Kiting in a Time of COVID

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Writer: Erin Bank

Photos: Erin Banks & Kirk van Druten

July 2020: deep in the doldrums of the COVID-19 pandemic, my partner and I were restless and morose. He, exhausted from a stalled-out job search and never-ending chatter on the Facebook forums he helps manage. Me, exhausted from a constant balancing act between health and depression and a new reality of working from home.

These were struggles shared by a nation, and indeed the world. In the US, every conversation seemed to devolve into a debate about mask-wearing and personal freedoms. Frustration and fear were palpable.

As a relative beginner, I had been watching conversations on online kiteboarding forums feeling like a bit of an outsider. I admittedly contrasted what I saw there—cries that a post was “political” if it even mentioned the virus affecting all of our lives, tips for sneaking around no-parking rules in order to access a beach despite shelter-in-place orders—with what I saw in the running community that I’ve been a part of for much longer. For the most part, conversations among runners were laments about trail access being closed, missing our running partners, and the best way to deal with face coverings that are pesky with heavy breathing.

I stuck to the roads as the spring and summer wore on, as I couldn’t access the more beginner-friendly spots in the Bay Area under shelter-in-place rules. The windy season was blowing by me, in a year I had resolved to spend more time on the water and finally nail my transitions and consistently stay upwind. It was one of a long list of things I had to let go of due to the pandemic. A list that also included trail races, making a major job change, visiting family spread over the country, a writing retreat, travel to conferences, and summer vacation.

Except early in July, it occurred to me: I still need a summer vacation.

A few years ago, my partner had driven up the Northern California coast to Oregon, and spent a few days at Floras Lake. He thought this would be a perfect road-trip destination. Although winds blow off-shore and are gusty as they come over land, it would be possible to do our, by now well-established, routine of laps: me riding until I got to a spot downwind, handing off the kite, and walking back up the beach while my partner rode back upwind.

And so, I cleared my calendar full of Zoom meetings, set up an out-of-office email response, and drove north.

I have anxiety that causes me to masterfully over-analyze pretty much any decision, major or minor, from what to eat for lunch, to when to go for a run, to what I want to do with my life, to understanding why people won’t wear masks, to dismantling systemic racism.  I become convinced that I have the answers, a perfect solution, if only I can think about it enough. This constant whirring eventually shorts out my brain, leading to depression. There must be something wrong with me, that I can’t figure it all out and come up with a solution.

It is this contradiction that triggers my mental illness: the hubris that these problems are mine, alone, versus the self-doubt that I am not good enough to even bother trying to find ways to solve them.

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On the trip, my brain had room to just exist. Every day was simple, because there were few decisions to make. I had to think through very little because choices were limited: one thing to eat for breakfast (oatmeal), one activity for the day (kiteboarding), one market to purchase dinner supplies (and $5 growlers of beer), one evening activity (conversations by the campfire). My brain had nothing to over-analyze. I had nothing to compare my days to, which meant very few “shoulds” popped up (I should be running every day, I should be writing more, I should at least get out the trainer kite and walk around Ocean Beach, I should be making bread and learning a new language and doing push-ups every day and…).

And then there was the kiting. Kiteboarding necessitates focus and kind of a meditative state (especially for me since I’m still progressing and have a lot to think about while I’m riding). When I’m focused on dealing with a sudden gust that lights up my 7m Switchblade, deciding if I can stay upwind of a jet ski giving a lesson, working out the timing of a transition, there isn’t a lot of space for my brain to wander. To over-analyze. I can’t ruminate over problems at work, or even to worry about a pandemic or politics or racism or misogyny.

Unlike running, where my brain can wander because the motions are auto-pilot for me, I come off the water feeling like I had been nowhere except perfectly in the present moment.

What a lesson in knowing that I don’t have to be analyzing every problem I care about all the time, trying to solve it all the time, in order to still care very sincerely about the problem. It didn’t feel like I suddenly forgot about these huge issues. There were still fireside chats about how we got here and where we’ll go from here. But the pressure was off because I had given my brain—kiting had given my brain—some time off to just be. I could connect with the most basic part of myself, the part that cares deeply, without all the noise of needing to immediately jump to a solution. Like kiting, deliberate transitions must come before jumping.

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