My Third Act – Paddle Pilgrim

“Are you retired?”  That question was coming with annoying frequency.  Did I look so old?   Was it an invitation to a club I wasn’t ready to join?  Was I simply in denial?  If this were a multiple choice question for my college students, I suppose the correct answer would be d.) all the above.

Perhaps I chafed at this query because, in the unit I taught on aging in my human development course, “retirement” was a social construct of the post WWII years which “scrap-heaped” (my words) older Americans in an attempt to make jobs available for GIs returning from the war.

I knew from personal experience that my farmer grandfather never “retired.” He kept working productively into his 80s and extended his “coffee breaks” accordingly. The words of the poet Robert Frost capture my sentiment.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

It wasn’t until a sabbatical several years ago that I had the time and the solitude to ponder the question of my third act. I had decided to take my kayak for a journey down the Mississippi River. This adventure, which was part Huck Finn boyhood dream and part academic study of environmental issues, became a spiritual pilgrimage. Over 2,350 miles and two months I enjoyed the wildlife, history, music, culture, cuisine, and people along the river landscape. But equally important, I explored my own “interior landscape” and what my future might hold.

Each day I took time to write reflections in my blog about how the river was becoming my teacher. Just before I reached the halfway mark near St. Louis, I wrote a letter to the river:

Dear Miss,                              

After nearly a month together I feel we have grown quite close. Each day as I begin my paddle you greet me and I discover something new about your personality. While I am only a beginner, you have been greeting others for thousands of years. You have become my teacher. I have learned many lessons. 

 I have been humbled by your twists and turns, eddies, sweepers and whirlpools, and exhilarated by your rapids, tail-winds, and strong flow after a rain. My sore hands, aching back, stiff knees, flagging frame, and frequently struggling spirit all remind me of my limits, my age, and my mortality.

But that is good, because you teach with a clarity and truth that I need to hear and embrace. And while I may curse you with some regularity I praise you for the “wisdom” you invite me into each morning as I set out from your shores.

Roll on, mighty waters!

Your humble “Paddle Pilgrim”

When I returned home my blog grew into a book, Paddle Pilgrim: An Adventure of Spirit and Learning Kayaking the Mississippi River, with many opportunities to share in pictures and stories my journey of discovery. And what was the discovery?  It was the convergence of several great loves from the first two acts of my life: the natural world, writing, and adventure. I have joyously embraced my new identity as the Paddle Pilgrim.

To mark the official beginning of my third act, I recently paddled the Erie Canal and Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty, retracing the route my Norwegian relatives traveled in the mid-19th century. Next summer I will paddle and write about my ancestral fjords in Norway. My third act is the stirring confluence of the many streams of my life journey becoming powerful rivers flowing toward the sea. Now when I am asked if I am retired, I respond without hesitation, “Let me tell you about my paddle pilgrimage.”

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