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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