From Roger Rosenblatt, author of the bestsellers Making Toast and Unless It Moves the Human Heart, comes a moving meditation on the passages of grief, the solace of solitude, and the redemptive power of love
In Making Toast, Roger Rosenblatt shared the story of his family in the days and months after the death of his thirty-eight-year-old daughter, Amy. Now, in Kayak Morning, he offers a personal meditation on grief itself. “Everybody grieves,” he writes. From that terse, melancholy observation emerges a work of art that addresses the universal experience of loss.
On a quiet Sunday morning, two and a half years after Amy’s death, Roger heads out in his kayak. He observes,“You can’t always make your way in the world by moving up. Or down, for that matter. Boats move laterally on water, which levels everything. It is one of the two great levelers.” Part elegy, part quest, Kayak Morning explores Roger’s years as a journalist, the comforts of literature, and the value of solitude, poignantly reminding us that grief is not apart from life but encompasses it. In recalling to us what we have lost, grief by necessity resurrects what we have had.
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About the Author
Roger Rosenblatt is the author of six off-Broadway plays and eighteen books, including Lapham Rising, Making Toast, Kayak Morning and The Boy Detective. He is the recipient of the 2015 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.
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Kayak MorningReflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats
By Roger Rosenblatt
EccoCopyright © 2012 Roger Rosenblatt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo and a half years after our thirty-eight-year-old daughter, Amy,
died of an undetected anomalous right coronary artery, I have taken up kayaking.
They say that people in grief become more like themselves.
I have always been a loner, so going out in a kayak suits my temperament.
It also offers a solitude that is rare for me these days, because when
Amy died, my wife, Ginny, and I moved into her house in
Bethesda, Maryland, to help our son-in-law, Harris, care
for their three small children, Jessica, Sammy, and James.
We spend nearly all our time in Bethesda, but we have also
kept our home in Quonset, a summer village on the south shore
of Long Island. It is not far from Stony Brook University
where I teach English and writing. I commute between
Bethesda and Quonset from September to June, and from
June to September in Quonset, whenever time allows, I go
Our oldest son, Carl, and his wife, Wendy, also have
three children, Andrew, Ryan, and Nate. The family spends
much of the summer together in Quonset, as we did when
Amy was alive. When I am more sure of myself with my
kayak, I will take the kids out with me one at a time, sitting
them between my legs as I paddle. "It would be cool to
see the water from the water's point of view," says Sammy,
a serious-minded child. Early in the morning, I go out by
It is Sunday, June 27, 2010, just past dawn. At home,
everyone is asleep, including our youngest son, John, who
is visiting for the weekend. My boat scrapes on the public
ramp. I dig my paddle into the pebbles in the shallow water,
and push off.
Past a wooden dock jutting out into the creek and littered
with parts of seashells, strafed by gulls. Smashed china on
gray boards. Past the skeleton of a fish bobbing in the suds
near a tuft of sea grass, thick as a sheep's head. Past the
orange buoy and the wet brown sand. A neap tide settles like a
defeat. The sky is a blue stripe, squeezed between two wide
layers of white clouds. Over the canal it turns gunmetal gray.
Elegies of water. Could rain.
I try to be careful about kayaking. I bought a good, sturdy
boat, olive green. I got instructional books and took a couple
of lessons. I have learned to sit straight and to hold the paddle
with my hands between its center and the blades. I bring a
bottle of water if I am to be out awhile. I spray on sunscreen.
I wear my PFD, a life vest now called a "personal flotation
device." I rarely paddle farther than ninety feet from shore.
Amy would have approved of such preparations and precautions.
As a child she would pore over toy instructions. As a
wife and mother, she read booklets on household appliances
from cover to cover. As a pediatrician, she was tirelessly
careful with her research and with her patients.
Until recently I was never like that. I thought I could
figure out everything as I went about it, and simply plunged
in. When I was eleven, our sixth-grade teacher, Miss Wash burn,
asked if anyone in the class played a musical instrument.
She invited us to perform the following day. My aunt
Julia had just given me a guitar for my birthday, on the day
of Miss Wash burn's invitation. So I decided to bring in my
new guitar even though I had not a single lesson in the
instrument and had not even touched one until that day. The
following morning, I stood in front of the class singing
"Red River Valley" to the one major chord I'd figured out
the night before. My classmates were shaking and screaming
with laughter. I must have thought that playing the guitar
would simply come to me, like a miracle.
