The Old English term coxswain literally means boat servant. One of the primary functions of a coxswain is to keep the vessel and its occupants safe towards a destination. In order to do this effectively, the coxswain must control the steering, speed, timing, and fluidity of their vessel. Within rowing, the coxswain is the first to arrive and the last to leave on race day in order to ensure their vessel is up for the team’s task ahead.
It is important to note, a boat does not respond to a rudder the way a car responds to a steering wheel. Instead, it takes several strokes of the blade before the boat’s rudder makes the necessary corrective movement. Though there are technical components for any coxswain to learn, true mastery within the role is solely the byproduct of time and experience.
The girl was up early that morning. Rolling out of bed, she stumbled towards the direction of her bathroom in an effort to splash some water onto her face before heading out the door. Quite suddenly, she caught her little toe on the leg of an arguably passive aggressive armchair. While yet again cursing its ill placement, for the third time that week, she spun around hopping on one foot.
Grabbing some gently worn clothing off the same cursed chair, she quickly dressed and scooted out the front door. She passed her gray-haired neighbor in the hallway, who was clearly returning from taking her small schnauzer out for a 6 a.m. morning stroll. “Have a great day, Mrs. Johnson,” the young woman said looking back, briefly over her shoulder. The elderly woman raised an eyebrow, as if the words had been offered as a question rather than a statement. The girl quickened her pace in an effort to avoid any further awkward, social, neighbor exchanges.
Stopping at her favorite coffee kiosk on the way, the girl ordered her ritual, extra hot, one pump vanilla, tall, white chocolate mocha. If something could be considered a vice in her life….it would be coffee. As she made her way down a side street towards the wharf; she could see the steam swirling like a miniature tornado out of the small opening of her paper mug. No matter how warm the temperature outside might grow, the girl could never seem to bring herself to order an iced coffee beverage. There was simply something much more soothing about a warm beverage to start her day.
Drawing closer to the docks, she could hear the gentle lapping of the water against the sides of the boats. Sloop, sloop, ker-splish, sloop, sloop, filled the air. The rhythm caused her footsteps to take on a corresponding clip. Arriving at slip 37, her hands reached for the knot currently securing her small boat in place. Suddenly she heard an unexpected creak. Quickly turning her head to look behind her, she was uncertain for a moment if someone might not have been following her. She saw nothing more than leaves skipping in the wind. She shook her head. She must have imagined it.
As she stepped into the vessel, her body swayed in time with the displacement of the water under her feet in perfect synchronism. Her grandfather used to say; she had learned to sense the cycles within water even before she had learned how to walk. Taking her place on the seat, she bent her knees slightly, and with a first sharp stroke she pushed back from the dock. Allowing the edge of her oar…. to gently skim the surface of the water. The catch of her oar was just enough to send an invigorating mist into the air, setting her senses into over-drive. Aligning her scull on the river, she took several hard strokes as she found her pace. The water was a perfect escape. It was so quiet; she was able to clear all the voices from her head.
She quickly felt her arms burning as she took a few more aggressive pulls before she let it ride. Gliding through the water, she leaned ever so slightly backwards in the boat allowing the sunlight to brush across her face. Her state of solitude swept over her, so much so that she did not notice the dark figure standing at the waters edge. He was certain she had heard him on the dock that morning. Before turning to toss his paper coffee cup into a nearby trash bin, he snapped a quick photo with his phone. The girl was becoming careless.
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.
The mother shot straight up in her bed. She shook her head and thought….well that was strange. Though the mother had always loved the idea of rowing, a sport dating back to Ancient Egypt; in reality, the mother carried a dark secret….she was completely unable to swim. Thus dreams about rowing and water sports in general seemed a rather odd choice for her subconscious.
Dreaming had been a rather infrequent houseguest for the mother these days. Courtesy of a cycle of four pregnancies in five years and subsequently evolving newborn sleeping patterns, the mother had found herself very rarely dreaming anymore. When she did dream however; the clarity and vividness of the dreams was revitalizing. It was almost as if the mother was inside the central characters head, and the storyteller inside of her…..loved it.
Dreams had been a big point of conversation around the house of late. The mother was not certain if it was because the father had been traveling for work a great deal this fall that the topic was fresh on the boys mind, or if it was simply a new layer of self-awareness. Whatever the source, the boy had been struggling with the notion of bad dreams.
One night the mother overheard a faint conversation coming through her baby monitor. She had rolled over from her semi-slumber state to glance at the monitor screen in an effort to make out the origin of the dialogue. It was then that the mother saw the boy and the blonde sitting side by side in the girl’s twin bed. She was stroking the top of his head as the mother heard the blonde say, “Its okay. You don’t have to be afraid. I’m here for you.” The mother instantly thought…..ahhh this is so precious. Then the mother looked at the clock. Not only were all the lights on in their bedroom during this touching Hallmark moment, but it was also 4:03 am!! The mother jumped from her bed to usher both children back to lights-off sleep. The mother had zero desire to start her day this early.
