Canoe Medicine by Jenny Fleming

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canoe on side of lake, sunset in back


In March, a lower bunk in the freshman dorm. In April a bolted-down bed in the psych hospital. In May, the twin bed of my youth, back in my mother’s house. Now in June, a sleeping bag in a tent on an island whose name I did not know, somewhere in the road-less expanse of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It didn’t matter what my bed looked like, or where it was on a map. It was the place I longed for.

The evening sky up here would not let go of the light. It would be hours until dark, but it didn’t matter. Sleep could still have me. Until morning, I could give in to the urge that had lately settled into my bones, this deep desire just to stop.

The end of my sleeping bag was crumpled and slung to the center of the tent, where it overlapped my mother’s. I pulled it straight, climbed inside, and set my body to blessed stillness. Social noise from the campfire came through the tent in waves. During the crests I could pick out my mother’s laugh. I recalled bedtimes during my parents’ bridge parties, how good it felt to snuggle under the blanket of grownup hum, to fall asleep knowing others were alert.

I was not a child any longer, of course, which was part of the problem. I should have been around the campfire, too, laughing and enjoying conversation. “What a delightful group,” my mom said. “So international!” The night before we headed out, we all introduced ourselves at the outfitter’s lodge. Spain, England, Holland, Canada. My mom and I were the only Americans. One of the Canadian women said she was a psychiatry resident, and the other said she worked as a nurse in a psych hospital. I introduced myself as a college student.

I can’t get away from them, I wrote in my journal. I wore long sleeves and a bandage, but some scabs on my wrist were still visible. At the first breakfast, I sat next to the nurse. She looked at my arm and nodded.

“You’ve been cutting yourself,” she said. Or maybe it was a question; she spoke with that strange Canadian upward inflection. I took it as a statement, and pulled down my sleeve. Some girls who cut themselves wanted people to notice; I loathed those girls. “She’s doing it for attention,” seemed to me the worst kind of insult then, although now I understand attention as the regard of human beings for one another, something necessary and good. Of course I wanted attention, but hating that desire, I worked to avoid it. There was some perverse pleasure in going against myself in this way.

Explanations for cutting are contradictory. Experts and cutters themselves will say that cutting promotes dissociation, or helps the cutter feel more real. It’s an act of self-nurture, or an act of hostility. It hurts, or it doesn’t hurt at all. It’s practice for suicide, or prevents suicide. It’s addiction, choice, expression, habit. I understand the contradictions. For me, cutting did whatever I needed it to do. I always felt uneasy about it, which was why I told the psychiatrist in the first place. But I didn’t want to/couldn’t/wouldn’t give it up.

The deepest cut, though, scared me. It was the week before the trip. I was in the bathroom at home; my mom was taking a nap. I dared myself to be decisive. Meeting my eyes in the mirror, I did some preparatory pantomime. I swiped the blade through the air and then tried to replicate the simplicity of that movement on my body. The skin on my forearm came apart in the wake of the blade, as if it was coming unzipped. The blood came out in pulses, and it covered the bottom of the sink. This was something different. I had pushed past a boundary. I kept my nerve. This was what I wanted, but when I glanced back in the mirror, my eyes frightened me. My pupils were huge and empty, pits I might be sucked into. I looked back at my arm. The bleeding was slowing down, but I needed to do more. I used small Band-Aids to bring the sides of the skin closer, stuck on two large bandages and held my wrist to my chest, squeezing with my other hand. Pressure. Elevation. Clean up the bathroom. Now I was so calm; it was simple to do what I needed to do.

The next day, several boxes of bandages later, I mentioned the incident when I saw Dr. Rinaldi. I gave the detail about the skin coming unzipped. I felt some urgency to tell, even though it was unusual to be so forthcoming. I didn’t say anything about how strange my eyes looked, but I told him I was scared.

“So,” he said, shifting in his chair and crossing his legs. “What are you going to do about this?”

“Um… I don’t know. Well, I’ve been thinking… I’m leaving for this trip to Canada, and I think I won’t pack my razor blades.”

