row2k Features
September 10, 2003
Alessandra Phillips

When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.
--Peter Handke (Lied vom kinsein)

I reread Handke's poem a little while ago. I leave it to you to read the rest of it.

Training for fall races has begun; like the rhythm of the year (or of a stroke), the lull of early fall is a perfect time to look back and take stock of what I've learned. Like the prodigal son, I have come home.

When I first learned to scull, I went out in a double with a friend, and half the time he was talking about the value of being patient-I did not get it then, but now I think I do.

What I wished for in those early outings I knew would involve sacrifice and different values, and for a while my mind shrank back from such dreams of the future. Sometimes we are more afraid of what would ensue should we succeed. Perhaps part of the process of living is to have visions that are just out of our reach, pristine --

So I got on with my life. I did sensible things. I was still rowing, but as a dilettante. But after a while I realized that this was not my life. Certainly not the one I had envisioned, and not even one that I wanted (the one that you undertake when you understand you will not write the great American novel before age thirty, or that you glimpse late in the evening when you are doing laundry just so that your kid can wear her favorite t-shirt to school twice in a week). I don't have any regrets about my past course. But I am thankful for being chicken enough to make a change now, before it is too late. I was tearing all over the country in pursuit of a dream, but sometimes patience and stillness yield greater clarity.

My friend spoke of patience, but he taught me a larger lesson; some things cannot be obtained quickly, or easily, or bought. Some things come with long practice, and the trick is to be patient, and talk down your fear that the shining future you strive for will never come. To prove Fitzgerald wrong, that we are not being borne ceaselessly into the past. The trick to fear is to face it day after day. On the water is a prime place to face this opponent and take it apart. Perhaps there's a point where it's easier to sabotage our bliss because we don't know what we'll do with it once we've attained it. I think I had reached that point this spring, and I had to make a decision.

When I returned to the Schuylkill this summer, about halfway upriver, I looked over at the grandstands and felt like I had shrugged off a heavy weight. I felt calm. It felt like home. The dream had not let go of me, and I realized I had to commit to it, no matter what the outcome, in order to be content. I realized I had to pursue this dream completely; and to do that, I needed to return home. I am so lucky to be welcomed back by the boathouse that sparked the dream. I may scull alone, but I am never lonely.

To paraphrase Goethe, when you fully commit to something, all sorts of things fall into place. In my case, I found my bliss while racing. I love to race. I love the feeling when you're on the line breathless for the moment when the flag drops and the melee begins. At the end of this summer, when I finally got to race my single again for the first time in four months, I felt a surge of joy, to be fighting it out with one other sculler, or two, or three. There is a purity of purpose; you wish other scullers would break; you play all sorts of mental games to keep going, to keep walking that elusive edge of the best in technique and efficiency and strength. It's questing after that ideal that I love. Obviously I wanted to cross the line first, but what is most important to me is that racing demands my best effort.

I keep thinking I've been given a second chance. I'm trying to revisit it without ego, without getting caught up in petty rivalries and insecurities. I cannot say I've succeeded; but I think the point really lies in the process, in striving towards that as I strive to drop unnecessary movements, to quiet my spirit just as I quiet my hands and shoulders at the catch. This isn't muting myself, this is listening to myself, to look for the truth, as opposed to all the static and detritus collected in daily life, to look for something good, pure, and clean. I quiet my spirit in the search for grace. I used to think it was a search for redemption; but now I think I've already been redeemed, or that there really was no need for me to redeem myself in the first place--it was just a matter of listening.

I read Handke's poem and know that my dream's necessary sacrifices pale in the face of a risk-free life, and that now, with patience, I can find a middle way. Despite all the effort, achievement is empty if it is not intimately connected to a full, interconnected life. We complicate our lives with expectations, stereotypes, illusions. Underneath all the complication, there is utopia here. Just look for it.

Walking back from the boathouses with my friends in these early fall evenings, when everything looks lush and clear and vibrant, with that wonderfully smoothed-out feeling that comes from a good workout and a shower afterwards, I feel like we few, we happy few, are immortals, walking the earth--that joy, that interconnectedness, is like a calm current sustaining us. It is this feeling that is my now, and my love, what grounds me, and what inspires me.

September 8, 2003

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