Two Ducks, Crews on the River and the Coming of Spring

I walked down to the river this afternoon. The winter sun was bright and low on the horizon; the air was chilled, but not cold. I sat with my legs dangling off a quay and watched two ducks swimming in the water, then waddling up onto the sandy bank, poking around, then slipping back into the river.

On the shore college and high school students were all over the waterfront—exercising, checking their equipment, getting ready to drop oars. Was this the first day of the season? It looked that way as sculls were unloaded at the public boathouse and coaches shouted, “Up…up…up!” so the students would hoist their boats high and avoid hitting anyone in their wide arced turns.

For the public, the boathouse was still closed. It won’t open until the water temperature reaches 55°, probably not for another month or maybe two. The single white rental sculls were out of storage, locked up on their racks, but the black Viking-sized sculls of the university and high school crews with names like Black Pearl will hit the water first.

I fantasized for a moment if I were 18 whether I would row crew. That possibility didn’t exist when I was in high school in Texas and college in the Midwest. I don’t know how many women did row then. Today the fit young women–knees to their chests, legs crossed, doing their scrunches on the lawn–rise in unison and lift their giant scull above their heads and carry it to the water. In unison they step into the boat, position themselves and drop their oars into the cold Potomac.

I carry a different history in my head than these women, but I take this scene, along with the criminal case I’ve been mulling over during a month-long jury duty, and the novel I’m in the midst of writing, and I continue walking along the river. I try to knit thoughts together, to pull the universe inwards, to look for and listen to its beauty and harmony and through words to celebrate these, along with the coming of spring.

Being a writer is like having an itch you can never quite scratch. You may compose an elegant sentence, then a paragraph, perhaps a whole story, bring together what you see and think and feel. If you succeed, the story moves as it should; it arches, bends, then returns on itself with a sweet insight, a glimpse of beauty, a glimmering moment of understanding.

But the next day, sometimes the next hour, a whole new set of thoughts, feelings and perceptions awaken, and you start all over again.

As I leave the river, I note that the ducks have not returned; they have swum to another shore. The sun has slipped behind Roosevelt Island, and as the sky grows pink, the crews turn back towards the boathouse.

The next day clouds cover the sun, and the possibility of snow is rumored. Perhaps spring hasn’t arrived after all, but I have seen its signs. I know it is coming.


  1. jill on February 25, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Hi Joanne
    I read two blogs at once, first one about powerful women on the water and then the other about irrepressible voices in places of repression. One sentence from each blog connected in my mind to flow as follows:
    “The writers and their words are like a heat source that regimes try to trap beneath the surface but instead they soften up the ice.
    The next day clouds cover the sun, and the possibility of snow is rumored. Perhaps spring hasn’t arrived after all, but I have seen its signs. I know it is coming.”

  2. Mary Hall on February 25, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Hello Joanne,
    I don’t know if this is appropriate to share, but I’d love for the list to know about:
    INTERSECTIONS: A New America Arts Festival (  It features some world premiere plays, as well as poetry and spoken word events, along with music, theater, dance and film.  I’m the artistic director and would love to welcome my women writer friends to the Atlas Performing Arts Center weekend from Feb 25 – Mar 13.
    Mary Hall Surface
    Artistic Director
    INTERSECTIONS: A New America Arts Festival

  3. Amy Tercek on February 26, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Dear Joanne,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful and provocative blog entry. I particularly liked the image of you trying to “knit thoughts together, to pull the universe inwards.” Such a lovely and evocative phrase.
    My daughters are both college rowers, so the sense of hope and anticipation with the new season rings true. Also, the fierce determination of these young women reminds me of how we’ve changed, and how the whole world is changing with so many determined and spontaneous expressions of freedom.
    Thanks for your words. Amy T.

  4. Elyssa A on February 27, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    This is wonderful Joanne.  Thank you so much for sharing. –Elyssa A

  5. Krishen Mehta on February 27, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    Joanne, I just read your last two blog postings. Needless to say, they raised my spirits.
    The most recent post has a connection to the one before about writers and their words. These writers conveyed the message of spring in the countries experiencing the turmoil, the message of change and hope, and did so inspite of considerable risk to themselves. 
    Your last sentence captures their impact very well: “Writers and their words are like a heat source that regimes try to trap beneath the surface but instead they soften up the ice.”  
    There is a clear connection between writing and conscience. The recent New Yorker (Feb 28) also has a thoughtful article about Haaretz in Israel, and the courage of its publisher, Amos Schocken, and its reporters, Gideon Levy, Dov Alfon, and Amira Hass. 
    Thanks for inviting these insights and giving us the chance to reflect. 
    Regards, Krishen Mehta

  6. Ronny Stoddart on February 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Just as it did for commenter Amy Tercek, this post had special resonance for me, as my youngest daughter Kristin rowed crew for 4 years in high school on this very same river. I used to love watching these strong, committed and disciplined young women come together as one in this beautiful, elegant sport. Not so unlike the strong, committed and disciplined coming together of the freedom movements that are unfolding around the world.
    Thanks for your ever-insightful and beautifully written posts.

  7. Maryann on March 1, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Joanne, I was right there with you reading this piece!  Thank you for sharing this glimpse of your life in Washington.  xom

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