My Grandmother Helen passed away this afternoon. Can you imagine witnessing almost a full century? Her life spanned the home radio to the Apple watch. I don’t have my full files on the boat, but I have been going through what I have and finding a few shots from her life, included here below. She was our matriarch, our oldest living family member, for quite some time. Now my parents are the official leaders of our tribe, and they have concluded a long and heroic chapter of eldercare. My siblings and I are lucky to have parents that set such a great example of how generations care for one another.
F and I are in Hampton, VA, and so this morning I visited the Emancipation Oak, gave it a hug, and said a prayer for Helen, my parents and All of Us. May we be free in the ways each of us are seeking.
Now that we have migrated up and down a few times, we have had the benefit of exploring many costal towns during high and low seasons. This summer, F and I charged into Ocean City, MD on a high of saltwater taffy and crab cakes. This time through, in November, reveals the seasonal economic malaise that strikes many tourism-reliant towns.
In July, I poked around outside of the amusement area in a sport fisherman’s paradise, among low-key beach homes and newer upscale residential on the waterfront:
November highlights where resilience is lacking:
How many places do you know that look like this for eight months out of the year? How do full-time residents cope financially, culturally, and socially?
My personal mission is to heal the divide between me and the environment. Sometimes that looks like community and land use planning, but more recently that looks like sailing up and down the East Coast. I would like to try explaining what I get from this life on a sailboat. You know that What People Think I Do/What I Really Do meme? I should probably just make one of those sometime.
On land, I had developed an out-sized stress response*. It is something that sort of sat on top of me for most of my twenties, then sat politely beside me in my thirties as I gained some perspective, “invited it in for tea”, and other hipster nonsense. I think many have this to some degree – a full fight-or-flight response to something that is decidedly NOT a predator in the wild.
Over time, my adrenal system was trained to treat every risk of even small failure as a life-or-death situation. It’s a long line of fallen dominoes that I can follow right up to where I am today, through the tough decision to change my life and career, the unlikely events of becoming an Italian psychologist/sailor’s bride, and ultimately leaving land full time.
When I am offshore for a few days, after the watch routine settles in and the discomfort of transition wanes, I have the following experience. I feel cold, rain, waves and wind. I see stars, moon, sun, birds and bioluminescent plankton. I steer the boat, and check instruments while I maintain my own personal safety and support that of my husband and boat cat. We work as a team, we have to communicate clearly but efficiently because there is not much surplus time or energy. When a threat arises, like a squall or too-high winds, or too-cold weather or too-hot sun…then I feel fight-or-flight in the appropriate context. The crisis passes because the response works (!), we complete the leg, we come to shore, and I can walk back arm-in-arm with my stress response all the way to “normal”.
Its like therapy in reverse – instead of trying to bring the mind into context with the body, sailing brings my body into context with the mind.
Here is where this swerves from the personal to national politics, as every damn thing does now, apparently**. I want to challenge you, dear reader, to consider a deeply-rooted pattern of your own. Maybe one that doesn’t often see the light of day. Is it based in fear? What would happen if this fear was removed, even for one moment?
Relief from fear offers me moments of clear purpose, compassion and love for others, and enough mental space to act on that. With practice, maybe I can live this way “full time”.
*If you worked with me, you may or may not have noticed it (I say that winkingly to my friend-colleagues, who totally saw this, and whom often helped me along or were caught up in my stress by proximity. Ps. still thx and sorry). My best friends for sure know what I am talking about, because I grappled with it as it progressed. Before any big deadline, meeting, presentation, whatever cumulative professional moment, no matter how prepared I could be, my body would physically go through the same process – insomnia, anxiety, and tunnel vision on the work until the moment of the thing. Then, after the thing, during which I would typically appear pretty calm and capable, there would be a second cascade – reviewing the thing over and over to evaluate my part, waves of self doubt and beating back negative thoughts of shame, guilt and remorse. People, I am talking about all this over a half-hour talk on water quality monitoring – to a room full of nerds like me.
**I hear from some NYC friends that they feel like they have lived in a bubble, couldn’t imagine the turnout that turned out for Trump. Inside of NYC, my life, work and relationships challenged me daily to (imperfectly) develop my own ability to serve as an ally for peace and justice. I owe this refrain to Alexie Torres Flemming, and the still-unfolding slow knowledge I gained from working with her. Today, I have to be grateful that my last few years as a nomad expanded my worldview to include more political diversity, especially among people who look just like me. While I will never be silenced by racism, sexism or the idea that anyone is more or less “legal” than me, I can see how each of us arrives at our own worldview through authentic lived experience, and how each of us can be so deeply affected by our fears that we might be moved to behave against our own best interests.