You can't always make your way in the world by moving
up. Or down, for that matter. Boats move laterally on water,
which levels everything. It is one of the two great levelers.
Where I go is Pennington's Creek, an inlet shaped like a wizard's
hat, squiggly on the sides and bent at the point. Not far
from my home, the creek is about two hundred yards wide
at the mouth, and a half mile long, one of several creeks
leading from the village to the Quonset Canal. The canal
leads to Shuttlecock Bay and Laconic Bay, which extends
east to Mont auk at the tip of Long Island, and into the
Atlantic. I venture no farther than Pennington's Creek,
paddling up to where it meets the canal, and then paddling
back to the narrow end. Not much of a trip, if measured
in distance covered. Nothing, as compared to the Atlantic,
which hooks into the Pacific. Nothing, as compared to
the Pacific, which is sixty-four million square miles. With
more practice and confidence, I eventually shall go into the
canal and the bays, perhaps even as far as the ocean. For
now, Pennington's Creek is my Atlantic and Pacific, quite big
enough for me.
Still waters, dark waters, watercolors, waterproof, watermark,
high-water mark, waterbird, to be in hot water, brackish
water, white water, water main, water lilies, waterworks,
waterfront, water bug, water cannon, water table, watershed,
dead in the water.
The duck squats sits unmoving, a gray-brown shack. I've
never seen it used. Retired hit man, it sits with straw popping
out on all sides in the wrong places, like old en's hair,
thirty yards or so from the marshes and the shore on the
east side of the creek. Above it rise trees of a hundred greens,
thick as privet hedgesbright green, purple green, green
descending to black, pale green, nearly white. White oaks,
willows, pitch pines, tuppenny trees whose branches stick out at
a ninety-degree angle. One dead tree, the color of ashes, rises
among them like a corkscrew. The trees are tall where the
creek comes to a point and grow shorter and sparser where
it widens at the canal. Three or four solitary trees appear on
the promontory, at a distance from one another. One is flattened
at the top like the desert date trees I saw in Sudan in
1992, when I was writing a story on the "lost boys" for Vanity
Fair. Half hidden in the foliage are houses, summer places,
most of them sprawling with additions. One of the larger
houses has a flagpole on its lawn. I read the wind by the
American flag flapping and clanking against the pole. Big
houses. Substantial and confident houses. The creek rolls to
them and away.
Elsewhere, great herds of bathers soon will gallop on
the nearby ocean beach, calling out to one another in loud,
patrician voices and complaining about a slice of swordfish
scorched on the grill last night. They will organize
their lives into committees under yellow-and-white beach
umbrellas, while the sea rears up against its reins. On the
creek I am the crowdI and the birds and the insects and
the fish. Beneath me lie the Gothic rocks in their dark
museums. The minnows move in fits and starts. The banded
killing explode upward like sparks from a bonfire in the
Powerboats ride at anchor on the west side of the creek,
halfway between the canal and the public ramp. They belong
to members of the Shuttlecock Yacht Club, founded in 1887,
merely a smallish house and a dock with a few slips. There
are nine boats anchored in the creek today. None is oversize
or showy, thus all are showy in the way of Quonset, which
often makes a vice of modesty. The boats are still, as are the
egrets that congregate on the dock. They stand together but
seem not to acknowledge one another. It's difficult to
determine their policy.
On the rocks above the public ramp, a rust-brown dinghy
lies upside down, looking like a sea lion lolling in the sun.
Nearby, a bush presents a small bouquet of pink and
violet flowers. J. M. Synge had a phrase for such a picture
"the splendid desolation of decay." The pilings of the various
docks stick up like periscopes. The sky has turned gray and
white, white clouds rising into the gray. The moon leaves a
trace, as a chalky eye. White the pebbles. White the tips of
the waves. White the weeds. Birds wheeling in the wind.
The screak of gulls.
"It colors everything I do," I said.
"What did you expect?" said my friend.
"I'm in a box."
"Isn't that what grief is?"
"You're the doctor. You tell me."
"What do you want?" she said.
"I want out."
"What do you really want?"
"I want her back."
