Mindful on the Water

I was told it would be tricky to have a conversation on the water. Even for someone with a loud voice like me, the open air sucks away the volume….

I was told it would be tricky to have a conversation on the water. Even for someone with a loud voice like me, the open air sucks away the volume. People drift about in canoes and kayaks, so you can’t even direct your voice toward a general area.




Someone who had recently been on a Zen silent retreat was telling me about his experience: staring at a wall, eyes half open, trying to escape language. He said that language creates separation. I understood what he meant, but then I thought about being a writer: where did that leave me?




Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations, and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?

Thoreau, “Walking”





I told everyone to replace the word “Walking” with “Kayaking” or “Rowing” or something like that, and we launched into Eagle Creek. I told them that since we couldn’t really have conversations on the water, we were going to spend our time returning as much as we could to the life of the senses. “Mindfulness” is a concept in vogue at the moment, and I thought this would be something parallel to that.




When you are trying to be mindful, or when you are trying to meditate, you start by focusing on your breathing–or something like that. The idea is to move past the constant desire to make meaning, the nagging moment to moment panic attacks and elation and boredom and…




a loon

I thought it was

but it was

my love’s

splashing oar

Ojibwa song

Trans. Mary English




I wanted to put a twist on mindfulness, though: I wanted us to return to the life of the senses and maybe become more mindful, but I also wanted to play with the meaning making faculty of the senses. I asked everyone to try and perceive typical sensations through other sense organs: for example, I told them I wanted them to try and smell colors and hear a taste. Everyone looked at me a little strangely.  I assured everyone that it was an experiment.





as my eyes
the prairie
I feel summer in the spring

Ojibwa song

Trans. Ajidegijig




For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: “The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, bit it did not meaning anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.” Again, “I asked the patient what he could see; he answered that he saw an extensive field of light, in which everything appeared dull, confused, and in motion. He could not distinguish objects.” Another patient saw “nothing but a confusion of forms and colours.” When a newly sighted girl saw photographs and paintings, she asked, “’Why do they put those dark marks all over them?’ ‘Those aren’t dark marks,’ her mother explained, ‘those have shape. If it were not for shadows many things would look flat.’ ‘Well, that’s how things do look,’ Joan answered. ‘Everything looks flat with dark patches.’”

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek



In the middle of the water, we stopped and read a poem. Then we were quiet. I felt the water moving under me. A few people got hungry, and I wondered if I was feeling the ripples of their hunger pangs. I heard the highway. I kept trying to taste it. I kept trying to shed the meaning of sound. It’s difficult work–this kind of mindfulness. My mind drifted like the boat.




Neons flash red and green

April rains on still street. Man

Nods, Red lights blink, blink.


Mirror of keen blades

Slender as guitar strings; Wes

Montgomery jazz.

Etheridge Knight, “Indiana Avenue, 1949”




Jazz—it sparks a thought. No, I think, I shouldn’t be thinking.




It streaks across the sky

of my mind

like a red trumpet

squealing in the night—




Even that word streak….streeeeeeaaaaak! I’m thinking about it, but also seeing that sound. Not smelling it. Yet.




                              The plum

Buds tight and chill soon bloom.

The moon begins first

Fourth, a faint slice west

At nightfall. Jupiter half-way

High at the end of night-


Gary Snyder, “Kyoto”