The first moments in the kayak: I can’t believe I get to part these waters, spend my day floating down a river. Trees lean into the eddies; shimmering fish waggle beneath the surface. My paddle dips in, water swirls, and I pull the boat forward. On logs, turtles are sunning their hard shells.
Insects ripple the surface of the river. When dragonflies hover, I paddle quietly, delicately, to not disturb them. Sometimes they fly while in the act of coupling, one on another as they flutter their wings and land on my craft, and I do everything I can to peel smoothly through the water, so they, and I, stay focused on the action of their lives.
No one told me exactly how a human life should unfold. The messages were subtle, not spoken. No words directed me to go to school, get a job, buy a house you can’t quite afford, make payments on everything you believe you own but never do, live for the sole purpose of working all the years of your life, until one day, you stop from a heart attack or a cancer diagnosis or just fall down too tired to get up again. Implicit in the urge to get good grades and make friends was a lesson to follow the crowd, do as I see others doing. Don’t question. Don’t wonder. Live to work instead of working to live.
But that advice didn’t sit well, so I cherish days on the river, where I settle the boat flat, swipe the tongue of the paddle into the river to power forward. When it all gets to be too much, I go to the water. A muddy stream, a lapping river, rolling lakes. Sun sparkling off ever-moving waves of perspective.
Having no color of its own, water merely reflects what hovers above or lies below. Bright blue from an endless sky. Murky gray from dusting swirls of a sandy bottom. Its story comes from everything it intersects with: plants and sky, soil and sand, green trees searing toward drifting clouds. All the concerns I bring to its shores float away like the dragonfly, in concert with the trickle of waves tripping over themselves. The symphony of living, the very definition of nature, where instinct takes over.
Is it no wonder, then, that dragonflies symbolize spiritual insight? They are the only creature that can see the full picture, 360 degrees all around. Every direction, taking in all at once. If only I could see it all as clearly, above the translucent water, a foil for my musings, a reflection for my wandering.
Dragonflies can spend four years as nymphs, shedding their skin again and again, until they transform into adults and go about their business of reproduction. Once they mate, they will die. This is their culmination. Every moment has led to this. Do they know the end is near? Does it matter? Perhaps their beauty comes from doing what they must, through the stages of life, taking what comes until it’s over.
I dip my hand into the swift and consistent current. The water is cool, not cold, clear, but I cannot see to the depths. Besides, the bottom always looks closer than it is. The not knowing is soothing. Perhaps it’s why I come.
On the river, I find a confluence of effort and ease. I push the water to propel myself forward, knowing it carries me, and if I were content enough to just sit and glide, I would reach my destination eventually. I like to believe I have a role in my progress, but I’m not sure I do.
When I kayak with my husband, he mentions how fiercely I power each stroke to get down the river. “If they say it’ll take three hours, it will take us two,” he laughs. Hearing the words between his words, I dangle the paddle, wait before swiping it to pull the river along. He reminds me to be here, now, instead of racing to an inevitable finish.
The human goes through stages like the dragonfly, rushing from here to there: the child wants to grow up, the adult wants to revert to easier times. Human nature avoids settling in to the now. Even long-awaited retirement comes with trepidation for then we know the end is near.
Every summer, I paddle the Huron River, somewhere along its 130 miles, after it rises from a swamp in Springfield Township and long before it spills into Lake Erie. With its typical Midwest mud banks, slow flow and low gradient, this river has 24 major tributaries, which adds 370 miles to its footprint. Supposedly named for the Indigenous people who used to live around it, Huron is not a native name, only what the white men called the people who first claimed this place, who called the river something else, cos-scut-e-nong sebee or Giwitatigweisaibi, words whose meanings have been lost.
The legacy of place gets muddied when I plumb through its history. The people we call native were not. They were pushed from their original home, forced to migrate south, carrying an old history on their backs. I come from an ancient people who walked through an uncertain desert for too many years. All of us can trace back to nomadic origins if we try. Regardless, we all migrated to the banks of a healthy river or a deep lake, water promising survival. Do I imagine the river saves me now, the moving waters a baptism, a new beginning?
For all the naming and claiming, the river marches on in spite of us. It grows, it dies, it refurbishes itself, and we come to it seeking salvation, peace, expression, release. It seeps into its banks and flows along its course no matter what we call it or who claims it or who we shove out of its reach. It continues on long after we are gone.
There dances the dragonfly, stunning in its symmetry: translucent wings, brilliant blue head, iridescent body. Light as air. I only ever see them on the river, my face to the sun, the vast sky cast in white. It’s as if in my desk-bound life, sealed between sturdy, cool walls, dragonflies are mythical creatures, bound only for stories and dreams. But I know that we inhabit the same landscape.
Somewhere beyond the golf course and the paved streets and the honking traffic, dragonflies go about their business of living. So small as to fit onto the eye of a pin, the dragonfly brain probably does not have the capacity to ponder the meaning of its existence, and that may be a gift. For the minute we start to wonder, we stop seeing, stop trusting the current, stop letting the river carry us along.