Monday, December 29, 2008

Out of the dark

It's a bad day for me today. I know it's a bad time of year, and a bad time of month, but it's still really bad. I turn 31 a week from today, and I fear this is turning into one of those depressed blogs. There are all kinds of blogs--bread blogs, and knitting blogs, and weight-loss blogs, and entertainment blogs, and etsy blogs. It's ridiculous. I only feel really justified posting when I'm actually doing something.

But there are depressed blogs, too. So maybe that's what this one is now.

My light has gone out. I've been living like a zombie the last however many months. I've been trying to fight the despair with feeble flickers of hope, but I've started to feel like someone keeping a fire lit in the middle of a hurricane. No matter how hard I try, horrible incapacitating sadness reaches up from my belly and grabs my by the throat. I know what Janis Joplin says: "Try. Just a little bit harder." I know what Jesus says: "Be perfect as my Father is perfect." And then in the biggest, fattest lie of the entire Bible: "Your yoke is easy and your burden is light."

I have no choices. I'm being neatly dovetailed into that cultural hellhole that is a nine-to-five job, debt, meaninglessness. Everyone who claims to love me seems to think it'd be good for me. "It'll give you something to do, Melissa. It'll get you out of the house. You'll meet people." They just don't know that all I want is to not feel hurt anymore. To not hate myself exactly as much as I do.

It's ironic, isn't it? Blurting out my deepest secrets to the entire internet, things I won't even tell my closest friends or family, things I won't even tell myself.

I can do it, I know. Get another job like those I've had in the past, lock myself away from the sun during the day, get the certainty of instant cash from the ATM, a little square carpeted cage to house myself in, a little metal cage to take me in between the two. I can find an addiction (maybe even a culturally approved of one!) to dull the pain.

We're all vampires, every single last one of us. I'm just trying to fight it, and failing. I'm not strong enough. I never have been. I'm sorry.

Friday, November 07, 2008

That’s the anthem

My grandfather, born in Turkish-occupied Cyprus, raised in Khartoum. Would he, a Greek exegete, be a "Muslim" to the neo-con email juggernaut?

I’m sitting in my lovely office, with chilled feet, trying to resist the anti-environment desire to crank the electric space heater. Even in Chattanooga it gets cold eventually. The colors are beautiful here, and every day, as I drive up my favorite twisting hill to Haven Crest I’m glad I live in a place where God deigns to turn the leaves gold once a year. The light pouring through the leaves turns the whole world yellow. Then I remember that I’m probably just conditioned by evolution to think that orange and gold and red leaves are beautiful, rather than there being any objective standard of beauty. Then I come home and listen to Bob Dylan and bake and try not to think too much about anything.

Although I can’t help thinking and talking about this historic election, as so many Americans and bloggers seem to be doing these days. No matter one’s politics, one has to be delighted by this triumph of the American dream, the fulfillment of what feels like an eternal battle against racial inequity. I, for one, am thrilled that there will be an American like me in the White House. By “like me,” I mean an American who was raised internationally, with a global citizen’s perspective. That was one of many things that convinced me this time around, that Obama spent many of his formative years in other countries. Maybe I’m prejudiced in favor of third-culture kids (okay, yes, I am), but we have unique perspective on world politics and this country’s responsibility for leadership. I suspect it’s why Obama has proposed diplomatic rather than violent solutions to the world’s crises, and why so much of the world is thrilled with his election.

I admire John McCain as a great American, and I’ve never been more impressed by him than during his concession speech. He deserved better than the boos he received. I’ve admired him for years, but he lost my vote when he, a victim of torture, backed down on his anti-Guantanamo Bay stance, the very same day he received President Bush’s endorsement as the Republican candidate for president. Maybe he makes a better Senator than President, and I believe both him and Obama that they’ll work together for bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.

And the nation’s problems are great, especially here in the south. On Monday evening, in a suburb of Chattanooga, each neighborhood mailbox was stuffed with a note that read, “Get your dogs and get your guns, because a c**n is going to the White House.” I was stunned when I heard that. Stunned to hear that that brand of existential racism still exists anywhere, and particularly here, in an ordinary mid-sized southern city, where people buy organic groceries and ride their bikes to work. Great wounds exist in this nation. I pray that President Obama will be able to heal some of them.

I have fear, especially as someone who has occasional anarchist tendencies. I have doubt, about the abilities of bureaucracy and government to solve any problems. But I also have hope. Isn’t that more important than anything else?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The only thing a gambler needs

Autumn cheesecake, with late-summer southern strawberries

Yesterday was Keatsmas, the anniversary of the birth of my favorite poet, John Keats. I generally celebrate by a recitation of this, his autumn poem. Today I celebrate by retyping it in its entirety.

To Autumn
1
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

2
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

3
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Merry autumn everyone.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Song cry

Late-blooming roses

My prospects are looking up, in ways that I can’t talk about for fear of jinxes. My last post may have appeared more depressing than it was intended. Yes, those are all things I’m thinking, but I have good days, too, like yesterday when I was driving down the twisting hill into the city, surrounded by oaks, the sun beating down. It makes me happy to be in Chattanooga in October. The weather is beautiful, seventy degrees in the day, sunny. It’s getting chilly at night, but no so cold it’s uncomfortable. I can still wander around in shirtsleeves.

I can’t recommend highly enough this article in the New Yorker. Reading it made me feel like God had reached down from heaven and touched me. At sixteen, in the Philippines, I was berating myself already for not having written the Great American Novel. I was certain that in order to be truly great, I had to be young when I achieved success. Not true, according to Gladwell. How thrilling is that?

My other epiphanious moment this week was reading this interview by Andre Dubus III. I haven’t read any of his fiction, so I can’t vouch for it, but I can vouch for his advice:
I tell this to my students — that they are here because they want to try and create art. Something beautiful in and of itself, that lives on its own. That will affect someone that will never love them. And let's try and work and find what those tools are. Good luck. I hope wonderful things happen. But you may as well get into the lesson now that the real prize is just doing it. Everything else is gravy. Even then it's not such gravy. Now you get reviewed. Anyone can say whatever they want. It's not all good. They have this idea, I probably had it, too, that when you have this hard-covered book all a sudden you've arrived. No, now you just have another level of difficulty. Which is the nature of mature living. It's the nature of adulthood. Reach this, and now bigger obstacles. Now I can climb a bigger mountain. Well, good here's the biggest mountain I've ever seen, right in front of me. You climb that. There's another mountain. And this one's got lightning at the top and lava. And there's a big hole...


Wow. After reading that the world was a much more beautiful place. Of course, it doesn’t sound beautiful, with all the back-breaking climbs and volcanoes, but that’s not the point. The point is that I need to be reminded sometimes, often, daily, hourly, that living itself is the destination, as cliched as that is. This week I’ve been struggling, and procrastinating, and debating internally the process of editing the novel I wrote last year and the short story I wrote this semester, or, heck, anything I’ve written, and it seems this insurmountable process, an unclimbable mountain, an impenetrable jungle. My prose already exists, on the page. How can I change it?

That sounds ridiculous. Of course I need to change it. But I see it there (I’m looking at a manuscript lying on my desk right now, staring at me with malice in its eyes) and I don’t know how to begin. How is this word better than that word? Do I need more words? Fewer words? Better words? Different words? I’m stymied, until I give up and go watch Saturday Night Live. Or a Keanu Reeves movie from the eighties, my latest favorite Netflix choice.

Realizing this about myself, though, is helping me accept that I am the second kind of experimental artist that Gladwell speaks of, and reading what Dubus says means that I just have to keep climbing the mountains. Writing is exactly like hiking. Specifically, like the Appalachian Trail. When I arrived at the Pennsylvania border, dreading the infamous rocks, I didn’t realize that the entire trail, state by state, got worse from that point. Every state was harder, more brutal, more impossible. It didn’t matter. I just had to keep walking, putting one foot in front of the other.

For writing, walking is simply spending time in front of the page. I sit here and stare at my manuscript until I take a pencil to it, or scissors, or until I rip it apart and rearrange it. Until I find an entry point. I haven’t done it successfully yet, but once I do, there’ll just be another mountain to climb.

