I Believe in Rivers

(Another lovely slice from my crazyplate, about kayaking on our rivers:  from an essay submitted for NPR’s This I Believe project, and for our university’s 2011 Common Reading of the same.)

I have always lived near rivers:  as a child, standing ankle-deep and cool in Lampasas River moss outside Killeen, Texas; as a teenager running wild with my even wilder brothers down Brown’s Creek to the Spring River in Arkansas.  In my college and early married years, I got busy, got employed, got babies—but always the rivers,  more distant perhaps but ever-present:  the White River in Arkansas, the James River in Williamsburg, the Main River in Aschaffenburg, Germany.  Rivers have been for me beautiful backdrop and boundary.

It wasn’t until we moved to West Virginia—living on the banks of the Shenandoah, working on the banks of the Potomac—that I became aware of a kind of internal itch, a growing discontent with living with these rivers as mere scenery.  Something compelled me to risk, one day in May some years back, committing my middle-aged insomniac desk-bound mess to the tender fiberglass embrace of a fire-engine red kayak, a Mother’s Day gift from my husband.

I told him he was crazy—made him take the maiden voyage out to prove I wouldn’t be swept downstream—but then I gathered my courage, took a deep breath, and stepped in.

Setting out, stretching long-unused muscles and breathing in the slightly froggy air, I remembered the wildness of those children, sensed the muttering monkeymind—the constant soundtrack of my busy days—begin to fade into the hushed ripple and drip of river and paddle.  For the first time in—years?—I was needed nowhere, needed to be nowhere, needed nothing and no one but the paddle in my hand and the river flowing beneath me.  I had found that rarity, for me:  a perfect and sufficient moment.

Positive psychology offers the idea of flowwhen the activity of the present moment fully absorbs and engages one’s attention, fully and perfectly utilizes all one’s skills.  It delights me—but does not surprise me–that psychologists would use a river metaphor to describe what the river brought to me that day—what our rivers bring to me every time I set out in my kayak.

Fully engaged, fully sufficient for the moment, I can trust them to flow exactly where I need to be carried:  into necessary and welcome solitude some days—other days into growing and beloved community.  They show me in one breathtaking moment the variety, beauty, and resilience of the wild and wonderful state we live in; they reveal her wounds and fragile bones the very next.  They have reminded this middle-aged insomniac desk-bound mess that outside and underneath my workaday life—which I had lived for years almost entirely from the desk up—I am muscle, sinew and sweat as well, a physical being surrounded by rich and simple gifts:  smell of wood smoke, strains of bluegrass, the rose petal of a child’s face, poetry and sex and moon-shine and a bit of mud between my toes.

And a river that in the winter sun runs the color of my husband’s eyes.

When I kayak our rivers, there is a blessed silence that settles in my mind; and often, a lovely line from a C S Lewis novel rises as a meditative, rhythmic refrain:  “All is gift.”  On the river, surrounded by, upheld within, overflowing with gifts—I can only be grateful.  So when I offer the invitation to paddle, when I can teach my tired or tentative colleagues; see them gather their courage, take a deep breath, and step in; see them return, transformed themselves, overflowing with confidence and joy for the experience–I see the gifts I have received “cast upon the waters and return a hundredfold”–and I can only be grateful.

All is gift—these rivers of ours–this I believe.

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Filed under Kayaking, Life in the Balance, Writing

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