In May of 1975, five graduate students in creative writing prepared to bed down for the night in a barn loft just above the banks of the Buffalo River in North Central Arkansas. As we unrolled our sleeping bags onto the wide pine planks of the loft, we talked about the recently released movie Deliverance, and the canoe trip that we would begin in the morning on one of the most beautiful and wild rivers in America, a trip that was only possible because spring rains would provide enough water to prevent having to portage the upper sections of the Buffalo and enough clearance to make the rapids navigable downstream.
The woman unrolling her sleeping bag next to me was Carolyn Wright (C.D. Wright), a classmate in the poetry workshop who would later go on to a prominent career as a poet. Decadent in the best sense of the word, Carolyn told interesting gothic stories about her childhood, and while many of us in the workshop focused on trying to say something meaningful, she had the talent and good sense to focus on language that was rich as liquor.
For a while we discussed James Dickey’s screenplay and whether or not the violence that occurs in the Deliverance was an accurate depiction of the Deep South. Most of us thought that some of the characters bordered on caricatures, even though they gave shape to the sense of evil that permeates the novel and makes a flawed movie one of the few that I have watched several times over. One of us observed that if you’ve ever been in a canoe with a friend or lover, you know that trouble doesn’t come from the outside, but inside the canoe.
Just as we were about to fall asleep, I turned to Carolyn and told her about a book I had read the previous week, Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano, a novel that held whisper respect among our fiction writing friends. The story takes place on the Day of the Dead in a small village in Mexico that lies in the shadow of two volcanoes. The main character is an alcoholic English counsel, who hopes to reconcile with his beautiful wife. I will say nothing else about the book other than you must have patience to read it, but if you do be prepared to go through the windshield in the final pages.
That evening and the following day on the river is the last time that I saw Carolyn Wright that spring. When I returned from a road trip two weeks later where I found a teaching job in North Carolina, she had read Under the Volcano, and left for Mexico the following day, where she stayed for much of the summer in a small village that is the setting for Lowrey’s novel. I have always thought her response to the novel was one of the most powerful things I had ever heard of.
By now you are wondering what this has to do with coaching. There are few things more powerful in our lives than a journey into the unknown. Sometimes the journey is prompted by a story. Sometimes it’s two weeks in a Volkswagen looking for a job, taking on a river in a canoe or a trip to Mexico.
The journey and the time away from the usual coaching concerns is as important in a coach’s continuing development, as training and recruiting. Each time we put ourselves in a new geography with different metaphors and language, we learn a little more about who we are, and when we return we are better prepared to adjust and move on.