Life on the Water

Fulfilling a crazy dream a friend and I had concocted during our senior year at Wheaton, we spent four weeks traveling more than 270 miles by kayak last summer. Each day we paddled as far as the weather and our muscles would allow before camping wherever we landed along the coast. We navigated our journey using a compass, a map, and our senses: plotting our course based on the weather and following the distant curves of the dunes. Though we planned thoroughly, every morning we began our day with no certainty about where we would next sleep. Not all journeys can be planned from the land.

Every few hours we pulled up on shore to eat and rest. Sometimes, absurdly decked out in our technical kayaking apparel, we would swoop down on an innocent bystander and ask

for directions to a campground office or, more frequently, the nearest ice cream shop. All too often, the conversation followed an enlightening pattern: said beachgoer listened to our account of the paddling expedition that brought us to that beach, expressing their deep amazement at our long journey. And then, in the same breath, our new friend would promptly tell us that we already passed the office or shop when we drove in on the main road.

Really? I’d wonder, didn’t we just explain that we did not drive a car to get here, that we arrived here by a generous serving of grace and the scrappy strength of our own arms? The clues—like our 17’ yellow boats—were obvious, and yet it was often difficult for our friends to grasp what they did not expect to see and hear. It seems to be human nature to assume that there is only one way to reach a place (the way I arrived) and only one way to leave it (the way I’m headed). I, too, make these sorts of assumptions frequently, presuming that other people approach a topic or situation with values and experiences that are similar to my own. But, as we found on our trip, recognizing different journeys can go a long way towards affirming the beauty of diversity in this world.

As a queer woman growing up in a conservative Christian community, I have seen many reactions to the topic of sexuality. I have had conversations that were devastating and conversations that were full of grace. I have watched my gay friends be hurt by families and communities claiming to support them. I have lost straight friends because they could not acknowledge me for the whole of who I am. I have waited, hoping for people to reach out to me in love, only to see them shrink back in fear at the last moment.

As I have seen in my life and in the lives of many of my friends, the process of coming to terms with complex questions of personal and sexual identity can often be earth shattering. These deep paradigm shifts are sometimes difficult to understand as an outsider and require great humility, receptivity, and empathy to be perceived.

Unfortunately, hearing is not equivalent to understanding. And that is why the recommendations given by straight Christians to LGBTQ individuals often sound as futile and even as dangerous as the motorist recommending that I paddle my kayak along the state highway to the next town for ice cream. I deeply wish that more straight Christians could stop arguing about whether I need to take a left or right at the second light, and start opening their hearts to hear my story—to hear about my life on the water.

Moving beyond one’s experiences is neither easy nor safe, but it is profoundly necessary and relatively simple. It is the call to listen. Listen to the freedom that I have; hear the grace and peace I am given when the water is as still as glass. Listen to how some days the cold waves swamp my boat and the wind blows so hard I barely move forward at all, as I struggle to free myself from the self-hatred so deeply ingrained in my psyche by a society afraid of my sexuality.

Listen to my journey out of the bondage of the myth that I am inherently either gay or straight.

Delight in the gifts I am given as spontaneously as an eagle swooping out of the fog: an authentic community, supportive parents, laughter, confidence. Listen to how I strive to balance true freedom with healthy boundaries in a culture that only allows me the twin captivities of celibacy and promiscuity. Be there as I learn to dream for the first time about a commitment and a wedding.

Listen to my story and learn that I do not and cannot navigate by staying to the right of the neatly painted yellow line and obeying the systematic colored lights. Recognize that I am not merely following a different path, but piloting a wholly different kind of vehicle: a vehicle that has unique limitations, boundaries, and strengths.

I am not by nature rebellious, and I have often wished to travel a clearly marked roadway. But I was not given wheels with which to travel the roads, so I paddle my boat over the rolling waves and look for small signs of progress: a rock jutting out of the water, a flashing buoy, perhaps even an island on the horizon. Life on the water is more uncertain and less secure than life on land. It is also filled with unexpected moments of distilled grace, and if you listen – with your whole being – I will share these with you.

– Autumn, ’09


  1. Rita Waggoner

    Thank you. Beautifully written and profoundly insightful.

  2. Sara Elliott

    Oh Autumn–what a beautiful story, explanation, testimony of your experience. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Michele Curley

    Autumn, thank you for sharing this beautiful, eloquent and moving reflection. You rock!

  4. Rachael Burke

    Thanks for opening up these deep places to everyone Aut. For living out the questions. Keep the posts coming 😉

  5. Nina Fox

    Dearest Autumn, full-of-grace, I am proud and honored to have you as a sister.

  6. I loved this story. As a gay male graduate of Wheaton in the 1970’s, I struggled with my sexuality but know it was part of me. I even talked to the Dean of Students at the time and they recommended a therapist who almost tore my family apart with their narrow-minded views (similar to “Focus on the Family” even now)….I am glad I am finally at a place where I accept who I am, have a supportive Christian family and a wonderful partner of 16 years. Keep up the good work and God bless you!

    • mary

      You so gracefully weave together personal anecdotes, life lessons, nature imagery, and ideological perspectives into one coherent and powerful piece–amazing.

  7. carolyn

    beautiful. thank you.

  8. Debra Dunkle, 1977

    You so seamlessly weave story, images and personal message. Thank you. Also, I loved getting at least a mini-look at your kayaking adventure.

  9. Autumn

    Thank you for the encouragement, everyone! This post would never have grown into its current form without insightful feedback from many of my friends. I’m looking forward to hearing about your journeys as well!

  10. Yesi

    “Que Brava Autumn!” – meaning, “great job!”: what a delightful and strong essay you’ve composed, such joy to read;

    – “que brava” – also meaning, “how courageous”: like a good martial artist facing with calm and stillness in her mind, in every muscle and joint, and her spirit a daring moment in front of her path;

    – and “Brava!” as I applaud standing from my chair and standing still, listening “with my whole being” to the rest of the journey.

  11. Frances Yasmeen Motiwalla

    Beautiful and profound metaphor, Autumn! Thank you!

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