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Her career at a standstill, Lee Montgomery put her faith in something invisible, elusive and impossible to predict. (And broke only two toes.)
By Lee Montgomery
Last summer I spent my days — every last one — in the Columbia River Gorge. I watched the water’s surface ripple like crumpled paper; sometimes the wind blew 25 miles an hour, sometimes 30, with gusts in the 40s. And then I waded in, day in and day out, in my wetsuit, helmet and harness, carrying my windsurfing board, knowing the river would hand my ass to me just like it had the day before.
The Columbia is the body of water that divides much of Washington and Oregon, and enthusiasts count it among the best windsurfing locales in the world. For good windsurfers, it’s paradise. But I am not a good windsurfer. I’d wade in and lift my sail, and a gust would rip it from my hands. I would try again, sometimes popping up on the board, hooking into the harness, slipping my foot into the strap, but the wind was often so strong that the board would levitate and I’d find myself airborne, then flung forward and trapped underwater.
Though my friends struggled to understand what I was doing, taking on the gorge was about recovering — from 25 years of crazy ambition that had wreaked havoc on my life. I’d been elevated, then ruined. Powered up, mowed down. I’m it; I’m shit. After a decade at the publishing company I’d helped establish and run, I was fired — on my tenth anniversary, two weeks before Christmas, via email.
In other words, getting my ass handed to me had become something of a theme in my life.
I had worked so hard for so long. I was always doing something — breathlessly, relentlessly, furiously writing, editing, hanging with friends in high places, clawing my way up the ladder. And so what? Doing these things had netted me, in the end, very little of lasting value. I wondered what would happen if I let it all go — didn’t look for a job, didn’t keep mainlining ambition like I had for as long as I could remember.
My husband thought it was a great idea. “Just stop,” he said. “Refill the well.” A serious windsurfer, he suggested I try the sport as a path to clarity. (He always joked that windsurfing was like putting a leaf blower to your brain.) I am 56 years old, 20 pounds overweight (again), and have had back surgery for two ruptured disks. I had windsurfed before, but only in calm water. I didn’t like high winds. I didn’t like going fast — that was scary. I didn’t do scary.
But I wanted to abandon the past. My plan was to do nothing but read and windsurf every day. I wanted to feel the fear and do it anyway. I wanted to learn how to ride the currents, to stay nimble, to lean into whatever came — and I couldn’t think of a better way than to devote myself to the invisible, ever-shifting wind. After all, as the cliché goes, weren’t the winds of change upon me?
Using the wind as a path toward transformation was not a new idea — ancient spiritual teachings are full of exhortations to emulate it. The I Ching counsels that we need to bend like bamboo in the wind without being broken. The Tao says we cannot see the wind but we can observe its force, the way it changes things. The wind powers journeys, moves seeds, enables rebirth. That last one sounded pretty good to me.
I decided to sail at Swell City, a favorite outpost on the Washington side of the Columbia, where a small contingent of sailors spend most of their waking hours sailing, smoking pot and drinking beers. Rock ‘n’ roll blared from trucks and beater vans. Everyone had a nickname: Wolfie. Fucking Dave. Buddha Stan. ChooChoo John. Suzy Hot-Bod. There was good-natured ribbing, and impromptu barbecues, and endless talk about the wind: where it is, where it will be, what it will be doing.
That July turned out to be one of the windiest months on record. The hot, gusty days blurred into one another. The sheer physical effort of the act was addictive. And out in the middle of the mighty Columbia, I remained captivated by its beauty. The snowy hat of Mount Hood looked down from the distance. Egrets and bald eagles dive-bombed for salmon. I marveled: What I was doing accomplished nothing for anyone. It did nothing for my standing in the world. It won me no friends. No admirers. There were only endless reaches of back and forth, the wind and the water, the sky and me beneath it.
Then again, a lot of the time I was terrified. When the winds went wild, I was too frightened to hook into my harness because in powerful gusts I’d be thrown into the air, tethered to my sail, and trapped underwater. The whole system depended on a series of connections: mast to board, harness to person. So when strong winds blew, I’d bounce on the board, holding on for dear life, or get mowed down by the swell. Other sailors were dumbfounded: Why fight the wind?
“Gotta hook in,” they’d say. “Gotta go faster.”
I also couldn’t jibe, which is to turn around, swinging the rig over the front of the board. You have to sail fast, commit wholly, and lean forward into nothingness to drive the board through the turn before flipping the sail in front of you. It’s a masterful move that combines speed, power, grace and timing, and separates the casual sailor from the expert. It seemed impossible to nail. But it was also an apt metaphor for what I needed to do in my life.
So again and again, I did the thing I dreaded: I went fast. Committed wholly. Leaned into nothingness. I sailed until I was exhausted. And I kept going. That summer I broke two toes. My arms ached. My legs, covered in bruises, spasmed at night. And I was happier than I ever remembered being.
I sailed by day, and my psyche went to work at night. I dreamed about bridges crumbling beneath my feet, being tied up with rope, cars unable to accelerate up hills. But every morning I’d awake to the possibility of the jibe, imagining my feet steering the board, my hands pulling up the sail, flipping, catching. Turn around! Turn around! After two hot, glorious months, I still couldn’t jibe — but I learned something just as crucial.
One day a friend and her 15-year-old son came out to the Gorge with me, and after I explained my trials, my long and fruitless journey toward the jibe, he said the simplest, most profound thing: “It’s all in the attitude.” This kid had been windsurfing exactly three times, yet he knew the secret. “If you go out there knowing you’re going to rock it, you will,” he continued. “But if you go out there afraid you’ll get hurt, you will.”
I smiled at him. Wasn’t that precisely the same problem I’d encountered in life? I’d always been terrified I wouldn’t reach the goal, make the grade, land the job or the contract or the deal — and sure enough, I’d watched my worst professional fear come true.
I knew I had to let that fear go. And slowly I did. Even after a particularly bad day of flailing, when I vowed I would never, ever windsurf again, if the wind went up the next day I’d be back at it, driven by the insane memories of the spectacular days when everything clicked perfectly and pure magic took over. Powered by the wind, fully locked and loaded, you push your legs out and hang out over the water, steer with your toes and heels, flying weightless, carried by the elements. There is no other feeling like it in the world.
The wind wanted nothing from me. It cared not at all about my ambition, my accomplishments. It reminded me that the beauty of life is in the trying, day after day. And that’s where I am: still trying for the turnaround, in life and in the wind.