“Mawage is wot bwings us togevvah today. Mawage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam within a dweam…”—the Impressive Clergyman (Peter Cook) in The Princess Bride
This August, Jay and I celebrate 25 years of marriage. While we try to do something special every year commemorate the beginning of Us, this feels like a milestone. I know it’s only silver, half-way to the golden 50th, but these days, that’s a big deal. And whether due to death or dysfunction, neither our parents nor our grandparents made it to the golden anniversary and so we’re even more determined to keep going!
Recently, I have been contemplating what this relationship means to me. I watched a young couple get married on a quiet beach one morning in June. It was just the two of them, barefoot, with an officiant and a photographer for a witness. I was remembering my own wedding, the promises we made before we knew what they meant, the giddy feeling that is equal parts joy and terror, and how far we’ve come in the intervening years. What we did with our family—leaving the beaten track to follow our dreams and live an adventurous life—would not have been possible without the stability our marriage, the partnership based in love, teamwork, good communication, and hard-won problem-solving strategies. What is this “dream within a dream” we call marriage, and why is it worth fighting for? Though the global divorce rate hovers around 50%, we all know that a good marriage is more than a flip of a coin. These are my reflections after spending a quarter of a century with the same person.
The promise I made on my wedding day was not only to Jay, but also to God. Marriage is not merely a contract between two people, but a covenant made before and with the Creator. It is a promise to stick it out and treat each other with love and respect regardless of changing circumstances, and not merely a legal arrangement between two people that can be easily broken when one person doesn’t uphold their end of the deal.
Because we have children, this covenant involves them, too. By promising to work out our difficulties and stay together, we provide stability for our family. We are also setting an example, and we want our kids to be in relationships where mutual respect is the norm, where they feel safe to be themselves, and where conflict can be resolved.
The benefits of staying are things you can only learn by staying. Romance is magical, honeymoons are wonderful, and early marriage is full of both mountains and valleys, but “middle marriage” is when maturity happens, when (ideally) you have stopped trying to change your partner, stopped expecting the impossible, and have even begun to appreciate the things about him or her that you might have complained about at the beginning of the marriage.
Love is not just a feeling, it’s also a choice. We may describe love as something we can fall in or out of, like an accident, but the kind of love that makes a marriage work is purposeful. It involves a lot of hard work and forgiveness. Unconditional love is demonstrated only when challenges are faced, when potential conditions present themselves. Sometimes, love is how you act toward another person despite the way you feel at the moment.
Sex is important, but it’s not everything. Our culture celebrates sex before marriage and makes fun of sex after marriage. But a good sex life in a committed relationship is a rare and beautiful thing. It can promote bonding, build trust and communication, encourage selflessness, add fun and pleasure, prevent infidelity, and create new life. Over a lifetime, a couple’s sex life will go through many transitions, but if intimacy and communication are at the center of the relationship, sex complements the emotional bond, but doesn’t make or break it.
Love is like your favorite pair of old shoes. At this point, our relationship is comfortable. We have begun to take our marriage for granted and can finish each other’s sentences. But comfort can lead to complacency, so we still have to do the little things that say “I love you.” We need to take care of the old shoes so they last a long time.
Love never fails. That’s what it says next to the date engraved on the inside of the gold wedding rings we exchanged. And I still believe it. I may fail, Jay may fail, but love itself—the Eternal Source of love, the power of love, the feelings that follow the choices to love—these things do not fail. When we pick ourselves up after a failure and try again, we witness the power of this kind of love that doesn’t quit or walk out. It is, perhaps, the best demonstration of the gospel: we have a God who loves his people unconditionally, a God who forgives, a God who is faithful. The fact that we survived and stayed happily married despite raising five kids on a boat is a modern-day miracle! By the grace of God, we still love each other.
I read a book with a group of friends this year by Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? His observations are timely and echo my own sentiments: “I love marriage, and I love my marriage. I love the fun parts, the easy parts, and the pleasurable parts, but also the difficult parts—the parts that frustrate me but help me understand myself and my spouse on a deeper level; the parts that are painful but that crucify the aspects of me that I hate; the parts that force me to my knees and teach me that I need to learn to love with God’s love instead of just trying harder. Marriage has led me to deeper levels of understanding, more pronounced worship, and a sense of fellowship that I never knew existed.”