I say this with hope. Knowing that there’s another mountain beyond this mountain makes this mountain feel so much more climbable. It doesn’t matter. Some days, on the trail, knowing the climbs were going to get worse depressed me more than I could bear. Other days, it filled me with hope. I was getting better, and there was more beauty around the bend.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Don’t panic

The Prodigal Son

On the boat, if I were on the boat right now, I’d probably be complaining about something. I’d be complaining about the heat, or mosquitoes, or my rolly anchorage, or the smell from the head. Here I have nothing to complain about but myself, my own indolence--there are no mosquitoes, no movement, no awful stink. I find myself wondering often, if it’s true what I’ve been accused of. Am I a person incapable of happiness? Incapable of contentment with myself? Was I even ever happy at my happiest, which I know remember as my halcyon days on Secret?

In some small, circumscribed ways, all my dreams have come true here. I have a basement turned into an exquisite office. Although I have a part-time job, I have almost limitless time to pursue my genuine career goals. I should be ripping off and chewing huge chunks of world-changing prose. Instead, I find myself thinking of all of the things I want instead of this. A bungalow on the beach. A cabin in the woods. A high-rise in the city. Limitless time. Not just enough time, but limitless time. What I want is nothing less than eternity. Nothing less than perfection, of myself and others.

Jesus said it: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s another of those passages that used to disturb me immensely as a child, not so much in what it stated, but that no one took it seriously. Yes, it says that, everyone said. But it doesn’t actually mean that. Everyone was always saying that about the Bible. I could read it. I read it beginning to end. I knew what it said, but everyone said it didn’t say what it said. I knew it did.

The thing that rankles the most, like a constant toothache, is the thought of my boat. That’s the most imperfect thing of all. I’ve had a couple of buyers nibble at the bait, but I’m not committed enough to selling to reel them in. When I’m lying awake at night, staring at glow-in-the-dark stars, I contemplate options for returning on my own, the one-way ticket that always pops up in my dreams as the solution to all of my problems.

The problems remain, though. The recalcitrant diesel. The headstay. Solo sailing. Transportation. My dad has the same look in his eyes as I do when he remembers the boat, when we see the pictures pop up on the computer screensaver--a pained expression of loss and longing.

And failure. That’s what it boils down to for me. I didn’t have the expertise the task demanded, and I still don’t, and I failed. How can I have any faith that the rest of my life won’t end up the same way?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Went to see the gypsy

I just finished a great book called The Thirteenth Tale, a pulpy gothic novel in the tradition of Jane Eyre, but really fantastic. It’s a very hard thing to do, write a book in an older tradition, and to do it successfully in this day and age. And then to get it published. My dad, who works for a Christian publisher, keeps going on and on about how it only publishes thirty of the 1500 manuscripts it receives a year, and only prints 2500 copies of each book. In order to be a success, the book has to sell out of its first printing and go on to a second, and only twenty percent of the books they publish do that. Only twenty percent of the books even make any money for the publisher. Those are sobering statistics.

Not encouraging news for the nubile young writer. Has there ever been? Meanwhile, all the news is how Americans are reading less and less, and how all of us might as well just give up and go work at convenience stores. So what does one do? I don’t know.

The Thirteenth Tale succeeds because it has a built-in audience: the bibliophile. By consciously echoing all of a book reader’s favorite books, it’s evidently been a success. According to a friend of mine, there was a three-month wait for the book at her local library. So that’s the secret--write a book about books. Who wants to do that?

I've decided to try to make the best of being here, which means making full use of the local library, even if I’m forever placing books on hold and then forgetting to go pick them up, thereby wasting all of the local library’s precious financial resources. I've also invested the $8 a month in Netflix, which I still have a hard time believing is not a waste of money, as much as I love rating movies for hours on end and updating my queue with crazy old Cannes Film Festival winners and Scorsese's early films. My most recent conquest was an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film festival (meaning me in front of a DVD player until two o’clock in the morning).

It makes me wonder whether books are being left behind and movies aren’t really the media for our time. Should I switch to screenplays? Or, better yet, writing for television? I’m certainly not brave enough for Hollywood yet.

I’ve also ended up with a small job at the local YMCA, which at least allows me free yoga. Only it’s not exactly free if it costs me hours of my life. I have yet to find any employment I actually enjoy. All I do is keep crossing things off my list--nope, don’t like that. Nope, not that either.

Still, I'm chugging along. One day at a time, right? Each day has enough trouble of its own, as someone once said. I try not to think about Secret too much, although every time I visit my little web page, with its sailboat floating up in the blue, it makes me wish I could make a living as a mariner. How do people find work they like? Or do all of us, as Thoreau says, merely live lives of quiet desperation?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Enforcers

I've posted a bunch of pictures, going all the way back to June, on Flickr. Knock yourselves out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Pelicans in North Carolina


Or maybe not. How many times have I thought I’ve found a home, only to be abandoned by it or have it abandoned by me? More times than I can count. It’s almost a compulsion. I’m a plant that forever pulls itself up by its own roots. A mangrove, maybe. Sending out shoots in one direction or another, then yanking up the old plant as soon as the dirt begins to feel comfortable.

So I’m back in Chattanooga, a town that knows its own, its own of which I am definitely not one. Chattanooga’s the kind of place where there are obituaries that read Ralph Pickett, 99, native of Alabama, lived in Chattanooga 98 years. The kind of place where there’s actual society, with balls and coming-out parties (for marriageable young women, not alternative-lifestyle aficionadoes), like something out of Austen. The kind of place where one must fake a southern accent to avoid discrimination, where yankees are always damn yankees, and mothers shudder to think their children could marry one.

Nothing against the south. I love the south. Its weather, for one thing, is the best in the nation, as is its literature. One could also make a very good case for its food.

Doors are opening for me down here. The one very good piece of news is that I finished a piece on the Appalachian Trail for a Lonely Planet guidebook, and I’m now completing a second so that I can be considered for one of their contracted freelance authors. A dream job for me, to be sure. I’ve enrolled in a graduate-level course down here, my first return to the ivory tower since my departure from it ten years ago, and I’m beginning to seriously consider a Master’s degree. Argh. I know, right? Members of my family can’t seem to escape the magnetic pull of higher education, even though I swore I would always resists.

More good news, as I’m sure everyone is curious to know, is that Secret survived Hurricane Ike unscathed. Nearly unbelievable. It makes me more confident than ever that I left her in the right place. It’s hard for me to imagine a better hurricane hole than French Wells. I have several buyers interested, but we’ll see if they’re able to negotiate me down to a price that I can live with.

I still long for the sunny tropics, especially as summer draws to a close. But life’s not so bad when people shiver as it drops below seventy degrees, I can watch black-tufted titmice (those are birds) out my window, and I spend my days doing yoga and writing fiction. Things could be much, much worse.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Torrington, Connecticut

Melissa is happy, even though she missed her Jeopardy audition.



Connecticut scenery


Our Connecticut friends rescue us from our Subaru nightmare

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The end has no end

The view out my window in July


I read a great book on the boat, called Coming Up for Air, by Margaret Becker, about a woman who takes a month off from her life just to be by herself in a cabin by the water. It recalled to me Thoreau, and his time by Walden Pond, and how necessary it is for all of us to take time to withdraw and be by ourselves for a while. In it, she makes a commitment to herself to watch every sunrise and sunset for a month. I wish I could discipline myself to do that here, to spend that time of focused meditation with the world around me.

Maine connects me to the earth. The seasons breathe here. They have pith and substance. I can feel each distinct season as a personality--the jolly sunny face of Bacchus in summer, the hard drawn face of Old Man Winter. Each month has its own flora and fauna: the black flies and dandelions of early May, the deer flies and strawberries of July, the long orange light and potatoes in September. It’s a different life up here, the life of 100 years ago, a life that allows me to withdraw from the maniacal speed of the rest of the world.

Even the relief from the burden of television in Aroostook County is a blessing. We get four channels on a good day: two Canadian, CBS, and PBS. It’s great. I find my time releasing from the electronic world and being deposited in my lap again. Here I pick up books, old classics from college, and read them through in two days. Right now I’m reading the Encantadas, Melville’s travel writing from sailing through the Galapagos Islands. Where else, aside from here, and the boat, could I find time to do that?

