The lesson of the kayak

The author in her titular kayak. Maryland, September 2018.

The picture shows me sitting in a solo kayak in the middle of a choppy bay, paddle straddled across my knees, strained smile on my lips. Behind me, a gray-green shoreline of trees and hidden cottages; above me, gathering clouds with "God rays" breaking through. With my upper torso obscured by my life vest (safety first!), you wouldn't know at first glance that I was eight months pregnant. And you definitely wouldn't know that I had just finished throwing a bona fide tantrum.

My husband and I were taking one last little weekend getaway before baby arrived, and we'd found a cozy, well-outfitted rental in one of the quieter outposts of the Chesapeake Bay. The forecast foretold gloomy rain and chill for the duration of our long weekend save for the afternoon we arrived, so as soon as we parked the car, we headed to the dock to check out the recreational equipment and take advantage of the partial sun and dry skies.

Fishing poles, crab cage, canoe, kayaks ... only single kayaks, though, no doubles. "Think you can handle one on your own?" my husband asked. "Sure!" I replied with a level of confidence I hoped would become genuine once we hit the water. We usually take a tandem kayak for a reason, in that Nature Boy knows how to paddle and turn and steer, and I know how to sit. But it couldn't be that hard, right? I owed it to him and his many hours of past aquatic chauffeuring at least to attempt it.

Loading in progressed without incident, as did our initial maneuvers beyond the dock. I was moving generally in my intended direction, and 15 minutes in, I hadn't capsized. (Both important wins.) When we turned into the wind, however, my lack of kayaking ability rendered me impotent. The choppy waves were slapping my boat back and forth. The brackish water was stinging my freshly shaved legs. My right arm was getting sore, my left arm was staying tense, and what the hell did it even matter because I couldn't direct the vessel where I wanted anyway.

The more water dripped on me, the more my arms pumped, the more the wind quickened, the more I felt like I was moving backwards, the more agitated I became. How foolish I must look, I thought, to be out here so pregnant and bulky, windmilling my arms against Mother Nature. How vain not to admit my limits before throwing myself into the middle of a bay. Where was my natural instinct? Where were the immediate answers? Why the hell couldn't I do what seemed so straightforward when watching others do it?

A familiar lump in my throat began to rise -- the lump of shame and frustration, a lump that fattens itself on my belief of inadequacy and drinks the tears I shed to dislodge it. The lump is rarely positive, so I trailed behind my husband's kayak in the hopes of experiencing my moment of weakness alone. No such luck. My dear partner, on noticing the widening gulf between us, helpfully paused and waited for me to catch up, and when I did finally slink alongside him, he could tell at once that I was a most unhappy camper.

Pulling up his paddle and holding my kayak's carry handle, he gently asked, "Honey, what's wrong? Talk to me."

Ah, those magic words, the ones that never fail to release the flood, especially when I'm trying to contain it. Which I couldn't.

"I can't even steer a kayak," I wailed into the void of the bay, empty except for us. "How on earth am I going to raise a human?"

As the gray clouds thickened over our heads and the sun sank lower, I poured out every one of my hidden and inarticulated fears to my patient spouse:

Our entire lives are about to change forever.
What if parenthood isn't what I thought it would be?
What if I'm not the mother I thought I would be?
How are we going to keep our marriage strong?
Will we ever feel free again?
Will I still get to be myself?

And so on, punctuated by angry slaps of my paddle against the water and ugly tears further soaking my cold, stinging legs (if they made it past the bulging life vest). A dam built over a long eight months of anticipatory mystery had broken. I was laid bare on the rough waters, no longer able to outrun my anxious thoughts. Tired and pregnant, nervous and excited, impatient and annoyed ... I was all these states, plus wet. No wonder I lost it.

My husband, god bless him, did not attempt to answer me. He simply listened. Nodded. Said, "Me too." "We'll figure it out together." "I love you." "Here, let me take a picture of you."

The last one caught me off guard. "You want to take a picture of me now?"

"Yes. We need to justify you carrying your iPhone out on open water."

That's when he snapped the picture you see at the start of this post. I haven't shared it or this story until now because it took two months to let most remnants of that emotional dam drift away downstream. Though, if I'm being honest, a few hearty logs remain, fortified by the very real doubts and fears and joys presented by having -- at long last -- a very new human in my house.

So when I look again at this shot, I recognize what will be invisible to those who weren't there, such as the dried tear streaks on my face and the burgeoning blisters on my thumbs. But I also see what was invisible to me at the time -- chiefly, the sun rays defying the clouds and searching for reflection on the water below. They illuminate how this photo captures more than a moment in time; it captures a transition to a new state of being.

Parenthood -- like maturity, like love, like spirituality, like any examined life -- will be an unbroken string of unanswered questions. I can rail against them (which I'm sure will still happen at times), or I can strive to be present to them and work toward wisdom. In the meantime I will snuggle my son, share a date night with my husband, and imagine the future day when I put my child in a kayak, point him toward the horizon, and say, "You've got this."

Prayer #329: Paddle

Why exactly should I learn to paddle? You have gifted me currents that bear the load, easily whisking me on their fast-flowing backs toward a determined end. If I simply raise my oar from the water and lay it across my lap, the river will carry me to the mouth of the great ocean, and my life as I'd conceived it to be will widen, deepen, amplify everything I hold most dear.

God of such obliging movement, build in me the trust to let go, and guard my tiny craft on its great adventure into the unknown.