say. I've stopped worrying about which former friend will betray me, or tell stories designed to make me look bad. I can neither control nor predict any of that.


But I can stand in my truth, at peace, because I know that my life, while not blameless, and at times messy and complicated, is finally being lived in the light. I have chosen this path of openness and in it I have found immense freedom.








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