Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher
My paddle slips into water like a necktie through its knot, propelling us forward. I paddle from the bow and my husband Sean paddles from the stern, and our two children sit beside each other — framed between us and each side of the canoe — munching Ritz crackers.
The beach we launched from is at least a mile behind us, its beachgoers barely visible. With only water around us, Henry and Magnolia start asking if we can head back. Each time they ask, I try to remind them we’re wayfinding, like Moana. We have to be brave, to follow the voice in our hearts, to push past the proverbial reef.
The last time I was in a canoe, I was a preteen. I was in Wisconsin with my family. One night on that trip we stood in the dark outside of our cottage, mosquitoes and woods surrounding us and a river running nearby. We looked up. Behind a few tree branches, meteors blazed across the night sky. The phenomenon seemed to last an hour, and being there beneath the stars and sky with my family made me feel perfectly safe and perfectly fine.
It was joy I felt. I was happy to be there, happy to be alive. All I had to do was pay attention to what was in front of me.
From the bow of the boat, no longer the child but the mom, things look and feel different, and I have a harder time paying attention to what’s in front of me. My mind instead races with scenarios of how I’d save my kids if the canoe were to capsize. Even as I know how unlikely that is, I’m aware of how vulnerable we are anyway, how little control I have over my kids’ lives and my own. I’m scared of all of the water around us and of the way the sky to the south is darkening with rainclouds. I’m scared, despite the life vests we don, because Sean is not a strong swimmer and my babies can’t swim and the nearest shore is a hundred yards away. I’m scared because my marriage is wobbly, like the boat every time the kids lean over to try to see the surface of the bay. Even on this trip, even in this canoe, Sean and I can’t seem to sync: One of us is always paddling too hard or not hard enough. I’m scared because my kids are growing. Our lives are changing. My career is transitioning. Vacation will be over in a few days and I’ll have to return to the unknown.
“Look, Henry,” I exclaim. “Eagle Power!”
A bald eagle flies above us from behind a cliff, pulling my attention back where it belongs.
Since about the time he turned 4, Henry has possessed Eagle Power, which helps him fly. Along the way, he’s also picked up Gecko Power, which helps him climb, and Cheetah Power, which helps him run so fast he can catch all the bad guys. We recently learned that 3-year-old Magnolia possesses Unicorn Power. The night before, as we drove around trying to find a dark spot from which to view the Perseids, she declared from her car seat that she was going to use her Unicorn Power that very night to “jump up the sky and swipe the stars up!”
The eagle disappears behind the trees. The bay opens around us like a tarp. The farther Sean and I paddle, the more my fear and anxiety fall from me. I begin to open to the sky, to being safe and alive on this large body of water. I begin to return to the child I was, believing I have all the powers I need to swipe up my stars. Solid footing suddenly doesn’t seem like the solution I need. Instead, I find my bearings in the perspective open water affords: I’m mutable and small, and being there — alive and healthy and with people I love — warrants still more, always more, of my undivided attention and gratitude. What’s right in front of me is suddenly (and again) enough.
“What do you think?” I ask Henry and Magnolia.
I turn to look at them. They are peaked, white-knuckling their respective sides of the canoe.
“I want to go back,” Henry says.
“It’s fun,” Magnolia says. Immediately, she adds, “Let’s go back. I’m kinda scared I will fall in.”
Sean and I turn the canoe around. As we head back toward the beach, rain starts to fall, so we paddle harder. The beachgoers begin to grow from beans to toys to people. Raindrops are pummeling us now, and I’m again the anxious mom, the thought of lightning gnawing my nerves. I don’t want my kids to see how frightened I am by the prospect of lightning and more broadly of slipping into a permanent milieu where fear defines me. I want to head toward the unknown, to dare and risk what scares me. I want to be a wayfinder, to follow the voice in my heart, and a lot of my wanting those things stems from my deeply desiring them for my kids. They’re watching me. I have to be brave if I want them to be brave.
“Look!” I say, gesturing.
A fish as big as two footballs flicks its body six feet down. Eight feet. Ten? Like a tongue curling its tip, its back fin propels it along the sand. An optical illusion. A magic trick. A superpower.
None of my fellow canoeists see it. The fish — a trout, a bass, a whitefish, I don't know what, other than a gorgeous flash of silver-green — swims off.
The rain abates.
Only water beneath us again, water all around us, the sky open above us, and the four of us, for the moment, anchored in between.
Emily Dagostino is a writer and owner of Dagostino Communications, LLC. Her writing has appeared in The Sunlight Press, The University of Chicago Magazine, Sojourners and America. Read more at emilydagostino.com.