Navigating, Rock by Rock

by Elizabeth deGraw Renna

In early August of this year I took a trip to Oregon and Washington state in order to attend the wedding of a friend. My traveling companion and I decided to take advantage of our proximity to the coast and spent an afternoon by the ocean, not nearly long enough for normally landlocked people from the Midwest, but more special as a result of being an opportunity that isn’t an option on a daily basis.

The Oregon coastline west of Portland includes my favorite elements: lots of rocks along the shore, some really large and visible from a distance, with names to identify them. In other spots there are collections of small boulders, accessible for climbing on and also often creating the perfect conditions for tide pools with interesting creatures to look for at low tide.

My favorite “moment” along the coast that day was the hour and a half I spent on my own, on a sandy beach that had every opportunity for the people visiting it: some brave souls were actually swimming and surfing; others were wading or walking along the hard sand. And there were rocks, some quite large and looming, but also a collection of boulders that were small enough to climb up on and close enough to each other to navigate, stepping from rock to rock and moving as close to the water as you wanted to.

So on August 9, 2012 in mid afternoon, I found myself sitting on a rock on the Oregon coast watching the waves rolling in, splashing and crashing on rocks further out from the one I was using as my perch. I did not write that afternoon. I sat; I watched; I absorbed the place and the movement of water, wind, birds, and people. At some point the word “navigate” came to mind and it settled in and percolated there until I did write the next morning. That moment, which still causes a feeling of relaxation to come over me, held lessons for navigating the challenges that life presents.

Navigate, verb
– To find a route: to find a way through a place, or direct the course of something, especially a ship or aircraft, using a route-finding system

– To pass through a place: to follow a correct or satisfactory course along a route

– To keep a car on the right route: to have responsibility for keeping a car on the right route, e.g. by following a map and giving the driver instructions

– To proceed: to make your way over or through something, usually with difficulty

I think the definition for “navigate” that alludes to “making your way over or through something, usually with difficulty”, is what was resonating for me that day on the beach. When I wrote the next morning, I brainstormed different ways to describe my actions and then launched into a reflection about the symbolism of navigation for me:

I navigated through or across the rocks. I picked my way. I navigated a path across the rocks.

I feel a connection to the symbolism here related to navigating your way through life or navigating your way through a difficult situation. To me, “navigating my way” implies some thought, some care in making decisions, maybe consulting “outside” information like a map or a chart or checking in with a trusted consultant or counselor or friend. Navigating involves intentionality.

As I moved from one rock to the next, I would very frequently pause in order to scan the rocks around me and choose my next step as a result of that scan. Sometimes I had a general destination in mind but in other moments I knew where I wanted to go exactly, which particular rock I wanted to land on and stand on and gaze out from. Then it seemed to me that once I got to my general “destination” among the rocks at the seashore, I had to take another look and make a final decision about which one looked the most comfortable to sit on, what was the view like from this rock versus that rock over there, etc.

I watched other people “pick their way” as they, too, navigated the rocks.

When I hear or think about the phrase “pick my way”, my first impression is of a slow, meticulous process that involves uncertainty and maybe some hesitation. It’s almost painfully slow and the uncertainty or hesitation is palpable – it’s the hallmark of the experience in a less than positive way.

But I want to dig deeper into that phrase “pick my way”. Picking is like choosing. Choosing involves making decisions. Everyone I watched on the rocks that day had some version of an attitude of “this is an exciting challenge” and “I am enjoying this; I can do this!” I felt that same excitement. It WAS a challenge, but it was doable. Some people took on the challenge of climbing up onto very large rocks and even up to a higher cliff (maybe 2 – 2 1/2 stories high above the beach) that involved a really steep climb but rewarded those who took the challenge with a different view. I made decisions for myself about how much challenge I could handle.

“Picking my way”, when it involves a challenge that is taken on with intentionality, thoughtfulness, and care in the decisions, is a process that does not include hesitation or uncertainty. The pauses in the active engagement with the challenge are intentional and designed to support actions like:
– Analyzing the situation
– Identifying the current choices
– Considering all the current choices and being sure, if you’re really aware, that “going back” or “going backwards” is also a choice
– Glancing up and ahead to remind yourself of where you’re headed. (This is a step in navigating the rocks by the ocean that seemed to happen naturally for me but that I’m now realizing I don’t think I do when I’m navigating a challenging situation.) So this step involves looking up from the details and choices of the present moment and the present rocks (or stepping stones or steps on the path) to re-orient myself to my destination or goal.
– Returning to the current moment and current choices.
– Planning my next step or several steps. When you’re navigating rocks by the ocean, there’s some quick planning that occurs as you scan the choices, analyze them, and prepare to choose one. There’s a “setting” the plan into your brain and muscles that I think happens right before you do it, right before you take action and actually move. It probably has to do with kinesthetic intelligence and it feels like it involves imagery – imagining yourself taking that next step and what your body will have to do to execute that step, that movement.
– Preparing yourself for the next step. You make a choice, you plan how you will take it and then there’s a “setting up” of your body for that next step on the rocks. Balance shifts as needed from one foot to the other. Arms and hands prepare as needed to support balance (by being held out in the air like a tightrope walker or sometimes by reaching for physical support on a neighboring rock). These subtle preparations are made in the body before the next move is made while navigating the rocks.
– Making a choice and taking it. Sometimes on the rocks by the ocean you can see your next two steps, from the current rock to the next one to the one after that. But then it often feels like you need to pause and revisit the decision-making process.

So the movement from starting point (the sandy beach) to the end goal or destination (a great rock for sitting on, viewing the waves and contemplation) is painstaking, intentional, thoughtful and at the same time exciting and filled with feelings of accomplishment and of having conquered a challenge.

The lesson of this metaphor of “navigating the rocks at the ocean” includes, for me:
– All the steps of the intentional process. They seem to happen automatically in people’s brains and often unconsciously.
– Take on a challenge (any challenge presented by life) “step by step”, rock by rock.
– Be thoughtful, DO analyze; going slow is OK and doesn’t have to reflect hesitation or uncertainty.
– The “path” or the way to your ultimate destination won’t always be obvious because you can’t always perceive the true nature of a challenge along the way until you are right there upon it.
– Be sure to look up now and then from the hard work and effort and analyzing/deciding/planning/acting to remind yourself of where you are and where you are headed. The destination is (hopefully) chosen by you and not imposed on you by outside sources.
– Sometimes a situation is challenging because the goal is one that is outside your control. This could be accountability to the requirements of your job, your “work-for-pay” that you do. It can then involve learning new habits that more closely match or conform to the philosophy or approach of your employer. So I think it can end up feeling like being in an environment that is strange and foreign to a person. You are being asked to navigate a situation that you didn’t necessarily choose. But maybe the place where we DO have choice is in the steps along the way.

The End?