“That seems like a good idea,” he said. It was such an understatement that it struck me as funny. This was really a ridiculous situation, and sometimes I wished Dr. Rinaldi could see the humor in it. Since the hospital, he just seemed irritated with me. A few weeks earlier he told me that he could not in good conscience write the letter that would undo my medical withdrawal and readmit me to school in the fall. “Nothing has changed,” he said. “You’re cutting as much as ever, and you’re letting your bad feelings run your life. If you go back to school, what’ll keep it from being the same old thing?”

I hadn’t realized I needed a letter from him, and I was shocked at this pronouncement. On one hand, I appreciated that he was trying a new approach to help me, but I couldn’t believe he thought a threat was a good move. I wasn’t a child, but I knew exactly how to engage in a childish power struggle, and if he set one up I would definitely win. Going back to school was the only thing pulling me toward the future. It mattered much more to me than being honest with him.

But I kept my word about not packing the razor blades. It did not take long to regret it. The trip was a terrible idea from the beginning. My dad had always planned our family vacations. Being out in nature together was important to him, and my best childhood memories were of the four of us, traveling. The four of us. Now he was dead, and my sister and I were getting too old for a family vacation, but my mom had still taken it upon herself to book us all for a ten-day canoe trip through the Boundary Waters.

This was already going to be a grim exercise in pretending we were the family we once were, and then my sister broke the news that she couldn’t join us. She had qualified to swim in the Pan-Pacific games, representing the United States. In a month a giant box would arrive at our house full of red, white and blue outfits, not just a swimsuit and parka but sweat suits and full outfits for the opening and closing ceremonies. So Kristi was on Team USA, busy with her last few weeks of training, and I was on the crummy team with Mom and Jenny. It was too much like my whole life: my dad off where families were not allowed to follow, my sister off obliviously achieving, my mom unhappy. Me, suspecting her unhappiness was my fault.

My mom and I flew to Toronto and stayed there for a few days, eating in restaurants at tables for two. It did not feel like a family vacation, but it wasn’t terrible. One night we went to a comedy show, and we both laughed until we cried. When my mom took my hand on the subway, instead of being annoyed by the anxious gesture, I held on to her hand for a while. I remembered what was nice about travel; it was easy to get into a dreamy mental state. I looked up at the unfamiliar buildings and studied the subway map. I considered all the strangers, how every one of them had their own story of heartbreak, their own closet somewhere containing shoes and clothes and secrets.

On the third morning in Toronto, we went to a meeting spot and loaded into the canoe outfitter’s van with some of our fellow travelers. My misgivings returned as we drove away from the city. The road narrowed, the trees loomed, and I suddenly had the sense of being trapped. After a stop at a gas station, everyone climbed back in the van. The driver asked if everyone was present. Someone said they thought so. “No,” I said, “My mom isn’t back yet.” A woman in the row ahead turned to look at me over the back of the bench seat.

“Oh, that is your mom?” she asked. “I saw you guys holding hands and I just assumed you were partners.”

“No,” I said. “That’s my mom.”

Everyone in the van chuckled to show how okay it would be if we were lesbians and how silly it is when assumptions are proved wrong. I laughed too, but I could feel my face turning red. I was too old to hold my mom’s hand. We were too close, and this whole trip was a mistake. Hot shame moved in streaks up my arms; I wished I could trace the streaks with a blade.

The first morning on the water, my mom and I shared a canoe. The rest of the group were apparently expert paddlers, and we fell behind. We knew where we were headed, and the guide said not to rush, but I hated to see the other canoes get further and further ahead of us. I especially hated the inefficiency of our drunken path across the lake. “Mom, you are supposed to be steering. We are going crooked again.” I gestured with a paddle in the direction of the other boats. “Head that way.”

“I know, I’m trying. Just concentrate on paddling.”

“I am!”

“Maybe you should switch sides.”

We argued over who should paddle on which side until my mom said “Honey, just relax. Isn’t it beautiful out here?” She gestured with her paddle.

