The Art of Starting Over

Mastery is satisfying. But sometimes the real pleasure is in returning to square one.

By Rebecca Lawton

A New BeginningWe’re all experts in something. By the time we have survived several decades on the planet, we’ve become full-blown specialists in some walk of life. If we are athletes, we often outscore others half our age in competition. In our careers, a foundation of hard-earned skill supports every creative thought and crucial decision. Our experience generally far outweighs anything we may have lost along the way, and we are rightly proud of what we’ve learned. Sometimes we even feel downright cocky.My expertise is boats. From an early age, I’ve been hooked on the sense of freedom I feel when shoving off from shore in any kind of craft. As a kid, I spent summer vacations sailing the family dinghy over wave-whipped lakes and bays. As a young adult, I fell in love with whitewater rafting and guided trips on rivers all over the West.I especially adored the act of rowing. Ten-foot ash oars became powerful extensions of myself. The connection they provided to rivers hooked me with an almost spiritual intensity. I developed my inner athlete, studying the water with the attitude of a Zen Buddhist: Be one with the rapids. Visualize the river. For years I wanted nothing but the challenge of negotiating steep, rocky streams, or getting the most mileage for the least effort on flat water, or matching my strength to the big water of rivers like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon.After 14 seasons I chose to retire from guiding to start a family, but I still took to the water whenever I could. When spring came, I’d answer the call with pilgrimages to beloved rivers in familiar rafts. Rowing was more than in my blood — it had entered my muscle memory. Even now, at 52, I find that whenever I boat, my skills return effortlessly.So, when I had the chance recently to go to the local river to row shells — the light, fast craft of competitive crews — I didn’t hesitate. True, I had never rowed shells before, but this was a chance to get a year-round boating fix closer to home. And it would be a cinch.Cold Water in the FaceI already knew it all before the instructor showed us the parts of the oar and which direction was downstream. As she talked, my attention wandered to the water. Other crews were already coming and going in perfect sync, the river parting before them, and as our class of eight pulled ergonomic rowing machines from the equipment shed, I yearned to be out there too.We sat down to practice on the machines, and I casually started in. Immediately two of the instructor’s assistants rushed to correct my stroke: "Don’t lean so far forward. You’ll kill your back! And keep your knees down — you’ll hit them and stop dead in your tracks." My stroke, perfected for the stationary seats in white-water rafting, was all wrong for the shell’s sliding seat. My seven fellow students, new to rowing, stroked on blithely while I, the expert oarswoman, could barely move for the assistants holding down my legs and adjusting my shoulders to the proper angle.Once on the river, I figured they’d see what an expert I was. They’d let me have my way with the oars.But out on the water, my credibility evaporated further. My timing was off. My oar’s blade was too low, then too high. My hips were set wrong. You name it, I was blowing it. "Don’t worry," the instructor assured us, looking particularly at me, "you’ll improve with experience." My face burned.Weeks passed without my returning to the scene of my humiliation. I kept to my usual workout routine of swimming and weight training, and, just for fun, added the rowing machine, telling myself I was preparing for a summer white-water trip.When the gym’s trainer learned about my difficulty on shells, he prescribed extra exercises: Swiss ball, bicep curls, lat pull downs. "Just in case," he said. "You’ll be ready for any kind of rowing. You’ll be buff." I thanked him and performed his suggested moves religiously, although I assured him I would not be returning to shells.But as more weeks passed, I missed the exhilaration of propelling a boat with solid oar strokes while feeling the quickening breeze on my back. The pull of the water was greater than the sting of having botched my first lesson in crew, and the joy I felt just seeing the sun on the waves couldn’t wait until summer.Rewind, Start AgainAll right, then, I’d give it another go.

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