I took Shadow the wolf-dog on another walk long last night. I’ve been avoiding the walks, partly because I’ve been avoiding him--I’m trying to do a better job at training him, and it’s hard work. I found a fantastic book at the library called The Loved Dog, by a tiny woman, a former member of the Israeli special forces, who now trains dogs for a living. She explains that the way to a dog’s heart is through its stomach. I’ve always known that, I suppose, but it seemed like far too big of a splurge to give a dog things like chicken and cheese puffs in order to get him to sit. But then I began to think: isn’t chicken cheaper than dog food these days? And don’t even the trainers at the Westminster Dog Show use treats to get their dogs to trot obediently behind them? Maybe she’s onto something. So I’ve begun taking a little baggie of treats with us, and I’ve successfully trained Shadow to go swim in the beaver pond and come back to me and his leash when he’s done. I have an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment.

When I went last night it was like the release of a tautly-pulled arrow. Shadow and I all but ran the three miles. When I walk with him, we are pure beast together--united in the run. I am one with my body. He is one with me. Together we hear the gunshots through the forest, the rustle of a bear or a deer in the bushes, an unknown bird song. Maybe, sometimes, I can even hear the sound of the word home, whispered through the pines.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bridgewater, Maine

video

What Karl wants to do next



I’ve been attempting to retain my equanimity. I should be ecstatic--we arrived safely in Bridgewater, after more peripatetic travels. Since leaving Alna, we have visited, in Maine: Newry, Mexico, Rumford, and Bar Harbor. We kicked it trail-style for a little while, even sleeping in the truck one night. It’s one of those ideas that seems great in theory, and works out much less than great in actuality. We were so exhausted and grumpy the day afterwards, that we ended up forking over the big bucks for a motel room, meaning that we would have been better off buying a gigantic car-camping tent for half of what we paid for the motel room and we would have been in the black. We could have even been much happier staying for the entirety of rally race, the stated reason for driving all over the state this past weekend.

We had a great time, though. We attended the New England Forest Rally, the largest race of its kind in North America, carried out entirely on dirt western Maine logging roads, at speeds averaging 117 miles an hour. This sport is Karl’s new dream, his new vision for future adventure: build Subarus at the farm in Maine, turn them over for a profit, and meanwhile put together an award-winning rally car. Actually, I’m not sure he cares at all about awards. What he likes is going fast, just like Ricky Bobby, and since he has 120 acres of dirt road to ride around on, riding around on dirt is what he’s going to do.

That’s all well and good. I’m completely supportive (except for, perhaps, when it comes to $5000 struts), but I don’t see how this adventure can be fully mine. He wants me to train as co-driver, the navigator who sits beside the driver and is the brains of the operation, and that sounds fun to me, but I’m not going to get all sold on this adventure like I was on the last one. I’m not having my heart broken again.

So here we are. The turnip greens look fabulous, as do the burgeoning jalapeno peppers. We have a new possibility for an online business, and this house should feel like home. Maybe it will begin to. I’m supposed to be posting my Secret ad today, online, though, and I keep procrastinating it. I don’t want to take that step. I’m not quite ready, even though I need to be, because I’m already broke.

I just keep thinking of that stupid, stupid engine, not starting, and how naive of me it was to expect it to. My boat sat for eight months and I just feel like such an idiot, with all my talk of faith and destiny and hope and a calling. All I am is a stupid, stupid girl, who left her boat for too long, and now it’s useless and virtually worthless.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Alna, Maine

Karl with Puck, the baby Nigerian dwarf goat


In the earth, nestled right in front of me, is a giant thirty-foot yurt, that our friends from the Appalachian Trail have just put up as their new home. Karl’s inside with Cheers, as he was known on the trail, working on the plumbing system. It’s amazing to me how talented Karl is when it comes to this kind of stuff--he’s already fixed the engine on their rototiller this morning. His dad was a mechanic, his brother a plumber, his specialty is electronics, and with those three skill sets there’s not much he can’t do. Plumbing is his least favorite, but it’s always the one everyone needs help with. This is about the third impromptu plumbing job he’s participated in during the last month.

So I’m sitting in the sun at their picnic table. We drove up from Marion yesterday, stopping at Trader Joe’s for the requisite case of unsweetened soy milk before heading up to Maine. We’ve decided to go to a rally-cross race in western Maine this weekend, which gave us the perfect amount of time to visit the friends we’ve been meaning to visit for four years. It’s astonishing to me, and syncronous, somehow, that the week we had available is the same week they’re moving into their brand new yurt, and that we actually managed to get through to all of our trail friends who live in Maine, even though I haven’t emailed them in years.

I met them, Cheers and Grace, the first week I was hiking. They’re another trail couple, who are now married with two kids. They’re going off the grid, using propane heat and refrigeration and cooking, supplementing with a wood stove, and building a privy instead of putting in a septic system. They cleared this land themselves, cut their own boards with a mill they rented, built the whole platform for the yurt themselves.

We got to sleep in the yurt last night, even though they haven’t moved in themselves, after a delicious dinner of burgers made from a steer Cheers himself named and then slaughtered, with speckled leaf lettuce grown at the local organic farm. Karl has wanted a yurt for years, and his eyes widened when he saw it. Being with them is reawakening our dreams, our trail dreams, of sustainable living and agriculture, of being self-supporting and settled. They’re the right people at the right time. I just have to continue to have faith, as we move through time, that the right path will meet us as we take the next step.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Marion, Massachusetts

Silvershell Beach, in Marion


I’m sitting on the deck here in Marion. It’s 72 degrees, but it feels cold to me. I can’t believe I adjusted that fast to the tropical weather, but I guess I did. I thought it was in the low sixties until Karl just looked at me and scoffed.

There are mosquitoes out here, lazier than the Bahamian Type-A-personality mosquitoes, but buzzing around me nonetheless, so I lit on of the mosquito coils I brought back from Crooked. The smell reminds me of home, wherever that is, even though I’m sure they’re giving me about eight kinds of horrible cancer. It’s worth it. Maybe I can order them online when I run out. Until then, I have to hoard them like gold.

Karl and I have just finished a very intense and tear-filled conversation about our future goals. He’s convinced he wants to live in Maine for a while. I’m not as convinced, but I’m willing to give it a try. I wrote my first Secret ad today, to post in the local want ad. I offered to deliver it, so maybe I’ll still have sailing adventures, if I’m lucky. If anyone reading this post wants to buy the world’s best boat, I know where she’s moored. I’ll post a link to my online ad as soon as I have it up.

The stars are out tonight. Not as bright as at French Wells, but still shining above the corner of the house. I can see the first four stars of the Big Dipper, and it makes me forlorn to think of them shining over Secret in her corner of the world. At least I can see them here. The world is not too much with us that we can’t still see stars.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Nassau, Bahamas, to Marion, Massachusetts

The view out my window this morning


Tonight I go to sleep back in Marion. I’m cold. That’s always my first impression upon arriving, even in July. It’s in the eighties during the day, allegedly, but it’s got to be in the sixties now, colder than it was the whole time I was in the Bahamas. I’m joking that with my tan I at least have my Vitamin D allotment for the winter, but fat chance. At least I can count on some sun here, for two more months. I can go to the beach if I need to, and actually wear a bathing suit! (Although this theory is not one that has been actively tested.) July has got to be my favorite American month. Any month where it heads close to the nineties. In Thailand? May. When the monsoon comes.

Maybe my blog’s new name, post-boat, should be Seasonal Affective Disorderers Anonymous. SADA. Has a nice ring, no? Or maybe I’ll convince Karl to let me trade Secret for a winter home on Long Cay. Then I can have a winter cabin in the Bahamas. Just like Johnny Depp.

I had the craziest experience yesterday on the plane flight back from Fort Lauderdale to Newark--I met an amazing woman, an Irish vegan who leads a meditation group in Florida. We had a brilliant, instantaneous connection, like a light coming on. The last time I remember that happening was with Karl. We had similar bags, and she complimented me on mine, and then we began talking. For those of you who don’t know me in person, let me tell you that I am a deep introvert, although I do a very convincing impression of an extrovert when I need to. I hate talking on the phone. I never talk to people on the plane. But she asked me where I grew up, and I answered Bangkok. I never tell people that when I first meet them. Then she told me she was a Buddhist, and she never tells people that, either.

