June 18, 2016

An Ode to the Adventurous Dads: The Inadvertent Feminists.

dad and daughter

“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” ~ Jon Krakauer


Poised on the ledge of a rocky embankment, eight-year-old me sat balanced on my mini mountain bike, one toe connected with the earth for balance, fingers squeezing the brakes, surveying the scene before me.

The bank dropped into a shallow stream before rising steeply up the other side. I’m sure the reality wasn’t as treacherous as the image that flickers in my memory today—but in that moment, I felt as if I were standing at the world’s edge.

My dad had criss-crossed the stream several times already on his own bike, and was cheering me on with reminders of how to position my feet and body weight. Pedals level, three and nine, chocolate foot forward! He had no doubt that I could make it down and back up the other side—and in my world, he knew everything.

I started pedalling.

Barreling down the bank, I bounced through a blizzard of muddy water and shot up the other side, pedalling as hard as I could. I shrieked with joy as my bike crested the opposite bank, and followed my dad on down the trail, eyes shining, heart pounding, muddied braid flapping behind me in the breeze. He disappeared into an orange grove draped with yawning spider webs and prehistoric-looking spiders. I pedalled after him, ready for our next daring feat.

Throughout my childhood, we explored the world together. Scaling mountainsides, paddling into waves, capsizing in white water rapids. I never knew that being a girl was supposed to come with limits until I went to school and began to encounter the ways of the world—the many ways in which women continue to be marginalized by an outdated culture.

The opposing force to this dark situation is made up not only of brave women, but also by the strong, intelligent men who live their lives, intentionally or otherwise, as advocates for equality. I don’t think my dad ever stopped and thought about feminism, or defined himself as a feminist. I’m not sure he even saw me as a “girl” in the stereotypical sense of the word. He simply saw me (and treated me) like a loved child and free-spirited human, and that made all the difference.

When fathers share adventures with their daughters, they are showing them what it looks like for men and women to experience life side by side. They are welcoming their girls into a world of pioneering and exploration. Society may later try to rescind this invitation, but it will be too late. These girls will already have wandered far into the wilderness, assured of their right to be there, and thoroughly unwilling to turn back.

Adventure is rebellious by nature. It rejects the game board laid out by society. It cracks bars on cages. It cultivates strength, independence and other characteristics that are often discouraged in young girls. It moves us toward equality by acting as a balancing force, by resisting rules and expectations.

It can manifest in a physical journey, an opening of the heart or a metamorphosis of the mind. It is fluid and shape-shifting—it spills out of containers.

Adventure teaches girls crucial life lessons:

To be curious rather than fearful.

An adventure is a foray into the unknown, and most of us, on some level, are afraid of the unknown. This is part of being human, and it has its purposes. Yet accepting fear as a part of our lives does not mean we have to be ruled by it. We can choose to follow the unknown with a sense of playfulness and curiosity.

Our curiosity can take us far across oceans or deep into books. It can drive us to explore new lands, new friendships and our own strengths and dreams. Curiosity suggests to us that the problems of the world have solutions, before we can see what they are. It reminds us that when we are wondering whether we’re capable of something, there’s only one way to find out.

As we allow our curiosity to expand, we get friendlier with the unknown. More willing to take risks, more eager to jump the fence and see what lies beyond our own backyard. Perseverance is a natural consequence, because a curious nature is never defeated. It is never defeated because it is never finished. There is always more to see, hear, feel, learn and uncover.

This process often guides us down the twisty path of bread crumbs that leads to the great discoveries of our lives, the pivotal experiences that make us who we are. Continually ushered into the unfamiliar by our curious instinct and need to explore, it is a process that unsettles us, helps us to shed worn-out skins, and brings us alive over and over again.

To focus on the practice instead of trying to be perfect.

There is a notable emphasis on perfection for girls navigating the world of growing up. Clear images of how we are supposed to look, act and think are delivered regularly. Deviation from these narrow ideals is not recommended by our society.

But adventures reveal to girls that the idea of perfection is just another limiting force. A myth, a cage, an endlessly spinning hamster wheel that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Life is gloriously imperfect, and we are allowed to practice and fall and get stronger and have scars with stories behind them.

Girls were not created to sit lined up on a shelf like pretty collectables. We are made of muscle and bone so that we can run and climb. We have minds to learn with and hearts full of passion. There is no perfection in this—it’s a mess. We are tornadoes of living, breathing wonder. We are beings that are equipped to experience life, and experiences are a life-long string of practices.

