A Sunday morning in mid-February. The sun rises at 8.19 am and I’m rising up the frozen mud trails, tyres flicking mud everywhere and treads following the gentle bends of the Erdre river. The Erdre is a right side vein of the Loire river in western France. A trusty tributary, one might hope. For three weekends, now, I’ve kept coming back for a closer look in its mirror; warily waiting at its edges for the right time and weather conditions. However,what I’ve found out is that there is always one external variable that will throw your limbic system off course. Better to brace your mind and learn to navigate the currents.

Just stand up with both blades held together and push your leg out to the side

I’ve pushed off for the first time unaided from the pontoon, and the fear of overturning is beginning to abate. It’s an unhelpful fear that takes so much grace out of the smooth cycle of a stroke. I watch as the rowers around me take the stream in their scull’s stride; they deftly manoeuvre the oars with a slight and momentary pressure on one side to adjust the direction of the bows and again they’re back into an effortless and balanced central diversion of energies. How efficient and elegant! It’s not even a knack; it’s one tiny intention that spreads from the delicate bones in their fingers, in a long invisible line all the way to the finish as the arms draw in the wide arc they’ve traced and prepare for the next cycle. The thought- “brilliantly, concentratedly/ Coming about its own business”- becomes action and then enacts itself, over and over. Its shadow is there in the ripples left scuffing the mirror’s surface.

There are moments of pure light on this morning.Unhindered reflections shine forth from the surface as I drift under the bridge; the familiar clack of blades entering the water waking me up from my daydreams. The coltish energy of a sculler behind me is an invitation to pick up the pace, yet I’m so unbalanced and dig too deeply for what should be a soft dappling of the fingers, reaching out for that initial contact with the water. In one (literal) clean sweep, I’m overtaken by an ambitious-looking women’s pair. Their strokes bite into the water as they hinge their hips forward and deliver their deadly serious punchline, before elastically opening their backs like Federer’s racquet as it prepares to meet fluorescent felt. I’m lost in thought again, prey to that half-flow which can make or break a stroke. On the one hand you need that simultaneous awareness; a peripheral vision that balances out the eye you’re keeping on your own motion. But sometimes a lapse in concentration, when you’re caught off-guard between two awarenesses, can cause a small puddle of chaos.

Attention! Attention! Nous sommes trop près…

And just inches away, I manage an escape from a men’s quad. Cast out into the middle of the river by my own lack of skilful steering  and blown out of line by the wind’s unforgiving pronouncements, I become a prime target for this shell. Clumsy and slow, I try to correct my misalignment,but none of them are looking back to check for a clear path of moving glass.

Mais qu’est-ce qui se passe là?!?! Attention!!

Now they look back in anger. “I’m sorry”, I repeat, “It’s totally my fault; I don’t know the river well”. They resume focus and their sharp strokes serve as a withering reminder of my utter incompetence. But this blip is just one wobble in a long stretch of snags and eddies.Why give up now? “It’s a learning curve”, a schoolteacher used to say, whenever a pupil found themselves stumped in the process. If you’ve shown up, then how unfulfilling it will be to abandon in the midst of the baby steps and tumbles.There will surely come a day when the New becomes the Automatic. Or else not so surely, but at least hopefully.


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