I went kayaking today on the Charles river out in Newton. I love kayaking on a river — it’s different than sea kayaking. With no waves it’s more peaceful, and you feel more in control. The kayak becomes an extension of your torso; the paddle an extension of your arms. You just sit on top of the water and your arms move you in whatever direction you want to go. It’s so easy and seamless, as if you finally have all of your limbs and are remembering what to do with them. Your arms pump in a figure eight, dipping one end of the paddle down through the water while the other arcs up and forward, then bends to dip again.
I slid out of the dock and quickly passed the hapless summer campers in their canoes. A canoe full of girls headed towards me and their eyes widened in panic: “Sorry!” they shouted, “Sorry, we don’t know how to turn!” “You’re okay, don’t worry,” I smiled and moved effortlessly aside, wise, gentle, and accomplished in a way that I rarely am on land. Then I left the groups behind, headed up the river past the fields of lily pads which were possessed by one great blue heron each. Swallows zipped back and forth, close to the water, catching the little water bugs. A hawk soared overhead in a circle, and I wondered if he was looking for fish.
My shoulders had stiffened after a few minutes, but they actually loosened as I paddled on. I peered over the blue puff of my life jacket at my bare arms, and watched the muscles move in them as they turned the paddle, the skin beginning to freckle from the sun. They looked so strong and purposeful, and felt so natural, taking a rare turn at all the action while my legs rested, crossed, in the kayak. This! I thought: This is what arms are for! To be strong, to carry you across the water, to pull and push, hold and carry, reach and touch. How often have I judged my poor arms for being too fat, having loose skin and stretch marks, thought them inadequate and imperfect. But look what they can do! Look how confident and beautiful they are, moving over the green-grey water.
Later in the day I babysat for a two year old girl, fed her dinner, bathed her, and read her stories before laying her down in her bed for sleep. In the bath I marveled at her dark skin and hair, her lean arms and legs and round belly. As we toweled her off she rubbed her belly and cried joyfully, “Belly! Belly!” “Yes!” I said, “I love your belly! It takes in your food and makes you strong and healthy. And it gives you big belly laughs!” We brushed her hair and she said, “Hair!” “Yes!” I said, “I love your hair! It keeps your head warm in the winter, and protects you from the sun and from bugs.” She is truly one of the loveliest creatures I have ever known, and I want her to know that she’s beautiful. But I also want her to know that her body is strong and capable and there for a purpose. Her body was not given to her to be cute, to keep slim and perfect so it will attract admiration. It was given to her to use, to run and jump, to laugh and touch and hold and carry. And, some day soon, to sit cross-legged in a kayak and slip smoothly through a river filled with flowering lily pads.
*This was originally posted last summer as Kayaking.