I'm riding on a paddleboard. - Do you know what that is? It's like a surfboard but meant
for standing and paddling with a single oar, now left, now right. When they first began
appearing a few years ago immediately Sue and I were enamored; now, along with many
others, we have our own.
So I'm riding on our paddleboard, plying the rippling waters of the Long Island Sound.
Our board is pink underneath with a white trim; the top is light bamboo with a grey mat.
It's ten feet six inches long, weighs twenty six pounds and is composed of some kind of
foam wrapped in lightweight composite material.
Toward the front of the paddleboard is a drawing of a hibiscus, next to which is inscribed
the word, wahini. This is Hawaiian and means woman. The reason I am riding a pink
paddleboard named Woman is that it came to us by mistake. Hoping to surprise me
(which she did) Sue ordered the male version, a white board called Nalu. But something
went wrong in the shipping and, as we planned to share one board this season and to
get a second board next summer, we decided to keep the pink one.
So for now I am Wahini Man (which circumstance I utilize to demonstrate my understated,
confident masculinity - those broad shoulders, those sun-tanned arms, that head like a
storm-beaten stone, surely belong to a man - a poet (see the distracted gaze!), an artist
(is that paint on his trunks?), a visionary (but is he smiling or grimacing?).
With religious regularity we take our paddleboard out each day, preferably in the late
afternoon when the water lies down like a kitten and the sun throws a sparkling carpet
across the Sound from the west, where soon it will seem to descend into the ocean itself,
trailing orange clouds. You can paddle along that golden slate of water, the myriad
sparkling specks of light like the souls of the blessed in Dante's Paradiso who retain their
distinctiveness while being wholly at one with the infinite ocean of the Godhead. Turning
back, you'll feel the warmth across your back even as you're cooled by a salty breeze
that whistles in the airholes of your paddle's silver pole. A couple of necessary asides
here: First, I never read the Paradiso. My father told us of that image when we were
kids and I've simply been repeating perennially to my own kids that those sparks of light
on the water are like Dante's vision - I tend to dabble and I've begun many books, but
seldom do I finish the heavyweights.
Second aside: When the wind whistles through the airholes in the paddle (which allow
you to adjust the height of the pole) there always emerges a primary pitch and,
occasionally, a few soft harmonics. These sounds, flute-like and tremulous, whimsical
and incantatory, remind me of the description by the musicologist Colin McPhee of an
instrument he discovered in a remote part of Bali back in the 1920's. The native
inhabitants, doubtless as astonished at the sight of a white man as was he at their
orchestra, performed a similar kind of music upon vertical rows of bamboo sticks held
together by horizontal ones, producing the sound by shaking the instruments up and
down. Needless to say (for the ethnomusicologist but worth pointing out to anyone else)
the resulting intervals (in both cases) are not tempered so that you could hardly believe
your ears (for the strangeness) while in the end you had to (for its obstinacy).
The sensation one gets, standing just behind the middle of the Wahini, feet spread,
knees slightly bent, back straight, head up and arms at work (as the hands alternate, top
to bottom, bottom to top) - the sensation one gets, gliding over the watery expanse, is
one of liberation, almost the freedom of flight ( that I first experienced as a child skating
around the abandoned tennis courts in winter with my hockey pals, seeming almost to
escape the constraints of gravity - until my attention was diverted to the adjacent
basketball courts where a boombox was churning a grungy organ and raspy vocals next
to which my Mozart sonata momentarily seemed emasculated and stiff) - a freedom
tempered by the need to keep your balance so that you become, at one and the same
time, transported to a meditative state and keenly responsive to rapidly changing
conditions, just busy enough to be free from thought.
The current at the Sound is never twice the same. On a calm day you can either glide
dreamily (or even lie down and meditate while your board floats on the lapping water) or
stroke with vigor, plying the coastline with rhythmic energy. Heading west the current
usually confronts you so that little waves slap gently against the curved nose of the
board; heading east you feel a slight nudge from behind. When the wind kicks up it's fun
just struggling to maintain balance; every so often I slip, and as I fall I quickly rehearse:
grab your glasses, get the board, find the paddle.
