Alone in a boat.

A study of me, as a child:

I’m in a canoe.

Every summer I’m out here, on an island within an island. I’m alone with my grandmother who cannot swim, yet somehow gives me the ultimate freedom to disappear on the water every day for hours.  She doesn’t seem to worry or fret; she’s just this benign presence who makes me food when I appear.  We watch the same tv programmes together every evening, out there in the pitch black, where there is always the sound of water.  She scratches my back lightly while I fall asleep, and I am happy.

In this canoe, I go the places she probably expects I’ll go.  This place is full of endless canals, off a channel of water big enough to hold huge freighters and the occasional navy ship.  This water is the border between two countries, full of waves and depth and wind.

I learn the canals, intimately.  I know which bridges require me to actually lay down in the bottom on the boat, and which I can just squeak through by bending over as flat as I can. I know which banks have rusty, inexplicable metal sticking out of the sand far enough to scrape the canoe.  I go and I go and I go.  I make up stories in my head as I circle old houses, built long before I was born, and everything smells sort of green and fishy.

But I go places she doesn’t expect.  I go into the channel.  I’m alone, I’m eight years old, I’ve never worn a life jacket.  I think nothing of taking my canoe into the channel.  I stick near the sides, away from the racing speed boats, away from the sucking power of the freighters, but I don’t go too close to the breakwalls, because I know too well that a few big waves can make for a scary couple of minutes when you’re being pushed into a steel wall and no one knows where you are.

Sometimes I stay in the channel only long enough to break into the next series of canals.  Sometimes I go out there just for the exhilaration of it, paddling till I’ve had enough, then turning around to head back.  Sometimes I go out there to sit in the canoe that should be too large for a young child, rising and falling deliciously, boat rocking from side to side.

I know how to angle the canoe (and my grandfather’s motorboat, for that matter!) into the waves to minimise risk of being plunged into the rough, cold water.  I know how to turn, how to manoeuvre, how to get through tight spots without touching either side. No one taught me.

In that boat, the little me knew what it was to steer through a dark, aluminium tunnel and shout to hear the echo.  I took nothing.  No food, no toys.  And while the younger me was always glued to a book, I took no book with me.  It was hours alone, and I was never lonely, and it was perfect.  A shining memory that I can still feel, decades after all the other memories are clouded and tear filled.

Sometimes I worry about a child I know, who seems to struggle with friendships and self-identity and, quite simply, too many people.

But today I remembered me.  Me that was alone, that was so happy, that had that one woman back on the island.  That island, and my grandmother, both my safe harbours.  School playground me was alone, or verbally fighting with whoever my best friend was at the minute.  She was alone, and she was lonely.  She knew she was different, but she couldn’t figure out why. But island me? She was wild, and free. She trusted her body, she trusted the boat, she needed nothing other than a paddle and her own thoughts.

She grew up okay.  She’s got friends.  She is good with people.  She is funny and trusting and vulnerable.  Little me would be proud.  And I think this other child I know, they need a lot of alone time and me….I think I need to allow that space.  I’ll be there to provide food, to read books with, to be there when I am needed.  That kid reminds me of me, and I’ll tell you a secret I didn’t really understand until right this minute: little me was pretty fucking amazing. Just the way she was.

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All the time in the world. 


Should we make shields, should we make flags? Where are the bamboo sticks? I found the sticky tape!

Let’s play a card game. Let’s have a battle. Let’s swing from the chin up bar, hold the baby, spend an hour or two out in the drizzle. Ew, I found a dead earwig!

Where are the pencils, can I have some toast? Do you like the bread? I made it! Bring your teddy, everyone being the teddies upstairs. 

Let’s have enough popcorn that our stomachs explode. I’m doing Lego, let’s do that imagination game. Can I see the baby’s fingernails?

What’s this thing (abacus)? Look, I’ve made a pattern. Watch me, I’m pretending to fall to make you laugh. Hey, I read this sign hanging by your bed, why is it there?

Five and a half hours. They did stuff outside with paintbrushes, while we talked about the lies our siblings told us and the lies we told them. (I told my sister squirrels lived inside green beans when we were kids.) 

