Kayaking With a Death Wish

Feeling ill? Stick on a life jacket, grab a paddle and get out in the icy blue waters. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, so you might just end up feeling better.
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An Introduction to Teach Us To Sit Still

You get ill, you go to the doctor, he prescribes a medicine, you get better. That’s the sequence of events we believe in, isn’t it? The sooner he gives you the medicine, the sooner you get better and the sooner you can get back to the important things of life: work, romance, sport. So it’s irritating when he can’t figure it right away and sends you off to do a few tests. Then a few more. Worse still when he tells you you need an operation. There’s a waiting list. Waiting lists are unacceptable because being ill is not really being alive. Still, if the operation solves the problem, at least at the end of the day you’ll be back to normal, you’ll be you again and can stop thinking about your body.

But what happens when the doctors can’t figure it at all. Or they give you the drugs and the drugs don’t work. They propose operations even though the tests haven’t shown anything wrong. You don’t trust them any more. Meanwhile, your condition is getting seriously worse. Afraid you’ve dreamed it up - you’re a hypochondriac the pain isn’t real - you get on the net and find that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, share your condition, in one form or another. But you knew it must be real because sometimes the stomach pain is so bad you can’t sit down. Still, if it is real, it’s worse! Because none of these thousands, millions, of sufferers in the chat rooms knows what to do about it. You’re looking at a lifetime of chronic pain and with nothing on the surface to tell anyone you’re not well, nothing to explain why you’re not more cheerful.

That was pretty much my case when I found a book that at last described my condition accurately and suggested a solution. Knowing the kind of guy I am, the authors dressed the solution in pseudo medical terms: “paradoxical relaxation following respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia breathing and myofascial trigger-point release massage”. As it turned out, what they were really asking me to do was completely rethink my relationship with my body, No, more radical than that: to understand that my body was actually me.

By the time, three months later, I was getting better, I was no longer interested in my illness at all, but enthralled with the doors that had been opened to me, and the revolution in my thinking about pretty much everything, literature, art, achievement, the very nature of purposefulness. Finally I was persuaded to try something I’d always imagined was bunkum: meditation. It was on a ten day retreat, trying to empty my head of all the words that just won’t go away that I at last got to the core of my illness and saw the way to health.

Which is what Teach Us to Sit Still is all about.

I never expected to write a book about the body. Least of all my body. How indiscreet. But then I never expected to be ill in the mysterious, infuriating way I have. Above all it never occurred to me that an illness might challenge my deepest assumptions, oblige me to rethink the primacy I have always given to language and the life of the mind. Texting, mailing, chatting, blogging, our modern minds devour our flesh. That is the conclusion long illness brought me to. We have become cerebral vampires preying on our own life-blood. Even in the gym, or out running, our lives are all in the head, at the expense of our bodies.

"The sooner he gives you the medicine, the sooner you get better and the sooner you can get back to the important things of life: work, romance, sport."

I had no desire to tell anyone about my malady. Let alone write about it. These were precisely the pains and humiliations one learns early on not to mention. You need only look at the words medicine uses – intestine, faeces, urethra, bladder, sphincter, prostate – to appreciate that this vocabulary was never meant to be spoken in company. We just don’t want to go there. My plan, like anyone else’s, was to confide in the doctors and pretend it wasn’t happening.

On the other hand, this is reality, and in my case there was the happy truth that just when the medical profession had given up on me and I on it, just when I seemed to be walled up in a life sentence of chronic pain, someone proposed a bizarre way out: sit still, they said, and breathe. I sat still. I breathed. It seemed a tedious exercise at first, rather painful, not immediately effective. Eventually it proved so exciting, so transforming, physically and mentally, that I began to think my illness had been a stroke of luck. If I wasn’t the greatest of sceptics, I’d be saying it had been sent from above to invite me to change my ways. In any event by now the story had become too inviting a conundrum to be left unwritten’.


It was July and time to go boating. Months before I had booked three days with a kayak guide in Austria. More than once I had thought of cancelling. I would be in too much pain. But it had been part of my strategy of denial never to cancel anything.

With life improving, I decided to go. These few days were a rare moment of escape from work and family. It was the first time I had booked a guide all for myself: a learning experience and a luxury. I dug out my white-water kayaking equipment, packed the car and drove north.

I decided to leave early and make a small detour into the South Tyrol to run a river with my friend Roland. A warm-up.