I don’t know what curve balls the next few years will throw at us, but because our love is based on something transcendent, something that lasts even after we are gone, we face the future with optimism and hope. In the immortal words of Westley (Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride), “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for awhile.”
Three years ago this week, we returned to Florida after a 5000-mile circle of the Caribbean. We have never stayed in one place so long, and due to my incurable wanderlust, I am itching to go cruising again. We came back to the U.S. to pursue some important goals–many of which have been crossed off our list. Our three oldest kids completed two years each of college, and have their own vehicles, jobs, activities, and plans for the future. Jay rebooted his career. I published a book. Sam competed in his first Jiu Jitsu tournaments. Rachel participated in her first dance recitals. We’re taking care of some much-needed boat projects. We took an epic road trip. We adopted kittens. We have gotten to see our families a lot more than we did while traveling, even though we miss sailing and island-hopping.
The emotions I feel when I see this picture from three years ago are not merely nostalgia and longing, but also deep gratitude and a sense of accomplishment. We did it! When we were teenagers, we dreamed a dream that we never gave up on. We left a comfortable life in suburbia for a harder, but more rewarding, life on a boat. We have paid the price and also reaped the rewards of that choice. We homeschooled our kids, we learned new languages, we made friends from all over the world. We saw the incredible beauty and diversity of nature. That we were able to do these things is an incredible privilege, one for which we are so thankful.
In a world that sometimes feels like it’s falling apart, in the middle of grieving losses, amid illness and disruption and disappointment–I am so grateful. I wrote a blog post many years ago called “Store It Up” , documenting a beautiful day, a snapshot of words, if you will, that I could take out and savor on a rainy day. I have hundreds of these memories stored up. In retrospect, there is nothing I would trade for these days–no amount of money, spacious housing, comfort, or luxury. It was worth every sacrifice.
I say this not to gloat, but to encourage. If you are in a position to buy an experience instead of a gift, if you are considering doing something different with your life, if you want to go on an adventure with your family but are feeling uncertain: do it. There may be risk and difficulty, it will most assuredly not go exactly according to plan, but if you “collect verbs and not nouns,” you will never regret it.
The crew of Take Two is setting off on their own adventures. Aaron graduated from high school in December and applied to Universal Technical Institute’s Orlando campus to study automotive and light-diesel repair, as well as doing some Ford-specific training. He moved into an apartment with roommates from the school, transferred to an Orlando Advance Auto Parts store, and started classes at the beginning of April. It’s an intensive, hands-on, one-year course that will give him an Applied Sciences degree and have him well on his way to being a master mechanic. He’s feeling enthusiastic about the program–he was not enjoying the academic track he was on at the College of the Florida Keys. We are not surprised, as he was always the tool-kid, the take-your-toys apart kid, the I don’t-want-to-read-and-write kid. He’s finding his own path to success, which is what we always wanted for each of our children.
Sarah is in Colorado for the summer, working at Wind River Ranch, a dude ranch outside of Estes Park. It is her first time away from home, and she is loving the work and the social aspects of the ranch.
We are now just four aboard—Jay, me, Sam, and Rachel. As we have noted before, every time someone joins or leaves the family, the chemistry changes. I find it strangely quiet. The two youngest crew members used to bicker like crazy, but they are suddenly getting along great. There’s not even conflict over the chores, which now have to get done with fewer helpers. Then again, there’s less laundry, fewer dishes, and less clutter. We are finding a new rhythm, and I am realizing that as our kids get older (and move out), I will have plenty of time and energy to write.
Below is an excerpt from my journal, written while I was in Colorado with Mary and Sarah, during our weeklong stay in Estes Park, before we dropped Sarah off and flew back to Florida without her. I shed a few tears as I hugged her goodbye but managed not to be embarrassing. Even though you prepare yourself for the day your kids leave, it is still bittersweet.