We ended up talking like long-lost old friends for the full three-hour flight. Then we hung out at the airport for a while longer until we lost each other. I feel like I’ve made my first real friend in so long, probably since Chicago. That’s not true--I’ve made amazing friends cruising. But this was a connection of a different order.

Then back to Karl. We had an awful drive back to Marion, through a two-hour construction delay in brutal Boston traffic complicated by a bad accident, and I wished to heaven I had taken the train. Driving in Boston is miserable, no matter how long it’s been or how in love you are. Here we are again, though. back together. Trying to figure out the next step, the next white blaze on the path up the mountain. It feels bittersweet. The end of one journey and the beginning of another.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Crooked Island to Nassau, Bahamas

The view out my window this morning


Today I left Crooked Island. I watched the island recede into green haze beneath me, looking for a last little glimpse of mast. No such luck. Tonight I sleep my last night in the Bahamas, and tomorrow I head back to the land of burgers and baseball.

Dad and I are unpacking and repacking all of our suitcases right now. I have the absolute maximum amount of luggage. In fact, we should have been charged an extra $100 on our Pineapple Air flight this morning. We discovered that my big suitcase weighs more than sixty pounds, so I’m trying to redistribute the weight. My dad’s an elite frequent flier, so he’s allowed three bags of seventy pounds each.

Most of the weight is books. My darn books. Karl complained about them the whole way down, and now I have to tote them the whole way back. My carry-on is stuffed full of them. I’ll probably be carrying 150 pounds in carry-ons through the airport tomorrow.

At least I’ll have less to worry about if a hurricane hits or Secret sells. I’ll have my precious Joy of Cooking and McSweeney’s and Norton’s Modern Poems. My curse, as a nomad, is my need to carry a complete library everywhere I go. And if I move back to Secret? I guess I’ll just have to tote them all back with me. It’s better than buying new ones.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

French Wells to Pittstown Point, Bahamas

Secret being left behind


Today I left Secret in my wake. She looked so forlorn and lonely as we zoomed off. I wanted to turn around and stay. I don’t know what I want, to be honest. I never do.

We woke up with the weather forecast on the shortwave this morning so we could pack, and I stuffed as much as I could into our backpacks. Dad’s convinced he’s going to have to mortgage his house to pay for my overweight baggage. You don’t understand, I wanted to stay. This is my house. I left all of the dishes, most of the books, half of the clothes, all of the tools. I was doing pretty well, until Dad started freaking out about the engine.

He had taken the fuel injectors out yesterday, and hadn’t put them back in. We had both half-counted on Jorge, the Cuban diesel mechanic, showing up today. I had told him to put off putting the engine back together for a little while, hoping Jorge’d be able to do something with it. Jorge did show up, but not until three, at which point, Dad had been panicking over the engine for hours. With one deft twist of his fingers, Jorge loosened the bolt that both Dad and I had been striving with for days. He really is magic.

He put the fuel injectors back in but left the fuel lines and the air filter off--he promsied to come back and get the things going, which he’s confident he can do. He once rescued a diesel that had been to the bottom of the ocean and back. He just can’t fix the engine today, is the problem. I’m convinced that if we could stay jsut another week, maybe two, he’d have everything straightened out. We just don’t have time. What sailboats need, more than anything, more than even love, is time.

Jorge had to catch the mailboat at five, so we had to leave Secret by four, giving Dad and I about fifteen minutes, once the engine was back together, to put the dinghy on deck, get everything strapped down, off the deck, and shipshape. We didn’t do that badly, but I felt like one of those World War II families, forced to abandon their homes forever in half an hour’s time. If I sell Secret, I may never see her again after today. Can I live with that?

I was in tears as we left. I’m grieving the loss of all of it: the water, the sky, the stars, the heat, my home. The first stage of grief is denial, they say, and I’m firmly there. I refuse to believe it ends this way, not with a bang but a whimper. I’ll be back, I promise. Dad says August. Teh thing is, until she sells, I have an escape valve. Anytime I discover the bravery within myself, I can buy that infamous ticket I’ve been threatening to buy for six months, and hop on that plane. Will I have enough courage? Probably not. But there’s nothing I love more than the thought of escape.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Tropical charms

Another interior shot of beautiful sunlit Secret


Tonight’s my last night on the boat. Maybe ever. I certainly hope not, but I’ve decided I’m putting Secret back on the market, as she is, as soon as I have internet access. So if anyone’s looking for a fully equipped cruising boat that only needs a little bit of installation, I have the boat for you. I’ll gladly assist as crew (or captain, if you’ll have me) on a delivery anywhere in the world.

It feels like the end of an era. It is. Another stage of my life as a professional adventurer is over. When I get back to the land of internet access, I’ll have to change my headline photo and “about me” section. I’m officially no longer a sailor. It feels so final, so sad.

Then again, maybe not... Maybe Karl will change his mind. Maybe she won’t sell. Maybe my dad will be able to come with me in August and we’ll sail off to Georgia...

Or this may be the last time I lay scribbling in my berth, my headlamp on, the trades howling in the rigging, the dinghy slapping the water, the creaks of teak and fiberglass my lullaby. I’ll miss it. I’ll miss every moment of it, even the stinky head and heeling over on our ear while at sea and the lazy jacks keeping me awake, slapping the mast for all they’re worth.

I love you, dear old boat. I hope, I pray, you can find someone who’ll love you as much as I do, who’ll take better care of you than I can. Finding that person I have to leave in the hands of God (and Craig’s List). Tomorrow it’s on to new and even scarier things: a house, maybe. Land. Plants. Winter. It’s all adventure, right?

Friday, June 27, 2008

I'm stuck here waiting for a passing feeling

A late afternoon shot of Secret


I’m more and more optimistic today. We managed (for “we,” read “my dad”) to get all of the fuel injectors out, even though the nuts were completely frozen. Dad had to go about it in a roundabout way, taking the fuel lines all the way off to get out the injectors, but still--we can get lubricant in the pistons now! I’m a little worried that if we get any gunk into the fuel injectors we’ll foul up the engine forever, but I’m not thinking about that.

Better news is that Andy stopped by for lunch to bring us bread and ice and our newly freed-up starter! Jorge, the Cuban magic man, took it apart and put it back together and it’s now working perfectly. I’m completely convinced that if he came out to Secret, he’d ahve the diesel purring again in half an hour. I have promised all the world baked goods if I have such a fortuitous ending.

Somehow, I feel confident that the motor will run before we leave. I’d be so much happier leaving my boat again in at least semi-working condition. I’m going to leave keys with Andy this time, so he can start the Yanmar up every month or so. Everyone we talked to in town, and we talked to fully three diesel mechanics, said that there’s no reason the engine should be frozen, and these are people who have been working with equipment in a salt-water environment their whole lives.

Dad’s talking now, too, about coming back with me in August if Karl is still unable or unwilling. He’s become sold on this project emotionally, and I know the thought of sailing back to Florida or Georgia is one he loves. It’s been a dream for him, too, for an entire lifetime, and it makes me happy that I’ve brought him closer to it, even if his dream resembles more grubby engine work than open-ocean sailing. Before he came, the next time he mentioned being free was December. He even knows a couple of pilots, so we might be able to catch a ride down here, which would be far more economical.

My thought about Secret are beginning to open up. Maybe I’ll find a buyer for her as she lies, or maybe Dad will help me sail her back in a series of successive journeys, or maybe we’ll just be able to take vacations here, hanging out and doing repair projects until she’s ready to move again. Being here, at least, has made me more than ever confident in my friends and confident in the safety of the harbor here. She’s in the best possible place. Maybe everything doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Like a camel when you frown

The beloved Yanmar


My dad woke me this morning, far too early, thrashing around before seven, and I realized it’s going to be a long week. As much as I love him, we’re two big, clumsy people in a very small space crowded with broken parts, scattered tools, and repair mechanisms. I went up on the bow to grumble to myself and sit in the wind and contemplate the prospect of no coffee. No coffee, and my dad and I alone.

After a while, I thought maybe I’d try to propane tank again. The tanks had been remarkably problem-free before, and we had sprayed WD-40 into the valve, so I had a meager hope of success. Dad was already hard at work on the diesel, beginning to remove the fuel injectors, the next step in our ongoing rebuilding project. (I fear this steop may come back to haunt us. But I remain silent.)

