Some days, I really just wish I was kayaking. I wish I was still in the Southeast, where I could get up and go creeking before work on a weekday. I wish that work still meant guiding some eager, excited souls down whitewater for the first time and watching them come to life as kayakers. I consider the fact that this is the first summer of my life since graduating high school that I haven’t dedicated to teaching kayaking, and I feel miserable, wondering if I’ll ever do it again, wondering if I will ever be paddling at the same level again. As I remain on dry land in order to explore other passions, I feel an overwhelming sense that something is missing. But a grass-is-greener attitude is the last thing that’s going to bring me peace, so lately I’ve been trying to pin down, what exactly am I so afraid of losing? What does kayaking do for me that I’m not achieving here? I’ve got a job that I love, researching wild animals. I’m closer to my family and some good friends that I miss when I’m on the road. Gas is more expensive, but cheese is cheap again. Life is wonderful here in Wisconsin. So, what’s got me scrambling?
There’s something to be said for the notion that people just want to belong. Everyone wants to be a part of something. I realize that when I’m in the Southeast, it’s easier than ever to feel included. All I need to do is strap a boat to my car, and I’ve found a kindred spirit in the stranger on the highway who gives me the brown claw. Pull into the parking lot of a put-in or takeout, and the random people milling around automatically feel like brothers and sisters. They know what I’m about without me having to say a word. They’re there for the roughly same thing. Whatever the river means to them, just being there and being a part of the same flowing piece of creation is enough to reach some level of mutual understanding. When you share a river with folks, you invariably share raw pieces of yourself. Vulnerability is inevitable, when running a rapid brings you so much joy that you whoop for victory like a wild animal. Vulnerability is inevitable, when you mess up badly and pray that the companions whose hands you’ve now dumped your life into are going to be there for you. When you’re doing something that garners both fear and joy on a primal level, vulnerability is inevitable. And when you’re vulnerable, it’s easy to connect to others, easy to accept them and let them accept you, because you’re not worried about anything except living in the moment that is before you. Your filters are gone. You are yourself at the most basic level. You forget to worry about trying to belong, because you just do. You’re a part of something special, so easily.
I think this immediate sense of belonging is what I miss. But I have to laugh at myself, because the idea that I must work any harder to make myself accepted or understood in any other sphere of life is completely ridiculous. Community is everywhere I look. There’s absolutely no reason that I can’t be vulnerable enough to connect with people who don’t also throw large chunks of plastic off waterfalls. Kayaking may be an easy way to do this, but I’m doomed to perpetual misery if I’m going to believe that it’s the only way. As earnestly as people want to belong, they also want to share. It’s just as awesome to join my mom on one of her ultramarathon training runs, to tour the engineering firm where my boyfriend works, to let my dad show off his newest piece of backpacking gear, as it is to swap river stories. It’s awesome to share love and support for other people’s passions, even if their passions are not my own. We don’t “belong” because we match someone’s ambitions and skill sets. We belong because we’re humans. We belong because we’re all tending the fires within, whatever they may burn for. I can connect to people whether or not a river runs through it. In fact, it’s rewarding to broaden the scope of what might get me fired up about life.
Sometimes it feels risky to open up to people who may or may not appreciate my passion for paddling the way I know another paddler will. But at the end of the day, I know it’s important to share. I must have the courage to be myself, wherever I am in the world. Those who love me don’t have to be right there in the eddy to understand that kayaking matters to me. It’s enough for them to trust in whatever I affirm that it means. I am beyond blessed to find community, wherever I go. I am beyond blessed to have such a diverse array of unique souls to share this life with. I am beyond blessed to belong to this crazy clique known as humankind.