“I guess, but can you put your paddle back in and still enjoy the beauty?” Now we were just drifting in the middle of the lake.

I didn’t realize that everyone could hear our bickering, but voices carry surprisingly well over still water. When we finally caught up, the others had pulled to shore on an island. The guide announced that we would sometimes mix up canoe partners, and this would be a good time for the first regrouping. A sturdy Dutch woman took the stern of my boat. After a few minutes, she stopped trying to talk to me. We fell into a competent rhythm and now I saw as with the first blurry squint-eye of morning what was actually around me. The last dirt road was far on the other side of the lake, and we were headed towards hundreds of miles of nothing but water, earth, and forest. Insect wings and bird calls created a melody over the rhythmic drips of water from our paddles, and that simple song rested on layers and layers of silence. The quiet was nothing like the buzzy silence of the hospital, or the lonely silence of the dorm. It was something timeless and imperturbable, a balm. It had nothing to do with me; it wasn’t there because I needed it, but I needed it, and that was fine. For the first time in a long time, I felt invited to partake in something good.

This soothing wonder only lasted until we reached the next shore. There, the guide pulled out a laminated map and traced a dotted line that showed our path. The dotted line ran from lake to lake, hopping over areas of land between. He explained that these short hops over land were called “portage,” and we had come to our first one. He showed us how to shoulder a canoe for carrying, and distributed the waterproof supply packs, which were heavy and dripping. The canoes were even heavier and had accumulated bits of forest from the shore. Laden with my burden, decaying leaves in my hair, I felt drilled down into the ground. It turned out that this portage, a short hop on the map, was actually half a mile. If I hadn’t been committed to sharing the canoe’s burden with my partner, I would have sat down and cried. But there was nothing to do but keep walking forward, exuding sweat and self-pity, contemplating how this was the most ridiculous means of transportation ever. It was as if at the end of a road, you put your car on your back and marched to the beginning of the next road.

When I shoved the canoe off of my shoulder at the next shore, I realized I was thirsty. My last sip of water had been that morning at the lodge, but out here there was nothing I wanted to drink. Our source of water was an even worse betrayal than portage. Before we set out, the guide held up an empty white plastic bottle, exactly the size and shape of a bottle of Clorox, and explained that once we were at least 20 feet from shore, we could fill up bottles like these with lake water to pour into our individual mugs. He added that, although the water was extraordinarily pure and he had never known a case of illness, if we had GI symptoms when returning home, we should mention to a doctor we had been drinking untreated water. When we set off after the portage, my partner filled a bottle and started to pass it to me. I could now see was indeed a Clorox bottle and also had grey grime in the relief of the plastic texture. I held up a hand to refuse. A few canoes away my mother asked, “Jenny, aren’t you going to have some water? It’s really good.”

“No,” I said. Maybe I would have some once we reached the campsite and boiled it.

Actually, I only held out until the middle of that lake, when my head began to ache and the roof of my mouth felt tacky. I put my paddle down and said to my canoe partner, trying to sound as if I had just thought of it, “Oh, I’m thirsty, can you pass the water?” It was a defeat, but one that tasted wonderful, one mug after another.

My next mind over body battle was also lost, although it took longer. Each piece of land where we pitched our camp had a composting toilet nearby, called a “thunder box.” These were wooden frames made of rough logs, away from the campsite. Privacy was only afforded by nearby trees and the clouds of flies that rose from the hole. Peeing could be done anywhere away from shore, and since I had no intention of visiting a thunder box, I decided that I would only excrete liquid waste during the trip. This was effortless the first two days and uncomfortable on the third day. By the end of the fourth day I felt weighed down even before I loaded up for portage; it was difficult to hold a conversation with my mind busy overriding urgent signals from my colon. When we made camp that evening, I grabbed the roll of toilet paper and took the path to the evil thunder box. Again my body proved its dominion over whatever decisions I had made, but my disappointment was eclipsed by relief.