Five and a half hours of noisy shrieking, with interludes of peaceful quiet and absorption. Playing, creating, filling entire plates with mounds of popcorn. 

Not bad. Not bad at all. 

Wednesday evening. 

Tuesday evening on the drive home from gymnastics, we saw a funfair being set up in a local spot. We decided to check if it was open the following evening. 


Wednesday evening, we checked. It was open and mostly deserted. 

You asked if we could go after dinner, and we said yes. 


The joy you both felt while there, in the summertime setting sun, was worth that yes….and a few pounds spent on rides. 

(And did we stay till they closed? And did you go back Thursday evening? *wink*)

On the water, untethered.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost myself in motherhood; sometimes being a mother gives me a chance to find myself again. 

When I was a child, one of my favourite places to be was my grandmother’s cottage. From her house, we’d drive about an hour to a ferry. It held twelve cars. If you were lucky you were in the front row or on the sides. Waves often splashed up onto the windshield, boats danced in the waves, you paid with a shiny purple token for your passage. On the other side of the ferry is where the magic started. One road ran the length of the small island, where people had summer cottages.

Reeds lined both sides of the road, marshses beyond it. Water was everywhere, long grasses, birds, the smell of freedom and sunshine and possibility. After a few minutes drive, we’d park behind my aunt’s cottage and run round to the front to wave madly at my grandparents – for their cottage was on a tiny island within the bigger one. My grandpa would acknowledge us with one wave, you’d hear his tiny boat – nothing more than a platform of wood over a few flotation barrels, an engine on the back – puttting towards us. Out came luggage, out came smiles.

As a young child, I was often dropped off to spend weeks with my grandmother on this island-within-an-island, this otherworldy place where I was cherished and neglected in equal portions. My grandfather would leave my grandmother Annie and I alone on the island, which had two houses – my grandmother’s and my aunt’s, a sunny yellow boathouse, and a collapsed storefront. From her island you could see into the huge, deep channel that ran between America and Canada, a channel of freight ships, waves, the feelings of flying fast on those waves, sitting in impossibly dangerous parts of their motorboat. 

In the evenings I’d go inside to watch tv on Annie’s tiny tv screen. It felt like such an honour, there in that small room, the sunset floating around us. Sometimes she’d tell me stories of what it was like to be there with my mother. Sometimes we’d have popcorn. Sometimes we’d watch a show or two, and then off to bed.

But the days?

I ran wild and free. Inside that yellow boathouse was a yellow canoe. I’d climb in it soon after sunrise, no lifejacket, no plan. And then I’d disappear for hours. My grandmother couldn’t swim, and she sure couldn’t yell far enough to reach the wilds I found. I knew every watery canal between houses, the bridges I’d have to lay on the bottom of the canoe to get underneath, and sometimes I knew the power of being alone in that canoe on the Channel.

I went and went. Hours were spent paddling along, further and further, with no idea of destination or specific activity required. I’d go back to her cottage if I was hungry, but sometimes I’d be out till almost sunset. I was so alone, so free, and so safe. Being on those watery passages is one of the best places I’ve been in my life, and just being in a canoe again brings that back to me.

My kids loved it. I loved it. I wanted hours to sit and float and explore and feel. I laughed with friends, I missed my grandmother, I imagined a life where we canoed every day.

In these moments, in the times when my children try something new to them but as old to me as the fibres of my being, I find myself again and again, the young me and the older-but-possibly-not-wiser me, floating along the waters but not alone anymore.

The antithesis to settling. 

  
I like to think that my children won’t ever settle for an okayish sort of life. 

They aren’t learning that they have to do stuff every day that they hate. 

They aren’t learning that they have to squelch their creative ideas to better fit in with the norm. 

They aren’t learning that they need to just ignore their own needs and wants, otherwise they will potentially get in trouble. 

No, because they have this childhood of freedom and choice, they are learning that it is possible to live this way. They can pursue their passions, they can work hard at what interests them, they can create meaning from play. 

They’ve got a lot of joy, and no one is taking that away anytime soon. 

