“We’ll visit the swans,” said the instructor Erin as she directed three of us into kayaks. Then she climbed into her own — well, they were all her own, she lives on the pond, and teaches the small class at her home — and pushed off from the shore. “Then we’ll have a little blind paddle, see how it might expand our morning.”
My mornings tend to start in a not very expansive way, something I’m not very proud of. My initial reflex when I open my eyes, in that first lucid moment between dreams and reality, is to do a mental check of the things I know are in store and brace myself for the things I don’t. It feels like there’s usually some unforeseen thing, some blindsider that makes me exhale at the end of the day and say, Wow, I didn’t see that coming. Sometimes I wake up wondering what’s going to be The Thing today. I know this isn’t the most open, optimistic way to greet the day.
“There she is,” Erin called back from under the brim of a floppy pink straw hat, and reached back a muscular arm to hand me her binoculars. Not more than 50 yards away, an enormous swan sat on her large nest, a camel-neck queen on a pedestal of sticks. Her mate drifted watchfully about 30 yards away. “Last year when I sat here once, the cygnets poked out and walked around,” Erin said. We floated there awhile letting our kayaks drift, then back-paddled away with quiet strokes.
When we reached the middle of the pond, Erin told us to close our eyes. “Point yourself in a direction away from anyone else, set your sights on a far point onshore, and try paddling toward it blind. Don’t peek.”
I have sat down to writing that way, trying to ward off distractions by typing with my eyes closed. But that’s sitting stationary. I was never a big fan of pin the tail on the donkey or three legged races. I’ve woken abruptly from nightmares about driving a car blind. Like many people stuck with the label “control freak,” I tend to be far more comfortable when all of my senses and limbs are in play. Surely I’d paddle into one of the other kayaks, into someone’s dock, the swan.
That’s the cornerstone of the control myth, isn’t it? This belief that if you can see it, touch it, hold it, you can better fend off disaster. And its corollary, that if you can’t hold onto something with an iron grip, you’ll falter. I faced this the hard way on a highwire outdoor adventure in December, and by hard way I don’t mean the mortal-danger way, but the tearful mortifying way. Months later, the lessons learned are still sinking in.
I pointed the kayak toward the far shore, a small patch of town beach where my children sometimes swim, and closed my eyes. After less than a minute I became aware of the sound of a power tool on shore, possibly too close, and the buzzing of an insect, definitely too close. I opened my eyes a crack, feeling like a kid touching her security blanket. Of course I was only a few feet from where I’d been before, well in the middle of the pond. The insect was either gone, or never there in the first place.
I closed my eyes and started again. Slower, more conscious paddling made me better able to hear which sounds were close and which were further away. I held the paddle loosely and kept my path flexible, listening to the drone of construction tools and the quieter sounds under them: the other kayakers receding, insects, birds, my own breathing. I went on for about ten minutes until Erin called us back, and I didn’t peek again. It didn’t feel as if there was anything up ahead that I needed to see.
What I didn’t know then was that the day would end with my six-year-old breaking his arm on the backyard swingset, a displacement of two bones that would land us all in the ER for hours, except for the 13-year-old, who was playing in a concert the rest of us would have to miss. Over the course of four hours we had vending-machine popcorn for dinner and played Tic Tac Toe and made silly iPhone videos, waiting on a gurney between xrays and verdict, and changing tactics hourly about the 13yo’s ride home from the concert. By the time I went to bed, it seemed impossible that the tranquil kayaking had taken place that same calendar day.
But in the scope of things, the drama was like high tide. Up, down, no permanent damage done. The 6yo wasn’t in much pain, and would be fine after readjustment and a cast; the three others would live without finished homework and a proper meal; the 13yo learned that sometimes you have to play to an audience with the empty seats of loved ones.
I used to wish I had a crystal ball to help me be better prepared for whatever the day was going to kick up. But knowing the day would hold the ER visit wouldn’t have added to my kayaking hour, and almost certainly would have detracted from it. And in fact the not-knowing didn’t make me any less able to handle it on the fly — ditto the car trouble a few days later, that would leave me roadside at 10pm an hour from home after a book event. Things happen. You deal with them as best you can. And usually, the tide recedes with little or no harm.
In my novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (http://www NULL.indiebound NULL.org/book/9780307887825), I wrote about the arbitrariness of life, how you can either be paralyzed by the fear of being blindsided, or choose to accept the not-knowing, move on, because what’s the alternative? It’s easier said (or written) than done.
I’m in no way advocating going through life with blinders on. But. While it might be true that what you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you very much, sometimes knowing ahead of time isn’t helpful, either. If I’d known how difficult it would be to write, revise, and sell a novel, would I have done it anyway? Would we have children if we could be given a glimpse in advance of our most difficult day with them?
Here’s one more cliché with more than a glimmer of truth: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It might just be safer, and saner, to paddle blind into each uncertain day. Loose grip, quiet enough to hear what’s happening around you, and flexible enough to adjust on the fly.