"Well," she said, "you'll have to find a way to get her
Back at the house, everyone should be awake by now. Sammy,
Jessie, Andrew, Ryan, and James are blasting one another
with water-shooting Max Liquidator Styrofoam tubes. Carl,
John, and Harris are comparing notes on last night's Yankees
game and the World Cup. Ginny and Wendy are sipping
second cups of coffee, while Nate, having recently learned to
walk, makes his way from chair to chair around the kitchen.
Ginny gathers up the towels, pails, and shovels to prepare
for a morning at the beach. James tires of warfare and plays
with his red dump truck. The boys get on their trunks and
swim shirts. Jessie goes to the piano and plays "Beauty and
Opposites attract me. In kayaking, taking the opposite
way can save your life. When you feel you are about to
capsize, you instinctively clutch the gunwales of the boat. You
think that the kayak offers stability on an unstable surface.
But you are part of the boat when it rolls, and grabbing the
sides merely adds mass to the problem. You must use your
paddle to support the boat, extending it into the water and
holding it face down, because in this instance the water is
more stable than the boat. And, to do this maneuver
correctly, you have to lean into the paddle, which will put you
off balance. When you are completely off balance, so much
so that you are certain you will topple overyou bring the
paddle down hard on the water's surface, the way ducks bat
their wings. You will feel your kayak right itself. Only by
moving in the direction you least trust can you be saved.
Anomaly. Deviation or departure from the normal or
common order. Peculiar, irregular, difficult to classify.
No one has a heart like yours . . .
LINDA PASTAN, "ANOMALY"
Cloud-ghosts pass along the skull of the sky. Two gulls
wheel by together. A single-engine plane drones eastward.
Purposeful little bugger, it makes a beeline. The sun is a blur,
a slowing pulse. The water looks shellacked. I poke about at
the shore, where the creek has worn lines in the rocks. The
rocks bear evidence of the creek. If the creek should dry up,
the rocks would know it existed. The moon slides out of
sight, in its secret night. I am contained in my boat. Form
They say that you can lose yourself in nature.
I spent much of my New York childhood doing that,
wandering off one path or another on hikes led by grown-ups,
and scaring them shitless. At age seven, I strayed from a walking
tour of Central Park led by one of our neighborhood parents,
having decided to make a walking tour of my own. I wound up
in the park police station. In Cape Cod, at the age of three,
I wandered away from my parents' rented summer cottage
and headed for the beach, where I played with dead horseshoe
crabs. The police were called then, too. Holding a crab
at my side, I watched the lights of the police car bouncing
toward me on the hard sand.
A curious phrase, to lose yourself. Like the word given
in reference to prison sentences. When you're given a year,
a year is taken from you. Similarly, when you lose yourself
in a book, you've probably found yourself, as you have when
you're lost in your own thoughts. I hated school. During
class, I would daydream out the window at one bright leafy
tree. "Roger," a teacher would call to me. "Would you like to
rejoin the group?" I thought, Not really.
Some years ago in Paris, French farmers staged a
protest against the government by transporting sheep, cattle,
and pallets of wheat to the center of the Champs-Élysées.
Police braced for the outbreak of fights between the Parisians
and the farmers. But when the citizens caught sight of
the sudden farms arisen in the middle of the city, their reaction
was to stroll in the fieldslovers, farmers, policemen,
rediscovering the companionability of the countryside, as
well as something basic in themselves. I dream into an egret
preparing her morning lecture on the information explosion.
Miss Egret regrets.
We regret to inform you.
We are pleased to inform you.
We beg to inform you.
We refuse to inform you.
We are devastated to inform you.
We are tickled pink to inform youpink, and a becoming
pale yellow, too, and a fetching shade of sage.
We are afraid to inform you, frozen in fear, actually, to
such a degree that we may never inform you.
We could not inform you if we wanted to. We have
informed you of everything. There is nothing of which you
The news blares stories about the oil spill in the Gulf.
Reporters grill BP officials. The company president says he
wants his life back. Fishermen say their lives are as good
as gone. Oil puddles on the water, like mercury. Pictures
of oil creeping to the shore. Pictures of sea turtles, dead
in their tracks. Pictures of brown pelicans, blackened as
if tarred. Tarred and feathered. A seabird so laden with
thick oil, it looks ossified, a purple-and-gray stone bird.
Its head is glazed, its eyes closed, as if in prayer. One can
Excerpted from Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt Copyright © 2012 by Roger Rosenblatt. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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