I bought a handmade kayak from an old Polish man. I wanted Andrew's story as I much as his boat. He came out of his house and crossed the street before I got out of the car.
"I was in this competition for 35 years," he said, unfolding a papery yellow hat. "The International Kayak Race of Poland."
He told me about tunnels connecting lakes he rowed through for two months without retracing one path. We talked about all kinds of things, and I didn't know if I was talking to him or trying to remember the thinness of his skin and the shadows of long vines holding each other against his brick house.
I thought about writing and talking and listening and rowing and Switzerland and Poland and the Cherry Creek Reservoir and the mountains and sinking and letting details simmer and if I should save all my cataloging for later and just let it emerge when it would or if I should pull over, after I had left, and scribble down all the things I might forget.
I wrote a few things down. I wanted to get to know Andrew better and I didn't know if it was to know him or to write about him, so I'm not going to write much more about him. I have been struggling lately with living versus making. Do we make art out of life or do we make life out of art?
Can anything we do exclude either our egocentricity or our exteriors?
Somedays I feel like I'm living the lives of others instead of my own.
I'm writing at a coffee shop where pincher bugs keep dropping out of the trees down my shirt sleeves and into my braided hair. Fist-sized starlings are hopping from crumb to crumb under wrought iron and wood tables. The couple sitting next to me just broke up with each other. I am more effected by their conversation than by all these legs on the ground, on my skin and in my shirt.
I wish I hadn't heard this boy and girl ruining a peaceful morning. I wish they hadn't brought a cloud over me and put their argument into that indiscriminating vault of my memory. Do we remember more good things or more bad? If I asked you to remember one day of your life that was really important, would it be a break-up or a marriage, a boat purchase or an accident? Do we decide what our minds eventually remind us of? Is it worth pulling over and taking notes if our head is going to decide, on its own, what it wants to hold onto and what it wants to lose?
I brought the boat home and hosed it down. I massaged the black and white canvas and peeled old pieces of foam from the body hole. When I had finished, I had the detritus of Andrew's long-gone youthful days lying on the Denver grass. I picked them up and put them in the trash in a King Sooper's plastic bag, and I thought about the new plastic kind of kayaks and how technology has meant plasticizing authenticity.
I thought about Polish water holes. I thought about a waterfall I once stood under at the top of Hanging Lake and it was like a cold curtain of alone pouring into everything else impossibly beautiful. I thought about a poet, John O'Donohue, who says that we are not afraid of our limitations, but of our potential to be infinite. I thought of a hundred questions today and I can't answer any of them.
I took a stud finder out of its plastic and cardboard holder and slid it along the wall to find a place where I can hang my kayak. I didn’t find one stud. Not one. How does a twenty-foot wall on the third story of an old building stay up without a foundation? I ran this incomprehensible little gadget, with an inch-long foam poker poking out at me, and that pokey thing never wavered because it never found something to hold onto. I wanted it to jump to the middle of its plastic rectangle and then, I would have had victory and an anchor, but it stayed stubbornly to one side and only bounced when I hit a paint bump.
Now I don’t know how to hang up my kayak when I’m not using it. I want to be able to stare at it and stick my head into its curved architecture, which I did when I was cleaning it and these waved pieces of wood are perfect and look as strong as the oldest trees in the world. I think the best things are the flexible ones, things that are amphibious and solid and transformative all at once. Like old people with good stories, and inexhaustable children. And things like boats that go in the ocean or walls that secretly hold up a house and stay whole. These are things that know their limitations better than me and have cut less unsure paths toward their potentials.
I don’t understand how stud finders work. Or engineering in general. How can this boat I bought, which is lean and long, like a stretching muscle, keep water out even though it’s made out of painted canvass? How does some wood, when it gets wet, still hold? How does everything not get pulled apart and dissolved by the omnipotence of water?
Maybe it does. When I was leaving Andrew’s house, he said,
“I am not young boy now. You take this boat. You be my legs.”
It is hard to move and listen and have the privilege of being young all at once.