The following night, as the mother made her trumpeted call for bedtime, the boy instantly got a concerned look on his face. “It’s time for bed?” he repeated. The mother sensed a yes response was exactly what he did not want her to say. “It’s time buddy. We need to get our rest. Sleep is how our bodies grow and repair,” the mother replied. “I’m worried I’m going to have a bad dream,” the boy stated. “Honey you will be just fine. You just need to think happy thoughts,” the mother replied dismissively. The boy simply shrugged.
By the third night, the boy seemed to really be focusing a great deal of his mental energy onto the entire concept of dreams. The boy’s fascination seemed to be entering a new stage. He wanted to discuss why people had bad dreams at all and most importantly how he could escape from the dreams should he find himself inside of one again. He felt that they should also discuss some possible escape hatches he could look for if he did encounter another bad dream.
By the fourth night the mother was dreading the bedtime dialogue even before it began. From her perspective, it simply represented a delay in beginning her child free evening. As they walked up the stairs that fourth night, the boy said, “I think my trouble is I only have two really good dreams but ten bad ones. I need to think up some more good dreams.” The mother looked down at him and replied, “Honey, that’s not how dreams work. It’s not a “choose your own adventure” sort of thing. Your subconscious dictates what you dream about for an array of psychological reasons.” The mother fully acknowledges this was an absurd (though truthful statement) to offer to a six year old as a counter point.
Without skipping a beat the boy replied matter-of-factly, “Well mom that might be true for grown ups…. which is pretty sad….but that’s not at all how it works for kids. We choose our dreams.” The mother stopped on the stairs and looked down at the boy simply stunned by the clarity of his insight. Could this be true??? she thought, shaking her head.
The mother had tried her best to reroute this entire mental train of thought for days now, but despite her efforts, the boy would not be dissuaded. Passively disregarding his feelings on the matter as unfounded was not proving an effective approach. No matter how seemingly illogical the mother found the conversation the boy was insistent his sleep would be troubled and that he was in need of a solid game plan before he could fall asleep.
It was in this moment that the mother realized her role wasn’t to convince the boy that he would not have bad dreams; it was instead to help him regain a sense of control and to empower her child. The mother had read an article once, in which author Stephen King referred to nightmares as outside of logic, above reason, and best described as the poetry of fear.
The truth was the mother could not dictate to her son the things, which were or were not emotionally upsetting to him. In fact, to belittle or subvert even arguably illogical discussions of fear was to send a message to the boy that his feelings did not carry weight and were of no consequence. The bottom line was the boy was afraid, and it was not her job to solve a perceived problem; it was simply her job to serve as a means of comfort during a time of uncertainty.
As the mother lay in bed that night, her thoughts drifted to the notion of rowing coxswains, who in fact do not perform any of the actual rowing. They simply serve as an encourager, observer, and advisor within the vessel.
One of the most unique facts about coxswain, from the mother’s perspective, was the notion of their unique placement within the vessel, in relation to the rowers. The rowers sit rear facing with their focus solely directed towards their present challenge. The coxswain has the opposite perch and can see the bigger picture course ahead as well as possible future obstacles. Despite this unique visual advantage; it was fully within the rower’s ability to completely disregard the guidance and insight of their coxswain. It would be only after a history of success and effectual instruction that the rowers would learn to trust the advice of their boat servant.
That night the mother recalled the words of J.M. Barrie, from his famous work Peter Pan, “You know that place between sleep and awake, the place where you can still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.” As the mother drifted off to sleep that night she prayed for her children’s slumber to be restful and for their dreams to be wonderful…and of their own choosing.
The Motherhood in Technicolor Memo: Mahatma Ghandi once said, “Those with the greatest awareness have the greatest nightmares.” There are points in the rearing of our children where we may have to help them to navigate illogical levels of fear or apprehension. While it might seem reasonable to down play discussions and topics that you as an adult feel are not worth the time to discuss, I would argue against that approach. It is our role as parents to acknowledge the existence of the fear and to serve as our child’s coxswain through a stretch of uniquely choppy waters.
It is understandable how, as parents, we might assume our young children would grant us an automatic measure of trust and simply believe our logical rationale on the troubling matter at hand. The reality is that within the seasons of infancy and toddlerhood our children perceive us as sources of affection, protection, and interdependence. The truth is those functions have little to do with trust. As parents, we must earn the trust and respect of our children, a process achieved only through time and experience.
As parent-coxswains it is vital to realize that we are helping our young charges to understand how to navigate the unexplained, how to find escape within the unknown, and how to hope during uncertainty. We are not the ones propelling the course of their vessel. It is our role to function as the boat servant of their soul, and ultimately help them to write a final stanza of victory amidst the poetry of their fears.
Summer Smith is a speaker, writer, and motherhood blogger. She and her family are currently navigating the suburbs of Northern Virginia. As the mother to four young children, Summer maintains her sanity thanks to her sense of humor, copious amounts of coffee, and Amazon Prime. Maya Angelou once said, when reflecting on her childhood, that her mother left an impression like technicolor stars in the midnight sky. Influenced by these words, Summer blogs at her website Motherhood in Technicolor, and can also be found on her Motherhood in Technicolor Facebook page.