As soon as we made camp every afternoon, I busied myself with my book and my journal. Partly I was avoiding the others, but also, I was just so hungry to read. I’d lost the necessary concentration in the past few months, and this terrified me more than anything. But out here, I found reading possible. Under the sky, leaning against a tree, I could sink into a book the way I used to.

After several days avoiding the others seemed less necessary. The nurse never said another nurse-like thing; she mostly talked about birds. I didn’t start any conversations, but I often ended up talking to Ruth, a girl from England who had just graduated from college. Ruth was traveling alone, and she was indiscriminately enthusiastic; she had so much to say to everyone. One afternoon, Ruth motioned me over to show me something she found; a bush of wild blueberries. The tiny purple-black berries tasted as if each contained the distillation of three store-bought blueberries. We pulled them with our fingernails from the stems, and brought handfuls to the cook, who said they would make a great addition to her lemon pudding. We rushed off to gather more.

Gathering food unlocked time from its grind. Back at the hospital, once I started looking for sharp things, I saw them everywhere; the same seek-and-find brain reward pathway seemed to be engaged here. The rest of the vegetation faded; and the blueberry bushes stood out. Ruth and I yelped to each other when we found a new bush. We held the bottom hems of our t-shirts to make slings for gathering, and when it was time for dinner we funneled the berries into the lemon pudding. It was not a delicious dessert; the pudding had a strange cornstarch texture that was not helped by the addition of the tiny seedy berries. But the rest of the group knew Ruth and I had picked the blueberries, and they said it was wonderful. I watched Ruth. She didn’t seem to mind the attention, or the odd dessert. I ate all of mine. Every sour berry I bit into was a little startle, a little wake up.

There was something out here in the boundary waters that wanted to save me. In the container of wilderness, there were boundaries, but they weren’t personal affronts, there was no point in fighting them. I was a human being and I needed to drink and I needed to shit. It wasn’t a shame. The thousands of fish sliding under our canoes needed to be in water to live; it wasn’t a shame. Even portage started made sense. The only way to pass through that roadless landscape was through the most ancient kind of transportation, the body’s effort.

The sky on our last full day was perfectly clear, and our guide told us we would be able to see the Perseid meteor shower that night. He led us to camp on an island with a perfect viewing platform. I longed to quit the day after dinner, but I grudgingly kept myself at the campfire. When at last it was dark, the guide led us to the other side of the island, where a slab of bare rock sloped down into the lake. I was sure I would fall asleep as soon as I lay down, but when I looked up I was jolted awake. The sky opened my eyes and poured itself in. It was impossibly dark and at the same time crowded with lights.

A star streaked to the horizon. A few minutes later, there was another one, then two stars falling at the same time. Like the audience at a fireworks show, we all began to ooh and aah at the same time. Then it seemed like we were breathing together, like we were one human organism resting on that rock. While the stars fell, we rested in our insignificance against the sparkling universe. It was so late, and I was so awake.

Those falling stars pinned me back to the ground for a while. After we returned home, I kept reading and writing. I didn’t go back to cutting right away, although of course I did go back. But only when I really needed to, and only small cuts, nothing I needed to share with Dr. Rinaldi. We agreed I was doing much better, and he wrote the letter to readmit me to school.

I looked forward to the fall. I hoped I was better. Everyone thought I was better. After all, I had been to the hospital and had a doctor, and I was on medication. There was no way to understand that the only healing thing that summer was canoe medicine. And so, there was no way to know that as soon as I returned to the familiar and expected, I would lose my way again.

jenny_flemingJenny Fleming lives, works, and writes in Austin, Texas. She completed a memoir about growing up while breaking down in the 1990s, which won the 2017 Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest for memoir. Jenny also received an Inspiring Recovery Fellowship from The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow. In the fall of 2017, she will begin work on an MFA at Texas State University in fiction, but creative nonfiction will always hold a special place in her reading and writing life.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/bemep

  1 comment for “Canoe Medicine by Jenny Fleming

  1. Beautiful story, Jenny. Thank you. I spent healing time in the Boundary Waters 20 years ago and those days and nights are still balm to my soul. Take good care.

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