These days I live at the edge of Narragansett Bay. I row here too - up the Seekonk River one day, down to Occupessatuxet Point the next. Often I row my boat into the middle of the bay, ship my oars, and sit back to see where the tide and the current will take me. I do this, I know, not because it's peaceful but because there's an edge to it - it can be peaceful, yes, but it is never truly relaxing. I do it because there's an element of surrender in the exercise, an active acknowledgment of how breathtakingly tiny and helpless I am in the greater scheme of things, a condition that I spend the rest of my day ignoring, denying, scorning, or forgetting. It is frightening yet also liberating to admit a force far larger than our own.
I SHOULD SAY, before you get the wrong idea, that I have no desire to die. I do not want to die even if it be peacefully in my sleep in my own bed. Less do I want to drown to death or burn to death or choke to death or crash to death or have any body part of mine maimed or disfigured or messed with in any way (and especially not by a crocodile, more about which later). I am, in fact, a woman who can be driven witless with discomfort and frustration by the merest splinter, wart, cold sore, sty, hangnail, or personal insult. I am not afraid to die; I simply do not want to. Nevertheless, I am also a person who is drawn to doing physically difficult and sometimes even dangerous things. I cannot deny that I like to find myself in sticky situations, with the feeling that I've really gone and done it this time, that I'm finally sunk, that there's no turning back and possibly no tomorrow. As regards my aversion to death, I think this impulse makes sense. Death - or dread of it really - has always seemed to me to be the subtext, if not the downright text, of all physical adventure. It's a calling forth of the despised thing in an effort to stare it down, a test of how far life can push itself into death's territory without getting burned, and ultimately an effort to become inured to the inevitable prospect. Contrary to what we might expect, acceptance of our limitations and of all that lies beyond our control assuages the anxieties that arise from the misplaced responsibility we habitually and rather grandiosely depute to ourselves.
Returning home from my first visit to Egypt, I took my boat out on Narragansett Bay and imagined myself gliding alone down the Nile among the flamingos, reeds, and palm trees. For months I imagined this. On winter days, when the Rhode Island sky was gray and cold, I pulled myself across the bay and conjured what I had seen along the Nile. I fantasized about returning to Egypt, finding a boat, and heading off down the river on my own. On that first trip to Egypt, whenever I mentioned my Nile rowing idea to Egyptian people they had all said with real disbelief, Impossible! You are a woman! The river is big! Not mentioning any crocodile! And dangerous ships! And the fisherman who can become crazy seeing a woman alone! Egyptians generally thought the plan was idiotic, pointless, and dangerous, and seemed to find it inconceivable that anyone at all would want to row a boat on the Nile for no pressing or practical or, above all, lucrative reason, let alone a foreign woman, and especially when you could make the same trip lounging on a comfortable tour boat with your feet up and a drink in your hand. But sitting in Narragansett Bay, I earnestly wondered why such a trip should be impossible. The Nile was a consistent, stately river that flowed up the continent from the south while the prevailing winds came out of the north, a rare phenomenon that for centuries had allowed easy passage in both directions. Why should its location in Egypt make this river any more forbidding, inaccessible, or unrowable than any other?
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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