And the propane sizzled into pressurized life, the burner lit, and we have coffee after all! Hallelujah! It would have been a very dismal week indeed with no caffeine and no hot food. I spent the rest of the day holding the other end of a wrench for my dad, and reading in the breaks.

I feel some small amount of guilt for reading, but I have all of these books, and I’m going to have to leave most of them behind. My precious, beautiful books--it breaks my heart. So I’ll just read as many of them as I can before I leave. There’s not much room for more than one person at the motor repair station, anyway. It’s precisely the reason I wanted to spend some time here alone--when am I ever going to get the chance again to spearhead a rebuilding project?--but then again, maybe it’s why I didn’t want to be here alone, either. So I didn’t have to.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tonight I’m down on my knees

The view from French Wells


I bought my ticket home this morning. Even though I had set my expectations low, it feels like failure. I’m going home with my dad, not even taking the brave step of staying an extra two weeks. As it turned out, based on the events of the day, maybe it was a wise decision.

Dad and I big a fond farewell to my mom at the airport. It was bittersweet saying goodbye--the end of the really fun part of the trip, and the beginning of the intense and stressful part. I always said Mom should come along because of her optimism, and it will be sorely missed. Dad and I are a little less than optimistic on occasion.

We had heard last week of the existence of a free ferry from Church Grove to Long Cay, which zips right past our boat at French Wells, three times a week, and I was excited at the prospect of a new method of transportation, even loaded with fifteen gallons of water and two big bags of still-dirty laundry. Now, if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that my father is a missionary and a pastor, and that my faith, while conflicted, is a giant part of my life. (See above quote.) You’ll also know that Karl and I have been know to imbibe a glass or two or three of beer or wine on occasion, even though the majority of my family are teetotalers in the extreme. (Which is why alcohol remains, most often, in the subtext.) Still, Karl and I are big fans of fellowship with any locals we happen to encounter, in any situation, we happen to find ourselves, which does, I admit, get us into trouble.

So I set the scene: my dad and I are deposited at Pokey’s Den, with our piles of luggage, to wait for the departure of the ferry. We’d already gotten a hint from David that some drinking might be going on-- “not the ferry driver?” asked my dad-- “I’d be more afraid if he didn’t drink,” answered David. We arrived and I immediately realized that this scene is going to be bad. A culture clash in the extreme. The Crooked boyz are already hard at work on their livers and their lungs, at ten o’clock in the morning, and my dad and I are to sit for two hours watching them.

We’re not ones to sit silent, though, and eventually my dad breaks into Scripture, at which point one of the guys whips out his Bible, which he carries everywhere he goes (in the pocket next to his half-pint, one imagines), and the boys start matching my dad, chapter for chapter, verse for verse. They’re throwing down. “It’s not what goes into a man’s body that corrupts him,” they say, “it’s what comes out.” Touche.

The atmosphere became heated and uncomfortable. Not to mention some of the pointed innuendo directed my way, “Oh, he’s just your father,” people say, meaning: not your husband. These comments came even from Karl’s very best friends from before, who are, admittedly, sloppy drunk.

We did make it back to Secret safely, only to discover that our propane is out and our backup tank is rusted closed and our VHF is malfunctioning. The prospect of a week out here without communication and coffee is dire indeed. I’m happy with the decision I made this morning to come home. My dad said, “I certainly wouldn’t have wanted you on that ferry without a male companion.”

I do hate that limitation. I really, truly don’t believe anyone on Crooked, no matter how drunk, would bring harm to be more my boat. I do, however, believe that every Bahamian with a boat in the greater Acklins/Crooked/Long Cay area who found out a girl was living alone at French Wells would stop by to take their chances, and things could get very, very uncomfortable for me. I say this not out of egotism, but just in acknowledgment that there are so few women out here, and the macho culture of the Caribbean is such that many believe a woman alone is always actively looking for companionship. Of a certain nature.

Maybe I convince myself of this fact to justify my decision a little bit. I do wish I could stay. I wish I were brave enough. There are women who single-hand through the Bahamas, but maybe they’re better able to remove themselves from the local scene, something I can’t quite figure out how to do. Or maybe they simply know karate.

I have far less privacy in the States anywhere I end up, although I don’t generally have to worry about guys hitting on my with tattooed Karl around. The thought of two uninterrupted months on the boat sounds heavenly, if only I were able to stay actually uninterrupted. I guess I’ll have to wait until I’m reincarnated at Kira Salak or someone braver than I am, someone less in need of human presence. Or at least until I take that knife fighting course Karl’s been after me about.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Can’t you help me when I call?

My mom, galley slave extraordinaire


We headed into Landrail Point today on Andy’s brother’s boat. My mom’s flying out tomorrow morning, quelle tristesse, and she wanted the luxury of clean hair for her all-day journey. I don’t begrudge her that at all--she’s been a trooper. It’s not every 56-year-old who’d put up with peeing in a bucket, no running water, and no refrigeration for two weeks.

I even think--hope--she’s had a good vacation out of the deal. She got to eat fresh Bahamian conch, lobster, grouper, and snapper--she found a beautiful little reef crawling with rock lobster and big frilly fish, she lounged on the beach and got a lot of sun and saw dolphins and swam with a barracuda. It’s only the plumbing issues, sail manhandling, and scraping bottom growth that make it less than the Bahamian cruise her coworkers imagine.

So we got a room tonight, a splurge, at Pittstown Point Landing, the one genuine resort on the island. It’s fancy, but still cheaper than the ridiculously overpriced Wyndham we were convinced to stay at in Nassau, and, let me tell you, I appreciate it far more now than I did two weeks ago. I am dismayed that they didn’t let us do laundry, even though the scenery is exquisite. I guess it’s not exactly a backpacker-style hostel. We even got to catch up with some old friends: David, the manager, and the Finleys, our neighbors from the Landrail Point anchorage we used last fall, who are just a short walk down the beach.

Then to the real business of the night. My call to Karl. I must admit, I had lobbied a little bit for Pittstown because I knew they’d have internet access. But my call didn’t go through! It’s been blowing 25 knots here all day, and he couldn’t hear me over the wind. I was so depressed after hearing his sad little voice echo “hello, hello,” for a full two minutes that I curled up in bed and didn’t even really enjoy the beautiful room.

I miss my captain. Secret just isn’t the same without him. Nothing’s the same.

Tomorrow morning I have to make my decision about whether or not I’m heading back, and I think I know what my decision is going to be.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Keep it like a Secret

The view from the anchorage at French Wells


Today we had the worst possible news, my nightmare come true of the last five days. The day started with good news--we were able to remove the starter and discovered that it was, in fact, not working. This news was good to me, even though the nearest available starter is two weeks away. A bad starter is a coherent, manageable problem, easily fixed by a spare part.

Mom and I went for a celebratory swim and conch-diving expedition to the bleached sand bar, at which point Dad decided to try his impromptu manual crank, just to see if the gears are still turning. He had pulled two matching bolts out of the diesel and drilled them through a chunk of 2”x4” we had stashed on Secret, giving himself a four-foot lever with which to turn the crank case. He tried to push down and crack--the wood split, right down the middle. An engine frozen enough to crack a 2”x4” is an engine seized. Fate worse than death.

Now I know that the motor was a $10,000 installation in 2000, and it just seems physically impossible to me. I know boats that sit in Marion harbor all season, longer than my boat has sat here! There’s no water anywhere, and it seems impossible that any could have got in. Still. The facts remain. The dang thing won’t spin.

So tonight I had my first breakdown--tears, bitterness, sobbing. All of the beauty that made me so happy yesterday just makes me angry tonight. How dare it be so beautiful here, and so unreachable? It all seems so impossibly unlucky. Here my fantastic teak-drenched house sits, lined with books, decorated with art and varnish and photographs, equipped with everything I need to live, including months worth of canned food. And it’s all so untouchable. It’s all here, right under my fingers, cradling my body as I go to sleep, and yet I can’t have it; I can’t have the dream. I’ve lost it all: captain, sails, engine.

