“How far did you get?”
The young woman asking me this question worked at a pop-up boat rental operation in Western Massachusetts. I had just rented a kayak for an hour, my first time in such a watercraft.
I had been wanting to try kayaking for a while, yet whenever the impulse arose, the long-ago installed mental machinery of perfectionism and over-preparedness began cranking, steamrolling my enthusiasm. Shouldn’t I take a lesson first (even though group lessons often leave me feeling frustrated and inept)? Procure all-the-right-gear for my body and dry bags for my camera, phone and wallet to avert-every-possible-mishap? Shouldn’t I find the best place to do it, an area with great scenery or the potential to see something unique, to optimize the experience? Just thinking about all that siphoned my energy. It’s as if I needed to get a dozen ducks in a row before I could float on water and observe actual ducks, charming because they are not second-guessing every quack and waddle.
The previous day I had seen others enjoying themselves in canoes, kayaks and pedal boats. For reference, I snapped a photo of a portable chalkboard listing rental times and rates. The serendipitous discovery seemed like the, um, “perfect” way to circumvent perfectionist hurdles and simply try kayaking without turning it into a production or a performance. When I returned to rent a single-seater for one hour, I made sure to treat the experience like a Feldenkrais Awareness Through movement lesson: I lowered the stakes to sense, explore and learn, not achieve, measure or accomplish anything. I did not bring my camera, even though I suspected I’d see wildlife. I didn’t fret over not having a waterproof bag for my phone. I paid cash for the rental and left my wallet in the car. I simply wanted to discover whether I actually enjoyed being in a kayak without burdening or complicating the experience with a destination or any other intention, such as taking photos with a zoom lens. Sixty minutes would be enough time to get a flavor of the activity. I set the timer on my phone for 30 minutes so I’d know when to turn around.
As I paddled away, slowly and awkwardly, I spotted two cormorants resting on branches that had fallen into the river. I doubt I would have noticed them had I been trying to go full steam ahead as these dark grey birds blend in with the environment. As I approached, the larger of the two projectile pooped, as if letting me know it felt comfortable enough to let loose with a human nearby. I wondered how close I could get before they took off. I quietly floated towards them and snapped a few iPhone photos before the birds dropped into the water and bobbed away, yellow beaks in the air. Then I sat still and enjoyed the light breeze across my face and forearms, a delicious sensation that’s easy to miss if I’m too caught up “getting somewhere”. I continued to paddle gently and came upon two men, perhaps a father and son, fishing from shore. I asked if they’d caught anything. The older man said they hadn’t. He attributed the apparent fish shortage to attempts to treat the water, covered with bright green algal blooms. In pausing to chat, rather than paddling at full throttle, I learned a bit about the ecosystem.
At that point the river forked and I decided to head to the right, slightly behind a group in a canoe, so I’d feel less alone. Then I heard loud barking from the left bank. Without any preconceived notion of going as far as I could, I easily reversed course to avoid the noise. By then I’d been on the water nearly 30 minutes. I decided to use the rest of the time to play around with the positions of my legs, pelvis, torso and arms to find what felt and worked best. Towards the end of my experiment, as I approached the dock, I paddled at a steadier, faster pace. It felt good to pick up speed in an organic way, without much effort, strain or desire to prove anything. It’s as if I had planted a seed for my own learning, one I could nurture should I decide to continue.
When I exited the kayak and handed my life jacket to the young woman, I told her I hadn’t intended to go far at all. She seemed surprised by my response to her routine question, as if going as far as one could would be one of the reasons for renting a kayak. It’s ingrained in this culture to value or focus on the quantifiable that, in my experience, most people rarely first inquire about the quality of an outing, or ask what someone observed, or how pleasurable something was. Society emphasizes and rewards achievement and doing, while not acknowledging that if one is made miserable in the process of achieving, is it still worth it? Casual conversation often reflects and reinforces the bias towards activity and results. It’s as if things that cannot be measured – satisfaction, intimacy and learning — do not count, even when they are precisely what make life meaningful.
I then said to the young woman I had just wanted to give kayaking a try. She asked if I enjoyed it. Yes, I said. A little bit of play went a long way.