When making a foray into the unknown, we have to accept that we don’t have control. We have to acknowledge that we aren’t completely sure how this will turn out. That we could get hurt or lost or laughed at. That we might not execute whatever it is we are trying to do “perfectly.”

Yet we go anyway, because the joy is in the practice. The spark of life is in the present moment, and since that moment is always moving-flowing-flying away, there is no way to freeze it in a snapshot of flawlessness.

To love life itself, not an image of life.

We live in a culture that sends the message over and over that a girl’s worth is based on the way others view her. That it is important to construct the appearance of something, rather than experience how that thing actually is. Creating images can be beautiful when they enable us to dream and then follow those dreams, but the impact of an image is destructive when imposed as a state we’re expected to exist in.

In a world that places so much value on how things look, adventure directs our focus to the sensory experience—that which is felt and known internally.

Imagine body surfing in the ocean. We can’t see how we look, but we can taste salt on our lips and hear the roar of breaking waves. We can feel all the movements of the sea, the silkiness of it against our skin as we float over swells, the churning of energy in an onslaught of whitewater, stretching our limbs from our bodies. There is little time to worry over what other people might think of us, because our attention is focused on something bigger—the beauty and power of the ocean. We might even lock eyes with a seal, or feel a jellyfish brush against our leg (remarkably soft in the moment before our skin ignites). There are endless things to feel and taste and smell that we connect to through the sensations they stir within us.

Our appearance, our style, or the status of our social media profile are all irrelevant in the midst of this type of experience. Trying to sustain an image is another version of trying to control the world, and there is no control in adventure.

We release those expectations when we fly down an embankment on a mountain bike, barrel through the ocean in a wave’s belly, gallop on a horse, swing from a tree branch. There is no mirror to distract us while living these experiences, no requirements for body type or face shape or skin color. There is only attention to and immersion in the present moment.

To be independent.

There is an idea in circulation, and particularly directed toward women, that we need other people in order to do the things we want to do. We need their approval, their help, their permission or their companionship. But what do other people give us that we can’t give to ourselves?

Going on adventures teaches us that we have all we need in our own hearts and minds. We have the ability to take on and figure out unknown situations. We can learn how to build a fire or read a map. We can get hurt and then heal from that hurt. We are magically self-sustaining, regenerative and wily.

Adventurous dads slowly release their daughters into the awareness of this freedom.

As a child, I often got in over my head and needed to be rescued by Dad. Dad pulled me out of a rip current, helped me out of a tree, or off the side of a rock that had looked less cliff-like from the ground. As I grew though, instead of picking me up and carrying me to safety, he began to talk me through sticky situations, allowing me to sit with the discomfort and navigate the fear. He taught me, through example and experience, how to rescue myself.

Once a girl knows she can rescue herself, she is a bird set free, then love becomes a joy rather than a need, help becomes a pleasant surprise rather than a requirement. She will never shy away from opportunities for fear that she can’t go it alone. She knows she can, because she already has. Her adventures made sure of that.

To trust ourselves.

Adventures don’t travel in a straight line. They aren’t predictable, and they involve some degree of risk. In order to participate in them, we have to trust in our own ability to handle situations that haven’t come up yet—the ones that we can’t plan for. Our preparation for this is simply to accumulate experiences in the world, and cultivate a belief in our own intuition.

As a girl grows up and has more adventures, her ability to trust in herself solidifies. She gains more and more proof that she can navigate sticky situations, that she can summon courage when she needs it.

When we are young and do not yet know what we are capable of, this courage and confidence is tended to by our parents. Dads who take their daughters on adventures send them the silent message that they trust them and that they believe their girls are strong and smart enough to manage the twists and turns ahead. These fathers want their daughters to know that they are deserving of the joy and freedom that come with pioneering the unknown.

This is a belief that we internalize and keep with us as we grow. In the myriad situations that life brings us through, we keep returning to that piece of ourselves that glows in our chests like a small sun—that piece that reminds us of who we are and what we are made of.

Adventuring alongside our dads as youngsters helps girls to cultivate lives rich with strength, freedom and whole-hearted love.

Thank you to the wild men, to the dads who believe in their daughters and find joy in sharing the world with us. Thank you for stacking us on your shoulders; for strapping us into backpacks; for carrying us out into the ocean tucked under one arm. Thank you for giving us books and maps and hiking boots; showing us how to sit quietly in the brush and watch wild animals play. Thank you for teaching us to “live in the sunshine, swim the sea, and drink the wild air” as Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

You have changed the world without even knowing it.


Author: Chrissy Tustison

Image: Colin Bowern/Flickr

Editors: Caitlin Oriel; Renee Picard

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