I ask myself the question I’ve been repeating for the last six months: what am I supposed to do?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Well alright

Andy, our ferryman, holding two lobster


Still no luck on the diesel, still hard at work. We began attempting to remove the starter, which I’m convinced is the problem. Dad disagrees, and continues to focus on his manual crank idea, even though my close exegetical reading of the service manual indicates it should be the starter. We’ve agreed to disagree, however, and I’ve been focusing on the electrical elements of the engine--wiring, connections, fuses--while he works on his crank.

I was pleased to discover that I could easily undo the nuts holding the electrical connections together. I’m sure many readers already know the distinct pleasure of finding the correct wrench for a bolt and then feeling it break free, but it’s a relatively new experience for me, and I love it.

Dad and Mom are trying to convince me to pursue as a career as a diesel mechanic (I can hear it in their voices--anything but freelance writer!), but I think a female diesel mechanic would have as many obstacles in her path as a female single-handed sailor (not to mention my lack of aptitude for either). If there’s anything I’ve learned from these six months of agony and one week of work is that barriers against women breaking free of their stereotypical roles are still firmly in place. I make this comment, dear male readers, not as whining, but as a simple statement of fact. I dare not mention the case of a recent female presidential candidate, although I can risk saying that I am firmly in the center of her thirty-something female demographic who has experienced discrimination in the work force.

More to the point. Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing women is fear. I’m afraid of staying here alone, afraid of mockery for picking up the wrong wrench or touching the wrong wire or undoing the wrong bolt. What I’m learning, though, is that with the right resources--the right books, the right tools, the right vocabulary--I know almost as much as my dad does, and he’s been working on engines since he was a kid? How many women ever learn that about themselves?

Andy stopped by again this morning with much longed-for-ice and an offer: a tow all the way to Clarencetown, Long Island, 40 nautical miles away. It’s a possible way out of my dilemma. Clarencetown, potentially, has a diesel mechanic and a rigger. There’s a marina in town. It’s a safe, enclosed harbor with the town built on the water, and I could have rowing access to communication capabilities. It’s a big offer, and a big decision.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I’ll be on that

My dad enjoying the sun at French Wells


We had a grand adventure today, attempting to row to French Wells, the southern tip of Crooked Island. We decided to abandon our engine project for the day, or at least take a break. Our ostensible purpose was to row past the two abandoned fishing boats in the anchorage and see if they had two bolts Dad could use in the manual crank he’s trying to rig. The current blew us right by them, though, about which I was happy. I’m sure we can find another method for the manual crank, and I have qualms about scoping out other people’s boats, even half-sunk ones, when my own’s been left so pristine.

I was more excited about the journey to French Wells, as was my mom. They say there’s an actual well here, with good, sweet water, although we couldn’t find it. I thought there’d be a trail or an abandoned building or something to help us, but I found nothing but mangroves and sand. It was a great vacation from our vacation nonetheless. I brought my sketchbook and drew conch and landscapes, with Secret bobbing on the horizon. Dad and Mom went for a long walk on the beach, and Dad made a shade home for himself in the middle of a mangrove tree.

He also cracked open the two coconuts which we’d been carrying around with us in the dinghy, and they were perfect--sweet, juicy, full of lukewarm milk, with tender baby flesh. It’s easy to see how I could live out here on coconuts and conch, with a fifty-pound bag of rice picked up every now and again. You could call me Alexandra Supertramp. Maybe if he had come to the Bahamas instead of Alaska he could’ve starred in his own movie.

Instead of rowing the dinghy back against the three-knot current, we dragged it back along the sand bar in the water at low tide, and then rowed it the short distance back across to the boat. Dad doesn’t trust my rowing ability and I don’t trust his, and our oars have definitely seen better days. Dinner was a delicious corned beef spaghetti, cooked by Mom, my resident chef, with fresh steamed crab on our salad, picked by Dad, who hadn’t realized how much work they were when he snagged one. Tomorrow I turn once again to diesel mechanics, but tonight I’ll settle for a low yellow moon rising over the rippling water.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Honey, you are a rock

A fish trap full of snapper


My spirits have perked up a bit. After perusing our service manual, I’ve narrowed down the problem to two possible scenarios: either the solenoid or the starter is shot. The third, worst-case scenario, is that the engine is frozen. I’m not even contemplating that possibility.

So my dad and I spent the day exploring the options. It’s fun working with him, although we both have our own quirks and ideas about how things should be done. We’re trying to do the testing necessary to determine which problem is ours, which involves scrounging up voltage meters and battery-operated drills and tools galore. I’ve never really done a project like this before--following along in a manual and trying to use tools and my own wits to solve a problem. My dad says I have an engineering mindset. Maybe I do.

Even better is that Andy gave us three lobsters and three fish for dinner tonight. So we’re feasting on fresh Bahamian snapper and steamed lobster tails. He left his fishing boat rafted up against ours for the last couple of days, but took it down to Fish Cay today for the running of the snapper. Evidently they spawn during the spring full moon.

He left out fish traps last night with his son, and pulled them this morning, stuffed with snapper. They’re leaving out more traps tonight. Dad’s gotten a little bit psyched about fishing now, and is using the squid jig he bought in Boston with elan. I tried to tell him that I’ve never seen a squid in the Bahamas, but to no avail.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Green eyes

Dad fiddling with an engine component


The news just gets worse. After yesterday’s debacle, my mom and I swam to the island. My mom had expected me to be crying, but I had resolved that using our old mainsail and staysail to get to Clarencetown wouldn’t be so bad after all, as long as we had the diesel figured out. Karl and I had known before we left that we had a problem with some bad fuel, but I was prepared to deal with it. I had bought biocide and my dad had bought a fuel pump, and our plan was to pump out the diesel tank, add stabilizer, replace the bad fuel with good, and get to Long Island with a minimum of engine bleeding.

I say, “was.” Dad woke up this morning all set to pump, but I insisted that we start the engine first. “What good is clean diesel if the motor won’t turn over?” I asked.

Prophetic words. We cranked the generator, hooked up the electrical cables, turned the key to start the Yanmar’s annoying beep, and hit the start button. Click. Nothing.

Now I’m faced with the very real possibility that not only do I have unusable sails, but an unusable diesel. I have bought, for $40, a service manual for the Yanmar, foreseeing my need for it, but never foreseeing the dang thing just wouldn’t start. It was always so reliable, so dependable, starting without fail. How could I be so stupid? So foolish? So naive? It simply never occurred to me that there would be anything wrong with the engine, that we wouldn’t just turn the key and have it hum to life, like it always does.

The horror, the horror.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tonight it shows

Our mast track...


and the new slides.


Today we got our first overwhelming disappointment. My dad and I had been debating for some time our highest priority--he went with the diesel, I, the new roller furler. He’s begun to chicken out of my attempt to scale the mast, even though that was my entire stated purpose for bringing him with me. That, and fear for my life.

So we concurred that bending on the beautiful new mainsail was priority number one. Without it, we can neither sail nor motor. It’s an incredibly gorgeous sail. Stiff, virgin white, crinkly Dacron, our 10158 racing numbers proudly displayed, and at the top the Ranger R, much longed for, in all its radiant glory. I can’t say I didn’t have a lump in my throat at the sight of it.

But. But. I was down in the vee berth, sorting through socket wrenches to find one to remove the pin at the base of the mast when my dad called down. “Come up here, hon,” he said. “I have something to show you.”

I came up out of the hatch, unsuspecting. He had unscrewed a little portion of mast track to see if the slides would go on that way rather than past the bolt, and had discovered that the slides came right off the mast track. I measured the slides. They’re a fraction bigger than an inch. Our mast track is 5/8”. I checked my email--what had we ordered? 5/8”.

Day two, and we have a completely useless, albeit exquisite, mainsail.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

French Wells, Bahamas

Chef-in-residence.


My mom had predicted it would take us one day to clean and organize the boat. I thought that prediction far too ambitious and optimistic, but I claimed all along that we brought her along for her optimism, so I kept my mouth shut. Surprise of all surprises, she was right! We spent most of the day wrestling with our old sails, which Karl and I had stored in the main cabin, a necessary precursor to bending on our new sails and getting Secret ocean ready again.

Andy left his fishing boat rafted up to ours, which gives us a great platform for organization and trash disposal, as well as shade from the sun. My parents have agreed that we’re far less isolated than they had expected, mainly because of the overwhelming generosity of Andy. Fishing boats buzz by every so often, which I had counted on but they had not. They agree that I have not oversold the beauty of the surroundings. Deserted islands ring us on all sides, and a beautiful white sand bar breaks free of the tide every day at slack low. Mom and I are going to swim to it tomorrow.

