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. This time, however, I’d be modest and unassuming. I’d even request a refresher on my previous lesson. I’d start over. It helped to remember a basic teaching from Zen master and author Shunryu Suzuki that I’d learned years before in my inner-athlete days: "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few." I’d open myself to new possibilities by becoming a beginner again.As before, the session began on the rowing machines. I sat down with nothing in mind, shadowing the movements of the other students. The stroke? I listened as the instructor broke it down into several small movements.As I followed her guidance, I discarded my previous notions the moment they entered my mind. Where before I had been impatient to get out on the water, this time I applied myself to the rowing machine with diligence. When she insisted we keep our knees down until the very last part of the stroke, I made myself forget that rowing rafts required a deep knee bend just to initiate a stroke and get a bite of water. When she suggested we control our stroke by wrapping our little fingers over the ends of the oar handles, I ignored my prior training to do just the opposite to avoid pinching my pinky. I did as I was instructed. My intent was to learn something new.When we were ready, we pushed off from shore in an eight-woman shell. There was that moment of pure pleasure, the heady feeling of floating. Away from land, we glided over the water as a leaf drifts on the wind. My own performance wasn’t perfect, but I was in sync with the others; I had a strong, if studied, stroke; and I felt the rush of adrenaline I always get in boats. Not only that, the instructor noticed my improvement and said,"We have a good little rower here!"A beginning rower at that. Rebecca Lawton is the author of Reading Water: Lessons from the River. She lives in Vineburg, California.Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:04

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