Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why there's a kid in my kayak

It's been one of those weeks.  You know, the one where stress gets followed by bad news gets followed by worse?  This week, I heard that one of my best friends was being referred for advanced cancer screening.  Each subsequent test fails to rule out cancer, so we move on to the next test. Her son and my youngest are only weeks apart. Then I learned of the death of a very dear relative.  He was in his 90s, but he was very loved.  And I learn that his wife's best friend, another family friend, is losing her daughter to cancer.  Next, an email from another friend.  She's cutting down on her obligations due to what looks like a third recurrence of lung cancer. 
I put my kids in kayaks before their 2nd birthday.  That's the rule in my house.  You can not go two years without sitting in a kayak.  This is why:  When you're in a kayak, when you're down in the hull with a paddle in your hands, there is no way not to be part of nature. Half your body is below the water line. Every ripple in the water will move you.  Every stroke of your paddle will tie you in.  You're not racing above the water as you do with sail.  You're in it. You have no motor to pollute the water with diesel and heavy metals,  you use no resources other than the strength of your own arms and back.  You're as silent as the deer poised on the shoreline, and the shorebirds skimming the waves. Which means that you move at the pace of the natural world, and can hear the natural world, and smell the natural world, and feel the natural world.  With your face, your arms, your legs, your back.  It's you, and the wind and the water and the birds and the turtles and the snake who darts across the shallows.
I want my children to grow up feeling a part of that.  Feeling a part of the world that existed long before humans began twisting it to suit their needs. I was at a community meeting recently, and a high school girl gave a speech about the importance, to her, of a particular community natural open space.  She said that when she got to spend time in that place, when she was small, she got to be whoever she wanted to be.  She could be riding with Pocahontas or exploring with Marco Polo.  She said that she's always had great extracurricular activities - soccer, or art classes, or gymnastics, and she's glad of them all.  But that the best times have been the unscripted times, running around in nature, letting her imagination run free.
That's what I want for my kids. That confidence and imagination that comes from knowing spaces where they can run around free and unscripted. I want them to learn to trust themselves there, not to fear it, the way so many city kids I've taught fear nature: snakes and bugs and frogs and centipedes and mud and Blair Witches hiding in the trees.  And I want them to learn what should be feared: how to cope when the winds are too strong, when to stay out of fast water, that nature can be strong and wet and cold, and requires respect, thought, planning.  
This is what I fear:  that the changes we've wrought through 200 years of growth, industrialization, resource exploitation and pollution are killing the people I love before they've lived their 90+ years.  That 2 year old Andy will grow up without his mother, or Dan will lose the wife that he adores, because we've filled our world with poison and called it fire retardent, low cal sugar substitutes, and conveniently packaged snacks.  That the incessant feel of asphalt and concrete under our children's feet will make them forget that they evolved to walk on soil, grass, and rock.  That the "21st century learner" our schools keep talking about will be so well tuned in to technology that they believe having a photograph of a beautiful lake or a polar bear as their laptop screen wallpaper is in some way enough to counter the fact that they never see that lake, and we're driving the polar bears to extinction.
So I put my kids in kayaks before they're two.  And I give them live frogs to hold gently and put back where they were found, instead of decorating my bathroom with cute little colorful frogs made in China. Because real matters, and anything else is lip service. I feed them as much as I can on organic and whole foods, and when my brown thumb cooperates, on vegetables from our garden. I serve meals on ceramic plates and give them real water glasses and real utensils, because children's dishes and forks made of plastic just ensure that we are feeding our children plastic until we deem them old enough not to - horror - break a plate.  I'd rather they break a plate or 20 - in 7 years and two kids we've broken maybe 3 - then hear my kid has cancer before they're 30.  I keep them out of soft fleece jammies because our nation in its wisdom has mandated that all childrens' soft fleece jammies come presaturated with fire retardents.  And I balance the reading and math and screen time with great doses of "go outside and run around," or "here's a shovel, make mud pies."
And I hope they learn, these 21st Century learners of mine, that we can't survive on asphalt alone, and that to keep our world, we need to know it, and care for it.  And that nature is real, and it is beautiful, and it is powerful, and is going to teach us many lessons this century that require respect, and careful thought, and a lot of advance planning.
That is why I keep, as often as possible, a kid in my kayak.  And while we're out there, and I'm paddling, and my kid is in the forward hatch, (or standing on the deck of the Santa Maria, or climbing the rigging to watch for pirate ships on the horizon, or rowing to beat of a native drum)  I make sure to spend some of that time silent, letting their imaginations run free.


  1. Yours are lucky kids indeed, to have such a mom. You are made of the 'right stuff', Rebecca!

    1. Clive, Thank you for such kind words. I know that I'm incredibly lucky, really, to live where I live and have the opportunities I do. My whole family has so much to be grateful for.