May 16, 2022
In my life before children, as a kindergarten teacher, I remember the weepy moms in the hallway on the first day of school. As a homeschool mom, I have been able to delay this day of “dropping off” for about eighteen years, but still it must come, as inevitable as time itself. Now I am the weepy mom.
We have spent a wonderful week together, my mother-in-law/best friend Mary, and my oldest daughter Sarah. We rented a little cabin on a hilltop with a panoramic view of the mountains, and have made the most of our time here—hiking in gorgeous spring weather in Rocky Mountain National Park, shopping for necessary items like boots, jeans, and a cowboy hat in Fort Collins, making fires on chilly mornings, watching chick-flicks, working on jigsaw puzzles or playing games, and sharing good meals.
It is mid-May, but there is still snow at the top of the trails we have hiked in the park. We step over slushy ice, muddy patches, and the dribbling brooks of snowmelt, the remains of winter. These drips and dribbles gather into brooks and streams, which gravity takes trickling over rocks and tumbling over waterfalls down into the valley, delivering rushing water to the Big Thompson River that runs through town, and then through a mountain gorge with flash flood warning signs, to the base of these majestic peaks. This water, which once fell as tiny ice crystals from a cloud, ends up hundreds or even thousands of miles away, some of it eventually making its way to the salty ocean at the mouth of the Colorado River.
Sarah has just turned eighteen, the same age I was when I left for Middlebury college in Vermont. How callous I was then, hugging my parents goodbye outside my dormitory! They unloaded not only my stuff, but also a part of themselves, and until now, I had no idea what that must have felt like, how devastating it is to say goodbye to a daughter’s childhood. But just as a droplet of water runs to the ocean, only to be picked up and dropped again on a distant mountain peak, so goes the cycle of life. It is a joyful, painful experience, not unlike childbirth: watching my children become adults and begin their own adventures.
I finally did it. I took my Caribbean rum collection to a Mom’s Night and did a tasting tour of the islands. The bottles have been sitting half-empty in the bottom of our pantry–the oldest ones since 2016 and the newest since 2019. It wasn’t exactly a temperature or humidity-controlled environment, and some had decidedly not improved with age. Then again, some were not particularly good to start with! Did the Puerto Rican Don Q Limón always taste like Lemon Pledge polish? What happened to our favorite St. Lucian rum, Admiral Rodney, that made it taste like cheap cologne? It was worth a few laughs, anyway.
After tiny sips of rums from a dozen places, we finished off with my favorite, the Guatemalan Zacapa 23. And then had Bahama Mamas, my favorite fruity cocktail. It was fun to relive, by taste and smell anyway, the 5,000-mile voyage we took on Take Two.
Today I sorted the remaining bottles by drinkability. Some got stored away and others got poured out and recycled. It was cathartic to clean out that space. I realized that we have these wonderful memories, and I don’t need to keep all the detritus around to remind me. You would think that someone who lives in a small space would know better than to store souvenirs, but I admit that I am a sentimental fool. I bought necklaces, tiny art, and artifacts at open-air markets, and picked up shells, seaglass, and rocks on countless beaches from the Bahamas to Bonaire and from San Blas to Belize. I am now asking myself: “Am I keeping this stuff because I am afraid of forgetting?”
Those who make travel a lifestyle, as we have, are like gluttons at a smorgasbord of new places–we feast on new cultures and languages, new sights, smells, and tastes. We collect new friends like mementos. When I’m traveling, I may have a pang for the familiar occasionally, but the thrill of exploring pushes it out of my mind. When I come back from a long sailing trip, it feels so good to slip into comfortable old habits and visit old friends and old haunts that the opposite happens. The longer I stay, the more it feels as though the travels were just part of a nice dream from which I have awakened. A souvenir is like a talisman that can magically transport me back to a place I have been, a hint that jogs the memory and reminds me it was very real.
