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I know how to paddle; I know how to swim

A panic followed me into the St. Mary’s River where I’d hoped for a clear-eyed, early morning canoe trip on glassy water. I rolled up my pants and pushed off the sand with my left foot, the other inside the boat on its center line, my hands steadying me on either lip of the canoe’s thin walls. Paddling up the bank, I looked down into the muddy water next to me at the occasional stones. I steered clear of the channel’s current, never going too deep, yet both the murky unknown and the riverbed terrain, where I could see it, were frightful, one mysterious in its opacity and the other bone-chillingly undisturbed, like a graveyard. I trained my eye on the shoreline ahead, paddling assiduously, keeping up pace and imagining my grandmother’s petite figure on the bow seat as it often was, once, a Velcro back brace stiffening her posture, laid over a white turtleneck and hidden by a woolen sweater. This imagined scene didn’t much calm me; a haunted canoe ride wouldn’t soothe my state, even if the ghost in question was a talkative 4’10” senior citizen with a bad back.


So, in the way that our sociable species has a natural inclination to fill silence with chatter and hum, I began talking. Everything’s fine, you’re fine, this is fine. Paddle the canoe. I was no match for myself, and slowly my anxieties whipped up a frenzy in the pit of my stomach, a mini-hurricane of invisible terror emerging on this calm river inlet. I leaned on the next-most natural inclination, after chatter: rhythm. I started chanting as I rowed, an invocation of strength designed to appeal to my sense of rationalism: I know how to paddle, I know how to paddle, I know how to paddle and I know how to swim. That is, I know perfectly well how to guide this canoe wherever I want it to go, and in the worst-case scenario, not only could I swim myself to safety (or, frankly, walk most of the way given the shallow depth), but I knew how to elegantly capsize and roll the canoe to float on top of me and preserve my breath in the event of a flash rainstorm. Rational, yes? But something about the musicality of the chant seemed to underscore how frantic I felt, as if the scene were building towards a horrible climax.


I glided quickly back to the dock but, embarrassed at my abbreviated tour, decided to push myself beyond my fears and continue past our boat house for another quick turn. I can do this. I’ve done it a hundred times. It’s just a canoe. It’s just a river. This turned out to be a miscalculation because, while the downstream speed distracted me long enough to enjoy the scenery, once I was satisfied by my bravery and pivoted the canoe to return, it was significantly more difficult to paddle against the current. The fear came rushing back and there I was, on the edge of snapping, and the dark water seemed to hold me back, the current slowly pulling me farther from home.

My heart pounded, my hands shook, my neck and back muscles wound up tightly, my face contorted in funny spasms of fear. I dug into the water with my oar, but the imprecision of each stroke only worked against me. The harder I rowed, the louder the rush of water displaced, the scarier the scene became. Nightmarish visions struck: seaweed fingers reaching for the boat from below, eager to envelope me and pull me down into the water; every thrash of oar stroke behind me (self-created!) was some creature rising up to drown me with malicious glee; the murky depths awaited me, each slippery stone a death trap for the discombobulated victim lunging towards shore. It sounds absurd; it was absurd. But the object of fear is not the point; regardless, the fear itself is stunningly real. The foreboding, the dread, the terror, the panic, the conviction that death is seconds away, the sweaty hands and throbbing veins – all of it’s real, whether you’re fleeing a fuzzy duckling or a tsunami. The absurdity of the scenario, the sheer illogic, in hindsight, only serves to shame you, only makes it harder to talk about. It was silly, of course it was. I don’t know what got into me.


I made it back to the dock eventually. I summoned, if I’m honest, my mother’s voice; not one of loving encouragement, but of impatient, grown-up contempt: You’re being ridiculous. Stop acting like a baby and ROW THE BOAT. If I insist on childlike fear, I’ll use childhood leverage to and shame my imagination into silence. Hell, it worked, although I didn’t feel safe until the front end of the canoe ground to a gravelly halt on the shore. I dragged the rest of it out of the water and abandoned it, walking quickly towards the house, unwilling to speak about what happened, trying to breathe deeply.

I cling to the mornings because they are flat and open, like a palm extended. Mornings don’t hold secrets; sunlight pushes in, and people are at their most sober and responsible. Mornings provide clarity, you make plans for the day, you eat a deserved and sensible meal, maybe eggs or oatmeal. People care in the morning, the rain holds off, the house is still cool from the night before. In the morning, people look you in the eye, they are polite, they make promises and the promises are earnest and carry weight, and you believe them.


At the height of anxiety, I regard everyday events as urgent omens, fires lit haphazardly, each with a potential for spiraling to catastrophe. This is, undoubtedly, no way to live. Yet, I live it, so I can guarantee that it is a way to live, though not an especially pleasant one. Speaking to a counselor who asked me at what point I decided to take on a particular set of burdens I described to her, I replied, It didn’t occur to me that I had a choice. Whatever comes, I take it on. This is true though, I suppose, rather sad. Every fire lit out there, by friends and foes and colleagues and strangers and family—I own every single one. If it’s within my awareness, I claim it. Who sees a fire and strolls on by, unperturbed? Who sees a fire and opts out?

Maybe where I see fires, others see… something else. What do you see? Caged animals? Rotted fruit? Black boxes? “Not my problem”? What’s your trick? What’s your magic formula? What color glasses do you wear?

So I asked a dear friend, How do you see your life in arcs instead of in urgencies? What does patience mean when we live pressed up against the front edge of the moment, breathlessly and blindly pushing into the next?

In the morning, the world seems preternaturally calm. And by calm, of course I mean safe. I try to envision myself planted on a broad arc of learning, instead of consumed by urgent fires. In one year, in five years, in ten years, will I remember today? Will it be as frightening? Will it ease with its rough edges as a single piece into a larger puzzle, a longer story? In short, will today’s terror be tomorrow’s no-big-deal?


For the past several weeks I’ve been struck by an impulse to put together a puzzle. As in, a cardboard jigsaw puzzle. I couldn’t explain why, and even when I had a chance to do one, I was distracted by a laundry list of responsibilities and didn’t make time for it. But at least, watching trailers before a movie in a darkened theatre, I was struck by a line from a film coming out this year (aptly named “Puzzle”):

“Life is messy. There’s nothing we can do to control anything. When you complete a puzzle, you know that you have made all the right choices.”

Each puzzle piece overwhelms. The anxiety condenses and, in a highly flammable state, requires only the smallest spark to open up, lighted and hot, passing from potential to real, from passive to active, from worry to panic to, at its height, aggression. To walk it back, extinguishing the fires isn’t enough; they must be reimagined entirely. Maybe what other people see, instead of fires, are puzzle pieces. You pick one up, turn it over in your hand, rub the curves and corners with your thumb while gazing over the puzzle in progress; if there’s a place for it, you add it to your growing picture, but if not, you simply put it back down. Maybe you’ll come back to it later, when you’re ready to make more progress.


A toast (from the same film): “To getting all the wrong pieces right.”

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