by Julian Phillips, Managing Editor
Let’s face it: “The Garden City” hasn’t lived up to its name. From Route 9 traffic to cyanobacteria blooms, Newton’s landscape is home to just as many pollutants as parks.
Of course, I’ve found refuges in the concrete jungle that is Newton. Being in peak suburbia, it takes just as long to get to downtown Boston as the nearest farm. But exploring takes effort, and this summer, with the help of a summertime job, I discovered a new world 500 feet from my doorstep — the Charles River.
In July, I began work at a six-week outdoor day camp for elementary-aged children. Running from 9 a.m to 1 p.m., four days a week, the camp seemed unintimidating. As short as it was, however, its location on the Charles introduced me to the boundless world of kayaking.
But at first, the river was not a pleasurable experience. When we went fishing, continuously baiting campers’ hooks was not pleasant work — mealworms writhed in my hands with pain as their guts spilled out onto my fingers. And when we ran aground on a boulder in the middle of the river, we were forced to call in support from the shore.
As days turned into weeks, however, I felt as though I belonged on the Charles. As much as I dreaded the aforementioned encounters with nature, the issue faded away as I adapted to the realities of the river.
It took only two weeks until I found myself launching our banana-yellow kayak into the murky waters of the Charles. The stagnant water felt as calm as it was disgusting. While I had gone out on the river plenty of times with my dad, I did less paddling than complaining.
On that first day, I paddled upstream past great blue herons, muskrats, turtles and swans. I’m not strictly introverted, but the lack of human interaction was astounding — and a welcome change. Save for the occasional elderly couple or hard-core rower, the river felt like a no man’s land bordering Newton.
Luckily enough, I avoided an accidental drowning and a suspiciously combative goose, and I soon had my sights set on more ambitious journeys. Two weeks after my first solo ride and equipped with an energy bar, two water bottles and a bottle of sunscreen, I set out for the Moody Street Dam, 3.5 miles downstream.
After struggling through the muck of the Charles’ bank as usual, I felt a dramatic tug as the flow of the river’s 0.5 mph current propelled me downstream. A dragonfly landed on the front of the kayak like a hood ornament, guiding me into Waltham. While the experience didn’t feel unique or particularly inspiring, a wave of contentment washed over me.
As the dam drew close, I began to turn around. On the way home, the wind kept blowing me to the right bank of the river, and I soon grew frustrated with the activity that I was supposed to find fun. Indeed, kayaking was outside the boundaries of what I usually considered entertaining — physically difficult, repetitive and with little real reward.
Happiness is a mysterious concept that somehow has little to do with what you are doing. The key to kayaking is perhaps its simplicity. No matter your mood, it’s always the same experience, and getting upset with something so predictable and elementary is difficult.
Back at home, I’ve tried to apply this mindset to my workload. For example, I always start my weekday evenings with math homework, as — geometric proofs aside — it often feels simple, although not by any measure easy. I work my way up to the most complex task, usually essay writing. For me, simplicity is a more important marker of a task than difficulty.
A lack of complexity is exactly what makes the Charles appealing to me. All of the lessons I learned from the river over the course of the summer could be meaningless, and I would still go out there.
Articles like these tend to be chock-full of inspirational messages, but at a certain point, the messages lose their strength. We must prioritize experience over analysis; by trying to make simple tasks complex, we risk losing their fun.
Finding peace in the chaos — and consequently discovering more about myself — is a process. But I’ve managed to open up a whole new world I never thought would be there for me.