The way things change.

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Today was magic. Mayhem at pottery class, all day at the park (including a three hour grass fight with friends old and new!), Tang Soo Do in the evening. The sort of day where you have a million moments of laughter and are too happy to actually notice how much you are enjoying yourself. But you can tell.

It’s in the skin dyed green by endless grass rolling. The way we all look a bit disheveled, and in fact that one of us was nude when we arrived at marital arts, and had to quickly don the uniform in the car park. The endless bags I’m lugging back into the house – freshly painted and fired pottery pieces, carrier bags full of cheese toasty plates and banana peels.

Today S went up to another girl we’ve seen around a bit. She got it in her head that this girl ought to join the grass fight. She went up again and again, introducing herself and her friends. Extending an offer to play. She wasn’t too upset when the girl didn’t respond….and she was overjoyed when she eventually ran over, handing S handful after handful of fresh, soggy grass. S also noticed another girl hanging around the edge, hope in her eyes and grass in her hands.

How things change. This is the child that has said on multiple occasions that she doesn’t need any more friends. She has enough! The girl too unsure to reach out. Today she did. She pulled two kids into a large game, and everyone was happy and running and laughing. And I saw my glowing child, and I noticed her noticing what it was like to help make other people feel included.

Yesterday we had swimming lessons. S swam unassisted for the first time, not quite believing she was doing it. M said on the car ride there, ‘I can swim with my face in the water. Today I will try to do it with my whole body under water.’ And he did.

How things change. This is the boy who three weeks ago could not swim. Now he’s diving underwater and swimming lengths and willingly practicing, joy streaming off his body like the water droplets he leaves in his wake. This is the child that effortlessly charms people, and it’s a good thing he does, because he doesn’t like instructions, constrictions, repetitive things. He likes to soar. And there in the water, he’s found a place he can fly, he can be free, he can accomplish exactly how much he wants to accomplish. I see his joy at doing this powerful thing on his own, how his confidence grows even wider and deeper, and how he will willingly do this thing over and over, because he’s the boss of this very wet success.

Last week both kids had their first grading at martial arts. S passed her purple belt easily, as we thought she would. She loves Tang Soo Do and takes it seriously, her face shining the whole time we are there. M also earned his purple belt; how proud they are of these tiny little badges to sew on their uniform. And the focus badge they earned, despite M yelling out in the middle of the grading at watching friends, ‘We gonna get a badge! A focus badge!’

How things don’t change. M’s friendly exuberance. S’s perfectionist leanings.

But how things do. They grow up, out, sideways, upside down. They are trying new things, spending whole days splashing in water, throwing grass and making beautiful large clay bowls shaped like leaves.

How my life has changed, changed from what it could have been.

And all I feel is happy. And lucky, so lucky. We have this much freedom, this much joy, all these people to laugh with. We have grass to throw, and miles to swim, and stuff to kick.

This, my friends, this is the life.

When past and present collide.

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Even when we go back to places we’ve been many times before, it always feels new.

Last October we were here, barefoot with woollen hats on our heads, feet buried in mud. Today we were here and, yes, played in a stream, but we also went out into the river. People were puppies, people were putting on performances, people were getting splashed by exuberant dogs.

I look at my children and think about the wonder of their childhood. It’s all the best parts of my childhood…except, and this is the important bit, it’s just best bits. Not only what I consider the best, but what each child chooses to be the best. With no time constraints or pressures to achieve certain targets by certain dates, we are free to be flexible and explore.

Explore ourselves, explore friendships, explore our passions. These things might happen under a bridge, naked, in the woods. Or they might happen snuggled on a beanbag watching a bit of Stampy.

I don’t want to live vicariously through my children. I want them to have their own lives, discover and pursue their own joys. But while they are still little (though they’d not agree they were little!), I’m lucky enough to journey with them much of the time.

And happy when their laughter and games remind me of my own childhood. So much of it was spent wading up streams, or alone deep in the woods, or creating crazily dangerous games with my sister. These are the golden joys of my past, and I’m so lucky my memories are prompted by watching my children jump and splash in the present.