And though it's fair to say the both Sue and I have become pretty adept, overconfidence
is never advisable, as danger always lurks. A sudden storm can appear out of nowhere
and if you're half a mile out you'll find yourself paddling frantically as the waves begin to
churn, with a dark rain cloud racing you to shore. Sometimes (as on my first adventure,
back in June) the wind will blow straight out to sea, requiring that you describe broad,
sweeping gestures with the paddle to turn the board toward shore (which I didn't know
how to do on that maiden voyage with the result that suddenly, helplessly, I found myself
being dragged out at what seemed a very high speed. My first impulse was to lie down,
both to diminish the chance of falling and to take stock of my situation from a relaxed
position. But ten seconds of that only served to convince me that I was disappearing
from the sight of land with Sue and my step-daughter Erica frantic on the beach. So I
found, as people do in dire straits, an extraordinary solution - extraordinary,that is,
considering how tight my hamstrings are: I contrived to sit, straddling the board, legs in
the water, and from this secure position to paddle toward the distant shore, a task in
which I was abetted by the fortuitous if humiliating appearance of young Erica who, like
some Amazonian goddess, circled behind me in a kayak (against my vehement
protests)and pushed my board home).
When you're not fighting for your life, when you're paddling in peaceful solitude, you can
focus on what's near at hand - the board beneath your feet, the green, lapping water all
about, a jelly-fish or swooping gull, a cormorant you pass, perched on a jutting rock,
drying his wings in the sunny air. Or you can concentrate on the ocean floor perhaps
some ten feet below, in some places sandbar-tan, in others, dark with seaweed-covered
stones. Or again you can let your gaze sweep across the water - towards home, where
the curving outline of the bluffs is speckled with colorful bungalows, or north, toward
Connecticut, about eighteen miles off, whose coastline seems but a dark, blurred line
separating the ultramarine water from the sky's cerulean blue. (I used to dream, as a
child, and I still dream now and then, of that far shore as a slightly magical, barely
accessible and sportive place, where dolphins splash about with children, while
imperious cats guard the entrances to fish stores redolent of sawdust and tartar sauce.)
They change - these vast and peaceful vistas, the great dome of sky, the endless
waters, the rolling dunes and scrubby brush - they change - the quietly insistent ostinato
of murmuring waves, the intermittent, forlorn cries at sunset - the whole scene changes,
but with such ingenuity as to make a delight of seeming monotony, be it the unfolding of
the day's long hours, or the waxing and waning of high summer, or the slow work of a
century's erosion and renewal along the shore.
And, as if in symmetry with nature's cycles, the people too abide through generations, or
return each summer, eventually bringing their children, then their grandchildren (as I
have done as my childhood's companions have done) into the land their fathers found for
Which causes all of us distress and discomfort when we meet on the road, our
conversation, once lively and sincere, reduced to an exchange of pleasantries. We've
grown so far apart as to be a source of embarrassment to one another, but I fancy they
have the advantage, as I'm additionally embarrassed to greet these folks each weekend
as they return from their jobs, while I've been vacationing here all along, riding the
And when I do return to work at long last, early in September, it's only to another
comfortable routine, teaching what I know too well, where the faces of the students
change over time as the questions remain the same - a routine enlivened now and then
by a new course offering, a change of dean or the arrival of new publications in the
library - so that there, as here, the years have somehow floated by and what was once a
beginning, a first step in a scintillating career, has become the unspectacular story of my
But there is something else that has been changing all along, more slowly than the tides,
more profoundly than the passing moods of the seasons, and I can feel it here, and out
there, on the Wahini: it's me. How is it that, without ever ceasing to be myself, I've
become so different from the person I look back on, so that the arrogant certainties of
youth have dissolved into a thousand questions.
Am I blessed to walk this desolate shore with the detachment of a child, or have I failed to
make a life of real importance? Must beauty be impermanent, and love something we
lose? Why do my children, grown and flourishing, return each night, small and fragile, to
haunt my dreams? Why is it that the happiest moments I've known, when, briefly, I felt
fully awake to my existence, are moments I now regard with puzzlement and pain? Am I
born just too late to achieve cybernetic immortality (in whose endless ages I could learn
to transcend art) or will I die just in time to escape an eternal prison? Are those waking
visions mere delusions of my unconscious or harbingers of higher dimensions wherein
some part of me, some better self, exists?
The answers, I suspect, are found in the living out of life, and so, perhaps this idleness,
this apparent stagnation, is wisdom: the less force we exert on the world the more
brightly it may shine...
...Like the sun-speckled waters above which I'm poised, at one with the universe while
remaning myself, balanced over the chaos on a pink Wahini.