I spent most of the day putting away old and new gear, going through my dishes and books and tools, my heart singing every time I saw an old candle holder or tank top or fishing lure. All these precious things I had counted as lost feel like gifts given back to me. Even my orange-and-white hibiscus sarong is intact, hanging from its old spot of the fire extinguisher, faded a bit by the sun. For the most part my books are undamaged by water, and the most important thing, my writing folder, is intact with only a little mildew lurking in the corners.

I’m even writing with my favorite green pen right now, of which I had stored a full box down here. I knew I couldn’t buy them in the Bahamas when we set sail from the States, so I knew enough to stock my boat with them--I didn’t know I’d be too cheap to buy a new box of them in the States when I left them in the Bahamas. Too cheap and too stubborn.

Tonight Secret feels more than ever like home. Everything’s put away, the wind has died down, I’m burning a candle rather than starting the generator, and the fond old smell of the mosquito coil rises from the vee berth. When I lit it tonight, my mom, remembering Thailand and harassed by mosquitoes, said, “It smells like heaven!” It does: the heaven of my childhood, and of our sail through the Bahamas.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nassau to French Wells, Bahamas

We arrived at Secret today. At long last, El Dorado. Or so say I. With a fair amount of misadventure, nonetheless.

The first was our luggage, which was sent to the wrong island--Acklins, the next island over. My parents were shocked and disgusted, and I , who have a lot more experience on the island, a little less so. Expect the unexpected on Crooked. That’s all I can say.

It ended up being a better deal than I expected, though. It gave us the leisure to be given a mini-tour of the island by Nappy, to pick up the gigantic quantity of shipped-in boxes that Nappy had been storing for us, to eat a nice lunch of fried grouper at Willie Gibson’s restaurant, and to buy some fresh groceries for our two weeks on the boat. It’s fantastic being back again, seeing all our old friends, especially Nappy. Little had changed--the island is still beautiful, sunny, and remote.

Andy was at the dock with his boat for our trip down to French Wells when our luggage finally arrived, via chartered ferry, from Acklins. The motor down was uneventful, passing the sandy abandoned beaches of southern Crooked, and then I finally saw a mast beckon like a finger. She’s still here. That, the major fear, for eight months, allayed.

Better yet, her floorboards undrenched by ocean water, her teak unstained, even my tools and kitchen implements untouched by too much rust. To be honest, everything is in far better condition than I ever could have expected or hoped. Nothing’s even missing that I can find, aside from a bucket, that probably got knocked overboard. I had faith in the people of Crooked (as they say here-- “da island Crooked, but da people straight”), but I also had doubt in human nature.

Andy’s been doing a fantastic job keeping watch over her, untangling the anchor lines and even moving her to deeper water when she was touching bottom at low tide. Honestly, the anchoring situation’s better than when we left her.

Andy rafted up next to us and made us a dinner of fresh conch salad. I even brought one up on my first swim down here again. The water feels like heaven. This, this is what I’ve been longing for over the last brutal winter. I’m so happy I can still dive. Though the mosquitoes are circling and the generator’s throbbing and stinky, I feel like I’m home. Not a surprise.

For how long, though? How long will I be able to be lulled to sleep by gentle seas? That’s the real question I’ll begin to answer tomorrow. Tomorrow the real work begins.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Nassau, Bahamas

We arrived in Nassau today. I don’t know why home for me is always a foreign country--as soon as I’m on foreign soil I feel like I belong. I’m only belong when I don’t belong. Even the air smells different in a tropical country, heavy, in every way other. The awareness of a whole different wide world outside of this our United States of America immediately hits me.

There are whole civilizations that live, and breathe, and make lives for themselves: mining gravel and growing vegetables and driving taxis, far, far away from the imprecations of our imperial government. Being aware of them again makes me feel like I’m coming alive again, after a long time in the grave. It makes it worse to see all the Americans trekking through in their new brightly colored sweatshop-crafted fashions, their short shorts, their purpose-bought vacation clothes, bought for seven dollars from the discount rack at Old Navy. The contrast between the people living real lives, far away from the unrealities of our existence, is what makes the most striking immediate impression. We float over the surface of rest of the world, like so many Marie Antoinettes with our cake.

Can I really be happy in the US? The pressing question. Maybe the real question is: can anyone?

Abject terror still creeps up on me now that I’m here. Now it’s fear of what I’m going to do when I’m left alone again. Tonight I’m exhausted with the exhaustion of three hours of sleep three days in a row, and the exhaustion of anticipation for everything that lies ahead. I’ll sleep soundly tonight, even with the Boston Celtics on the television.

I leave everything in the hands of God, fate, kismet, synchronicity, whatever your faith deems I call it. For me, more and more by the day, it is the capable hands of Christ in whose hands I leave things. My faith returns to me, the crystal clear faith of my childhood.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Milford, Connecticut

My niece Iris, whom I get to see this weekend!


On the boat, right now, I wonder what’s happening. Are birds circling above? Are fish circling below? Sharks? Rays? The algae on the bottom is growing, cell by cell, unaware that soon I’ll be swooping down on it and scraping with fury. The mildew inside is likewise unaware that soon its reign of terror will be completed. And Secret herself, I hope, knows somewhere deep inside that she soon will be rescued.

Or that’s what I believe, when I’m optimistic. My fear still creeps up on me, generally taking the form of nightmares or irrational panic attacks over things I can’t control. Tomorrow at this point, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be flying high through the atmosphere, above the clouds, heading towards blue water and green islands and the small chunk of fiberglass I call home. Today I’m in Connecticut with my entire family, immediate and extended, celebrating the marriage of my cousin Laura. It’s an appropriate sendoff for us, and though I quail as I tell my aunts and uncles what I’m doing with my life, the general response, instead of pity and terror, is envy. Even though I’m broke, I’m taking a journey that require a semblance of bravery.

What they don’t know is that I envy them--their stability and security. They’ve dug roots for themselves and stretched branches into the sky in a way I can never manage to do, with my compulsive tendency towards constant upheaval. I do crave adventure and movement, but I still want stability. That's why I was so excited about the boat. I thought it was the ideal combination of transience and permanence. I did make it into my home, a home that moved. I love that home, more than I probably should, and I hope I don’t get myself into trouble with it.

I’m trying to build spiritual practice into my life right now, partly as a way to give myself equanimity in case of disaster. I know that that's when I've been happiest, when I've managed to be disciplined enough to build in time every day for calm amid the storm. I've been trying to build habits of meditation and yoga, partly because I know those are practices I can maintain on the boat, but while I know that those things and writing and running are always the things that keep me sane, they're the things I have the hardest time doing. Why is that? I have no idea. I've always been that way.

Now I should probably go and post pictures while I still have internet access, and decide which thing on my life of things I have yet to buy is the highest priority. I know as soon as I land on Crooked I’ll think of a zillion things I should have bought that I didn’t. I hope I’ll be able to do without them. Maybe instead I need time with my family, time to relax, time to enjoy things like clean hotel sheets and plumbing and breakfast buffets and lobster salad and grilled duck breast.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

All that we could always see


Northern Maine woods in June.



I’ve been contemplating, for some time, the idea of a long monastic retreat to decide on my future goals. I thought Karl and I had a five-year plan, but, as it turns out, it was not meant to be. I have fond daydreams of some boat life still working out--we could sail around Maine!--but I suspect that Karl’s heart is no longer in it. So my only question is: is my heart in it enough to do it alone? That’s the question I’ve been mulling over for the last five months. Hence the need for a monastic retreat. Those monks, they help you think, right?

It seems like now I’ve been given some time to think. As you can tell, if you are reading this entry, my plans to fly to the Bahamas, yet again, have gone awry. My plan was to fly to Nassau on June 1 and be joined two weeks later by my parents. Then I discovered the rates for being carted back and forth to the boat at French Wells, eight miles into the mangrove swamps from the nearest road, so I investigated bringing an outboard on an airplane, without much hope. Believe it or not, you can check in an engine on international flights. So my parents and I conferred and decided to postpone my portion of the trip to spend that two weeks investigating repairing my Evinrude. We’ll all fly together on the fifteenth, hopefully with an outboard in tow.

