Any writer worthy of his metaphors must have a vivid imagination. I started developing mine early on, at risk to my mortal soul, from the seat of my trusty red canoe. That I have never actually owned a red canoe in real life is irrelevant. Even imagined adventures are potentially sinful, and should be aired from time to time to relieve the pressure of any accumulated corruption that might be coloring one’s otherwise squeaky-clean life and prose. Writers are notorious for such imaginative scallawaggery. Myself most shamefully included. Herein lies my sordid tale -
Time is relative to how long a person has been alive, and so when I was ten years old I figured that I had spent nearly nine tenths of my life confined within the hallowed halls of church. Doubtless, my math was a bit off. I’ve never been good with numbers. And I had made those calculations using only my fingers and thumbs while half-heartedly listening to a sermon about Methusela. Still – Sunday services, Wednesday services, summer bible school and camp meetings and missionary visits and potlucks and Christmas and Easter programs and weddings and funerals – it all added up to a small eternity. Admittedly, some of it wasn’t so bad. Although looking back, I can’t remember what that some-of-it was. I was a boy, for crying out loud! Made to run. Made to wrestle and spit and do cartwheels – none of which was allowed in church. It seemed like I had been condemned to cruel punishment for sins I hadn’t yet had the chance to commit. Ironically, it was sitting in church that drove me to my errant ways.
As the preacher would settle into his long-winded lecture on morality and the wages of sin, I would become increasingly, uncontrollably, agonizingly drowsy. There was nothing I could do to fight it off. Some demon took me over. I teetered on the edge of unconsciousness, threatening to topple with a thump onto the wooden pew. But then one Sunday morning, in a desperate act of subliminal self-preservation, I happened across an internal image that would become, if not my soul’s salvation, at least deliverance for my bored and groggy brain.
A Red Canoe.
It appeared like a gift from heaven, drifting innocently in the back eddy of a small, imaginary river. It seemed almost to whisper my name, a friend beckoning me to climb aboard and sneak away. I knew that I should resist. Wasn’t that preacher warning me even now that anything so inviting and potentially enjoyable was a one-way ticket to H-E-double toothpick? I understood from the get-go what I was getting myself into. That sleek red canoe was surely an agent of the devil, designed to carry me downstream into ever-bigger troubles. But I couldn’t help myself. A youthful mischief overwhelmed me. While everyone around me bowed their heads in prayer, I waded out, stepped over the gunwale, took up the paddle, and was off.
Oh, Freedom! Oh, Joy! Oh, sweet small-watercraft-induced rapture!
That first Sunday’s adventures were pretty benign as I learned to guide my craft. But after I had gained a certain amount of skill, the escapades grew increasingly raucous. Sunday after Sunday my boat transported me into exploits worthy of an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure novel. I fought wild men and hunted river beasts. I plundered treasures and killed – yes, killed with my own bare hands – a dozen degenerate pirates, all while under the influence of my boyish imagination. It was my glorious secret. No one around me suspected a thing. That big smile on my face they mistook for me being deeply enlightened by the proselytizing pouring down over me from the pulpit.
This went on for some time. I even got to where I liked going to church. But by and by I moved into adolescence, did a bit of soul searching, and started feeling guilty for my dalliance with imaginary watercraft. I knew I needed to listen to the information being offered by this wise preacher wagging his accusatory finger my way. Surely my salvation depended on it.
So one morning I sadly drug my red canoe from the shore for one last time. I stood for a moment with my hand on the bow, recalling all our happy moments together, all of those marvelous adventures. And then, repentant, I turned and walked away, never looking back, heading solemnly into what I assumed was going to be the rest of my canoe-free life.
Time passed. Each Sunday I struggled to stay awake. Each Sunday I felt a profound sadness for all that I had given up just to keep myself out of purgatory. Sometimes, I admit, it hardly seemed worth it. I mean, how hot could hell actually be? Just how long, technically, was eternal damnation?
These were the questions I was asking myself one morning when, during a lull between hymn singing and prayer, I met the gaze of the blue-eyed girl across the aisle. Her listless mien gave me to know that she was asking similar questions herself. I recognized that look. She appeared agonizingly drowsy. I gave her a sympathetic nod, and then bowed my own head and closed my eyes.
But then something went terribly wrong. Instead of uttering the long list of sins for which I hoped to be absolved, a subliminal image flitted across my wayward mind. At once, I was standing again at the edge of the eddy where I had first met my red canoe. And now, there it was again. Floating peacefully, innocently, invitingly on that imaginary river that had carried me to so many of my greatest triumphs. Only this time, there was something different. The blue-eyed girl was sitting in my place, leaning over and dragging her fingers through the cool water. She smiled, held up her dripping hand, and gestured with a tilt of her head that could only mean one thing –
“Come hither,” she seemed to say.
I grinned. What was a wayward boy to do?
Oh, Joy, I thought to myself. Oh, sweet sweet rapture!