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A Tippy Canoe and Barry, Too

What a nearly disastrous dip in the river taught me about …

Spirits were soaring when my husband, Barry, and I, together with a group of our church friends, decided to canoe down the Tippecanoe River in northern Indiana. Lunches were packed, safety vests donned, suntan lotion liberally applied, and our bottle of insect repellant was within reach.

The only thing not ready for this grand expedition was Barry. While I had a long and knowledgeable relationship with the sleek, unsteady boats (compliments of numerous canoeing expeditions through the backwaters of the Canadian wilderness), the same could not be said of my landlubber husband.

As our fleet of vessels set out, naturally I (being the veteran) volunteered to take the rear position to steer the canoe. That left Barry in the front.

The only instructions I gave him were, "No matter what happens, do not under any circumstances lean over. Just sit straight and paddle. I'll take care of the rest."

Rough water

The first time we tipped over, I was in forgiving mode.

I mean anyone can have an accident, right? Barry apologized, everyone had a good laugh, and we reloaded.

Okay, I thought, taking a deep breath. We're home free. He's got the hang of it.

The second time we tipped over, I congratulated myself that I kept my cool. Yes, we'd lost our lunch, but I figured we could mooch off our fellow canoe-geeks.

"I'm sorry!" Barry bellowed, as everyone had yet another good laugh—at our expense.

"It's okay, babe," I reassured him, adding, "But don't lean over again—okay, sweetie-pie? Honey-poo?"

Things went pretty well after that second baptism. We sang "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and laughed as the Baldwin boys, our neighborhood clowns, began a splashing war with their paddles.

As I snickered at their antics, I took my eyes off Barry. In that split second, I noticed a low-hanging branch looming directly in front of us. Glancing quickly at my husband, I watched incredulously as he started to lean to his right. Horrified, I opened my mouth and hollered, "Noooo! Just lie back in the ca—!"

Too late.

Into the water we went again. Only this time, we were in really deep water (no pun intended). To make matters worse, the current was racing like a horse at the Kentucky Derby, and we were trapped beneath the canoe.

All I could hear was the roar of rushing thunder as I tumbled like a wet dishrag in a washing machine. Which way is up? I wondered.

When the strap of my safety vest caught under the seat of the canoe, my water ballet gave way to panicked thrashing. Now I was quickly running out of breath, inadvertently inhaling large gulps of the swirling black water.

Finally, I freed myself and broke the surface, sputtering and choking. (And ready to choke my husband.)

"Watch out, Donna!" Terry Baldwin yelled. "Snake coming!" Something slithered across my right thigh.

"Barry!" I wailed, gasping for air. "I hate you!"

The uproarious atmosphere went dead quiet.

The Baldwin boys dove in the water to retrieve the runaway canoe. Embarrassed but none the worse for wear, Barry and I awkwardly crawled into the boat.

No one said a word. The air vibrated with emotional tension. I was seething. Barry, humiliated, hung his head. Our "fun time" with friends seemed ruined.

After a few moments I began to see the absurdity of our situation. Slowly, a sheepish grin spread across my face. "Oh … it's okay. I don't really hate you."

I can't help but wonder if many a "canoe in distress," rushing toward the divorce courts, couldn't be salvaged if we'd only learn to laugh at ourselves.

Someone in our group let out a snort, and everyone dissolved into belly-busting laughter. I cackled until I cried, which probably covered the full gamut of emotions I was feeling: relief (at being alive), embarrassment (after all, I was the veteran canoe "expert"), humiliation (for the way I'd reacted), love (for my canoe-challenged husband), repentance (for my ill-advised words of rage), and finally, forgiveness (for my canoe-challenged husband).

Barry looked at me, eyebrows raised, shrugging his shoulders in a classic "Whoops! Did I do that?" impersonation, as he silently mouthed, "I'm sorry!"

Learning to laugh

That escapade has become legend, each retelling embellished a bit more. Over the ensuing years that snake has become a python and the river's current a baby tsunami.

But one thing I can testify to as the truth: our little misadventure taught me the importance of a good sense of humor in maintaining a healthy marriage.

Unfortunately, learning to laugh at all the overturned "canoes" we encounter as couples in our joint navigation of life is a lesson that can't be taught in any marriage seminar, manual, or prenuptial counseling session. It has to be learned through the mishaps of life. And even then, it is a choice. I can't help but wonder if many a "canoe in distress," rushing toward the divorce courts, couldn't be salvaged if we'd only learn to laugh at ourselves.

Laughter: It's more important than being "right." ("If you'd have listened to me …") And more valuable than self-righteous pride ("You had to do it your way.")

Laughter begets peace where financial pressures threaten to divide. It produces harmony amid family difficulties, sowing feelings of intimacy, appreciation, and love. It's a healing balm to a bruised spirit; a refreshing splash of cool water amid the fiery trials we go through as married couples, drenching our relationships with the shower of life-sustaining endorphins—those "feel-good" hormones released with a good belly laugh. The author of Proverbs writes: "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" (17:22).

A weapon against heartache

One day this past summer, I walked into our backyard, stunned to find entire sections of our beautiful, manicured lawn dying. Our landscaping has been Barry's pride and joy. Meticulously, he's worked at keeping it mowed, trimmed, fertilized, and weed-free. Panicked, I ran into the house. "Something's wrong with our yard!"

"I know," Barry said sullenly. "I think I 'pulled a Barry-ism' again."

"Barry-isms" were what I'd christened his less-than-sane escapades over the years. They ranged from cutting a hole in the side of a perfectly good leather recliner (he said it was the only way to fix the mechanism) to chopping down all the trees in our previous backyard because he didn't want anything obstructing his scenic view of the small fishing lake.

"What happened?" I asked incredulously.

He'd mixed up two identical-looking spray bottles of solution: "Weed-Be-Gone" (which kills weeds) and "Round-Up" (which kills everything).

He looked so miserable and sad. Instead of yelling, which I felt like doing, I wrapped my arms around him. Then the longer I thought about it, my funny bone got to tickling. It started with a little tremble. He probably thinks I'm crying, I thought as he held me tighter.

The harder I tried to control myself, the more that rumbling snicker grew, until I was shaking and hooting.

As I pulled away to grab my stomach, Barry looked perplexed. Then just a slight hint of a smile broke across his face, until finally the dam burst inside him, too.

Laughter is contagious! Just ask the biblical patriarch Abraham and his wife, Sarah. After waiting a lifetime, God had finally given them (at the ripe-old ages of 100 and 90) their long-awaited child of promise, Isaac. Seeing the irony in this somewhat ridiculous situation, Sarah declared, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me" (Genesis 21:6).

Joy. It's listed second as a fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives, preceded only by love (Galatians 5:22). The writer of Hebrews tells us, "God … has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy" (Hebrews 1:9).

Life is difficult, full of heartache and pain. But if we can learn to laugh together amid the minor spills as we paddle the currents of life, we'll have the staying power to climb back into the canoe when unexpected, low-hanging branches threaten to knock us for a loop.

As the great American humorist Mark Twain once said, "The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that's laughter."

Upside down in the Tippecanoe that day proved to be the wave that turned a near-disastrous trip into a fond memory.

By the way, someone had to have had a pretty good sense of humor when, once-upon-a-time, they so appropriately named that ole river. I wonder if anyone else has ever triple-dipped?

Donna Frisinger, a freelance writer and canoeing expert, has been married 36 years.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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