Let me count, though. That’s the *eighth* plan since February:

1. I planned to head down to meet our Canadian friends who were sailing through in early March.
2. I planned to fly down with my brother during his spring break at the end of March.
3. I planned to fly down with two local college kids who are experienced sailors in April, and bring the boat offshore back to Marion.
4. I planned to hire a professional delivery captain to help me bring the boat back in May (his words--”the boat is not oceanworthy.”)
5. I planned to go alone. Screw anyone going with me (although Karl did insist I enroll in a knife-fighting course before pursuing this option).
6. I planned to go by myself at the beginning of June and be joined by my parents two weeks later.

So what is that? Plan G? And that’s amid all the other complications, the weddings, the doctor’s appointments, and Karl’s recovery. To top it all off, our Subaru has broken down. So now I’m not even sure how I’m going to get to the airport in Boston, let alone to any place where I can post this entry, and it leaves my parents (and Karl’s dad, who is now working on the outboard) burdened with more of the tasks for our big journey. It’s frustrating. It also gives me an excuse to procrastinate boat-related tasks, and gives me time to wander around the northern Maine woods, which is good for my mental state, if nothing else.

Wandering around in the woods, I suppose, is a kind of monastic retreat. The contrast between life here and life on the boat will at least help me choose between the two lives. I’m not ready to make that decision yet, but I do feel myself letting go of Secret. Maybe that’s what I had to do to save her. This plan will help me salvage what I can of the dream--give me one last gigantic adventure before I have to let go of the dream. This plan’s the one. I can feel it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bridgewater, Maine

It was 48 degrees here this morning, at the end of May. I’m still wearing a heavy sweater around the house, and a coat when I go outside. Traveling here from Chattanooga took a total of eighteen hours, on--let me recount: a twenty-minute car ride to the shuttle, a two-hour shuttle ride to the airport in Atlanta, a three-hour plane ride to Boston, a four-hour wait in the Boston airport, a three-hour bus ride to Portland, another three-hour bus ride to Bangor, and then, finally, a two-hour ride north into Aroostook County. Bridgewater is a roadside stop you have to request specifically from the driver or he forgets. We drove by and I saw the Subaru, which desperately needs a name, sitting cozily by the side of the road waiting for me.

The crazy thing about the trip is that as soon as I took off from the airport in Atlanta, I was heading north, unrelentingly north, and I just kept going north. Boston is infamous for being cold in winter, colder than Chicago, farther north than New York, but then I got on a bus in Boston and I kept going north. For eight hours. When my parents and I drove up to Chicago to see my sister’s new baby (congrats, Erica!!!), they were shocked to see redbud and tulips still in full bloom. In Chattanooga, by the time we got back, the azalea blooms had already wilted and the roses were in full flower. Here, I doubt they’ve even had daffodils.

Karl shaved his head, my first big surprise, but the second is spring. I don’t think I’ve ever been on Snow Road when there wasn’t actually snow on the road. Sure, it’s a little chilly for us warm-blooded types, but I keep thinking about the things I could grow here. I spent all morning reading about asparagus. Karl’s talked about building a greenhouse for years. Sam, Karl’s dad, has tomatoes sprouting. Shadow, the wolf-dog, is thrilled to see me, and has been trained by Karl to sit respectably while I scratch through his shedding winter coat. No walk yet, as long as it persists in raining.

It is almost inconceivable to me how soon I will be in the Bahamas. I’m beginning to revert to my childhood daydreams when I was on the verge of flying back to boarding school: maybe the airport will blow up. Maybe the islands will sink into the ocean. Maybe I’ll have a mental breakdown. Anything to make me not have to go.

Am I whining again? Sorry. But I don’t want to go. I don’t. I haven’t, since February, and I’ve been trying to convince myself that I do. The point remains, though, that it’s not what I want to do, but it is what I have to do, and the only reason I don’t want to go is because it’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do in my life, and that includes the Chicago marathon and the Appalachian Trail. And I have to do it alone. That’s the hard part.

Still no hotel reservation in Nassau, still no one picking me up at the airport on Crooked, still no ride to the boat, and no internet access in northern Maine. The phones barely work up here. The silence, though, is extraordinary. And there is a neighborhood moose, it is fabled, who likes to hang out in the beaver pond. Canada geese are nesting nearby, with eggs set to hatch. The grackles eat the bugs in the lawn, and the ruby-throated hummingbirds stop by every morning for breakfast.

I could see myself settling into a routine here--walking with Shadow, hiking with Karl, setting the school bus up as a writing studio with a wood stove and spending the mornings in there, aping Thoreau. If nothing else, the County is probably the best place in the entire nation for surviving on an aspiring writer’s income. There’s no need for a day job up here--you can live off the wood you cut, scarred potatoes left behind by the reaper in neighboring fields, a deer shot once or twice a season, and the occasional partridge or rabbit.

I've been reading the blog of a high school friend who has lives in a really remote village in Alaska, and there are similarities between life there and here. It’s mainly a feeling of living a life apart from the rest of the country, unconnected to the cities and the politics and even the television that belongs to everyone else. I’ve always wanted to live in Alaska, mainly because I crave the idea of true wilderness. But the problem with Alaska is the same problem as here: the brutal, unforgiving winter. Could I really make it? I don’t know. I’m not sure I want to try. Many things, including twenty-degree below winters, seem idyllic from afar.

That wilderness exists in the Bahamas, too, and there’s the same ability to live off the land. Could my entire life really be decided by something as boring as weather? How pedantic.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Money doesn't change a thing

Chattanooga, Tennessee

What is it about traveling that makes me want to write? It’s only when I’m traveling that I feel like I’m living. Being static in a place is entering stasis: I cease to be able to function. I’ve always said that I’m happiest when I sleep in a different bed every night. It’s the truth, sadly. I don’t know why it is I can’t be content when I’m stationary.

Maybe the dorm did it, how we had to change rooms and roommates every quarter, carefully packing up our clothes and toiletries and moving to another room down the hall, with a new closet, a new bed, a new comforter. Kids are adaptive, they say. So now I have to have a new space about every fifteen weeks, or I start clawing my face off. No wonder my favorite thing about sailing is having a home that moves. My bed can stay the same, but my view can change. It’s perfect.

Now I’m slowly emerging from my winter cave, coming out of hibernation, finding out how to take the next step, move on to my new place. I’ve been trying to figure out how to break my big news to the assembled public without risking jinxing it, similar to the way I was unwilling to start my Appalachian Trail journal before I actually took my first step. Tomorrow I fly from Chattanooga to Boston, and ten days from now I fly to Nassau. By myself.

What am I feeling? Sheer, abject terror.

I still don’t quite know why I feel the need to go. Maybe it has something to do with Secret being my only earthly possession and my only financial asset. Maybe it’s my endless longing for something new, some new adventure, a new superhuman challenge for which I am anything but prepared. Maybe it’s wanting to finally have some time to myself, and where better than off the coast of a deserted island? Or maybe it’s just wanting something good to come out of this disaster.

There are still many details to be worked out. As of right now, my plan involves getting off the plane on Colonel Hill, and, if all else fails, walking to the Church Grove dock and rowing the dinghy, with my stacks of gear, the seven miles to the boat. I hope those who were my friends will still be my friends, and I can at least hitchhike, but this I know: I have legs. I have arms. I’ve walked 3000 miles. I can make it to my boat.

That is, after all, what this adventure is all about--self-reliance. Autonomy. I’ve been accused in the last four months of being self-pitying, of acting like a victim, of blaming my problems on others rather than taking responsibility for them myself. So I’m stepping out, and I’m taking a risk. My current mantra is, “leap, and the net will appear.”

When we left Marion last time I wrote about how happy I was to be leaving it in my wake, which wounded some people. It's not that I don't love this country, or my friends and family, it's just this is so, so where I don't want to be. I want to be with Secret. I’ve wanted to be with Secret for months now. The question has been do I want to be with Karl or with Secret more? I know long-term I don't have to choose between the two, but the process of doing all of the repairs and sailing may take months. Do I want to spend that time away from Karl? And do I really have the courage to do that by myself?

I still don’t know, but I’m following my path as well as I know how, and I pray that my faith will be rewarded.