“What’s the water like?” I asked.

He shrugged, rolling a cigarette as he drove along tight, winding roads, past Weinstubes and crucifixes.

“Fast, slow, safe, dangerous?”

A faint smile curled his unshaven lip.

“So, is it difficult or not?”

He laughed, blowing out smoke. Roland always makes fun of my pre-river nerves.

Eventually, he asked me what I’d been up to this year.

I’d just published a novel set right here in the South Tyrol, I told him.

He raised an eyebrow.

“About a big-time media man, London TV celebrity, who kind of escapes here to empty his mind. Deliberately chooses a place where he can’t speak a word of the language, and high up in the mountains where there’s no one to speak to anyway. Above Luttach,” I added.

Luttach was Roland’s village. He smiled again. All around us steep pine slopes rose to dizzying peaks of blue and grey.

Then, just as we turned down a track to the river bank, I articulated something that had never come to me quite so clearly while writing Cleaver. “It’s a sort of death wish really. He’d like to look so hard at the rocks and trees that he becomes one of them.”

This time Roland nodded. “TV will do that to you,” he said.

About an hour later I nearly got the end Cleaver desired. It was a shock. The Eisack is a bouncy torrent tumbling through the boulders of a deep gorge, crossed here and there, high above, by the autostrada to the Brenner. It’s strange with icy water on your hands, spray on your face, splashings and gurglings in your ears, to think of those vehicles a hundred feet above, droning across the landscape as if it wasn’t really there. I suppose I go paddling to reconnect with the world, I thought. A moment later I went under.

I had made the mistake, even more unforgiveable on the river than during Dr Wise’s paradoxical relaxation, of drifting off into my thoughts: not connecting with the world, then, but reflecting on connecting. Close to the right bank, Roland paddled over the top of a little weir and thumped down onto rocks below. Not concentrating, I assumed this was an error and moved left into the main stream. Roland was yelling now but I couldn’t hear what. Then I saw that while about a quarter of the river’s flow did go over the weir in the centre, the main current was dragging me irresistibly towards a grey iron barrier on the left. Below it, I understood at once, would be a grill for catching debris. A strainer. To be avoided at all costs. But it was too late. In an instant I was against the barrier, side on, and tipping with the pressure of the water.

"Texting, mailing, chatting, blogging, our modern minds devour our flesh. That is the conclusion long illness brought me to. We have become cerebral vampires preying on our own life-blood."

Life happens quickly. This would not be a warm wave that swept the mind clean and left it in complete ease. It was a trap. The moment I went below, I would be thrust against the grill in the conduit beneath and that would be that. Not two selves, but none.

Squeezed between current and barrier, the kayak began to flip. Ignoring Roland’s shouts, lost in the watery roar, I yanked off the spray-deck and launched myself out of the boat in a frenzied freestyle toward the weir beyond the barrier. For a moment I stayed uncannily still in the grip of two equal tensions, the downward pull to the grill and the sideways rush to the weir. Then I was released, weir-bound. I suspect my buoyancy aid saved me.

The accident made Roland talkative. Again and again he apologized. He should have warned me. He hadn’t thought. He marvelled at the lightness of my injuries. “Move your wrists, ok? There’s a cut on your hand. Your neck? Roll your head.” I had fallen three metres over the weir onto rocks taking only a bang on the knee and a fierce smack on my helmet. Freed from my weight the kayak had floated after me. “I’m so sorry,” he repeated. He hugged me. “Rest now. You’re shivering. Cover up.”

Half an hour later I needed to pee. Once, twice, three times. In the car, my pains welled. But I felt euphoric. Got away with it! And optimistic too. The peeing and pain must be in response to the million-volt tension, the adrenalin. This reaction proved it. And however much I might need to change my life, I felt intensely that I did love it; I loved my body, loved Roland, loved the boats, the mountains, the smells of moss and resin, and above all the water, I loved the crazy, crashing, dangerous water. No death wish for Timmy, I thought. And when we stopped for a sandwich and I needed a fourth pee, I simply told Roland what my problem was. It was the first time I had talked about my health odyssey to anyone but wife and doctors. It was a release. And I knew it had been made possible by the breathing exercises, by my new state of mind and now this sudden swelling of emotion. I wasn’t embarrassed at all.” Yeah, I have this peeing problem. The accident had become part of getting better.

Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks is published by Harvill Secker. You Can buy it here http://www.vintage-books.co.uk/

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