by Susie Merz

At the end of every year, I choose a word that represents my focus for the coming calendar year, and this past December the word I chose was buoyant. My intention was to find a spirit of lightness in my mood and in my being. How then I wondered a few weeks back, did I come to find myself capsizing a kayak in the ocean? Buoyant indeed! 

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The kayaking lessons I signed up for included learning the “wet exit,” purposely capsizing the kayak and getting out into the water. And yes, this is as terrifying as it sounds. To be upside down under water is literally the opposite of buoyant, and activates all the primal fears of being trapped, of sinking, and drowning. On the first attempt at this my heart raced in panic as I went under into the cold, dark water. I was disoriented and felt frantic, grasping toward the surface of the water to take my next breath.

So, there I was in a situation that I had deliberately sought out, one that would terrify me. I knew though, or assumed, that the leader would guide me through my fear to safety, and after the third or fourth time in practice, I did learn that it is possible to function, even while being afraid. 

Though the fear of cancer returning can weigh me down at times, through my work at Callanish I have met many people who face that reality. I see that it is not about banishing the fear, but about being in a different relationship to it. In the kayak, the moment of tipping over was terrifying at some level, but it changed with repetition. Still scary, but somehow doable. It seems that this could be true with the daily practice of facing the fear of cancer returning. The fear continues to be present, but it shifts somehow, into something that is manageable, for the moment at least. 

I am so grateful to have the honour of witnessing the open-hearted struggle of those at Callanish who face the return or progression of cancer. They lean on their community, express their fears, ask for help, and hold onto one another to stay afloat. I learn, by being with them, what buoyancy can look like, no matter the degree of illness or fear.

Of course, the return of cancer is not a choice one makes, in the way that I chose kayaking lessons. In a quest to learn more about fear, I chose to face being “un-buoyant” in my kayak, to continue working on my intention to live in a way that is buoyant, even with fear as an ever-present companion.


Susie Merz first came to Callanish as a retreat participant in 2015 and has since joined the staff team as a clinical counsellor. She has worked as a therapist for over 14 years, both in nonprofit agencies and in her own counselling practice.