Only in the water for 30 seconds at the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, I was already feeling the familiar anxiety associated with not understanding how to do something. I was on a guided stand-up paddleboard (SUP) tour through a picturesque cypress-lined creek in Kissimmee, Florida with two of my girlfriends, both of whom had at least some experience with the mechanism of paddling.
Our guide, Alex, showed us how to stand on the board and how to hold the paddle, and off my two girlfriends went. But I was struggling, because I didn’t understand what to do with the paddle. “Have you ever canoed or kayaked or anything?” he asked, to which I responded, “No and no and I really don’t know what I’m doing!” He took the time to show me, and soon, I started to get the movement down. You can spy me in the picture, still looking very tentative and hunched over! It took me a while to actually feel comfortable enough to stand up straight, breathe, and look around.
That feeling of not knowing how to do something—and looking stupid because of it—is almost why I didn’t come on the SUP tour. I wasn’t afraid of the alligators in the creek (in fact, I really wanted to see one). I was afraid of doing something I’d never done before. But these days, I’m not letting myself off the hook on trying new things because of some old fear. For example, when I started swimming at the end of 2017 after being sidelined from running for a few months, I realized that I had told myself a lot of stories about what I wasn’t good at. After just one lesson on how to breath and the correct motion of a stroke, I quickly took to swimming, and have been doing 1-mile (66 lap) swims once a week or so for more than a year.
So when my friend asked if we should do a SUP tour, I said, “Absolutely!”—even though I was really afraid of that moment of ineptness. All the old voices came back: You’re not good at water stuff. You don’t know how to maneuver. You’re not that coordinated. You’ll look stupid.
After years of telling myself I was only good at a few types of movement—things like gymnastics and yoga—and that I stunk when it came to anything that required hitting, kicking, catching, throwing, paddling, or any kind of coordination involving direction or knowing where to go, I’m beginning to think I’m full of shit.
In fact, I think I might be a natural athlete. This is such a funny thought to have, because the story about what I’m good at—and not good at—is such an entrenched piece of my identity. In sixth grade, when every other girl in my class played soccer, I did gymnastics. It became a story about being a contrarian, but also about feeling left out. I spun this little piece of cognitive dissonance into all kinds of ideas about being a lousy team player and not being coordinated and not wanting to join in. In time, it just hardened into a fear about looking inept and getting teased. Aren’t we just the most amazing storytellers to ourselves?
I’m not saying I want to go play soccer or start joining pickup basketball games, but I am trying to avoid saying no offhand to things because I think I won’t be good at them, or because I assume I’ll feel stupid if I don’t immediately understand. In doing all of my honesty work, I’ve been paying more attention to my stories, especially my fear stories. The payoff this particular time was that I got to see the funky roots of cypress trees and the twisty loveliness of the headwaters of the Everglades.
I still had one more fear to overcome that day though.
After we were done with our SUP tour, which was enchanting and lush and included paddling past a momma alligator lounging near the banks of the creek about 15 feet away from us, Alex brought out the Center’s resident snake, a banded water snake named Magazine. He said that he had found Magazine outside several months ago. Thinking the snake was sick because it wasn’t moving much, Alex brought it inside to nurse it back health. He eventually realized Magazine wasn’t sick, but rather, was just a chill snake who liked to lounge.
Did I mention I’ve always been terrified of snakes? Not much will make me actually scream, but the sight of a snake in my yard will. But I was in fear-confronting mode, so I tentatively touched Magazine and noticed his pretty colors. Plus, I think you can tell an animal’s spirit if you sit there quietly with it, and I felt like Magazine and I had a little connection. (I mean his name was Magazine—and I do write for magazines, for crying out loud!)
“Can I hold him?” I asked Alex before I thought too much about it. He happily passed him over, with some pointers on how to support a snake’s body.
I can’t say that I was comfortable holding Magazine, but it did make me feel happy. He was a beautiful snake, after all. And I wasn’t 11 anymore.
Fear and old stories would still win some other day. But not today.