I felt a little melancholy when I poured out the Marigot Bay St. Lucia Coconut Cream, because it smelled so good, almost as if the place itself was going down the drain. On the other hand, it had turned a funny color, and I was using precious space to store something I will never use. Perhaps this is indicative of the stage of life we are in. Every time I clean something out, like the cabin my son Aaron inhabited until he left a month ago for a new life in Orlando, I have to admit that nothing lasts–that travelers must eventually come home, that children grow up and leave on their own adventures, and that everything in life is, ultimately, ephemeral. As with rum, experiences must be savored and enjoyed as much as possible, in the moment. Their very fragility is what makes them precious. I have come to the conclusion that is fine to keep some reminders–humans are forgetful, after all–but not to be weighed down by them, or to attempt to live in the past.
While we’ve been “holding station” and busily working on Take Two’s water tanks, launching our teenagers, homeschooling, and making a living, I’ve also been writing something new. My morning routine (based on Hal Elrod’s book,The Miracle Morning) has been so beneficial that I want to share an entry from my daily journal, which is slowly becoming a new book of daily readings, Deep Calls to Deep (working title). Here’s a sneak peek:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” —Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthian Church (chapter 4 verses 7-8)
I have a jar full of sea glass that I have found during our travels while walking on the beaches of various Bahamian and Caribbean islands. I have collected the pieces one at a time, meandering slowly while looking down, searching for anything that stands out against the sand like a colorful gem embedded in rock.
The collection is a mixture of beautiful earth tones that borrow their hues from the sky and ocean: the frosty white of clouds, the turquoise of shallow water, the green of mangroves, the brown of sand, and the cobalt blue of the deep sea. It is a treasure made of up of broken, but not crushed, glass. The edges have been worn smooth by the tumult of wave motion against sand.
And this is the lesson I take from sea-glass: we too can be made beautiful by hardship. Our rough edges are sanded down by mistakes from which we have learned, by trials we have survived, by pain we have overcome. If we find the grace to forgive and change hurt to compassion, even the suffering we have undergone can round our sharp corners.
Everything in God’s kingdom can serve a purpose: not just the joys we experience, but also the adversity we face and the burdens we share with others. It is the ultimate trash-to-treasure recycling program—the wonderful upside-down nature of God’s love that makes “all things work together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 8 verse 28). Without the hope that our suffering will serve a purpose, many of the hard things in life would be cause for regret, bitterness, or despair. Knowing that good can come from bad is a source of peace in a turbulent world.
What mistakes or hardships have you experienced that later brought you wisdom or led to something good in your life? Are you experiencing regret, bitterness, or despair? What would it look like to let go of it and see God use it for good? Write down one hard thing for which you can give thanks-in-advance and revisit this journal entry later to see if anything good has come out of it.
Once a year, I make a loaf of this tasty bread to go with the corned beef, potatoes and cabbage cooked in our 20-qt Kuhn-Rikon pressure cooker. Recipe below!
Irish Soda Bread
Prep time: 1 hour+
Makes: 1 large loaf, about 8 servings
1 and 3/4 cups buttermilk (or plain yogurt mixed with milk/water)
1 large egg
4 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons butter, cold and cubed
1 Tablespoon caraway seeds (optional)
1 cup raisins (optional)
Preheat oven to 400°F. Oil a 10-12 inch cast iron skillet (or baking sheet). Whisk the buttermilk (or yogurt and milk/water) and egg together. Set aside. Whisk the flour, granulated sugar, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl. Cut in the butter using a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour in the buttermilk/egg mixture. Gently stir the liquid into the flour mixture, folding in raisins and caraway seeds (if desired). Stir until dough begins to form a ball. Place dough ball on a floured work surface. With floured hands, work the dough into a ball as best you can, then knead for about 30 seconds or until all the flour is moistened. If the dough is too sticky, add a little more flour. Transfer the dough ball to the skillet (or baking sheet). Using a very sharp knife, score a cross 1/2 inch deep into the top. Bake until the bread is golden brown and center appears cooked through, about 45-55 minutes. Loosely tent the bread with aluminum foil if you notice heavy browning on top.
I was on a mission this morning to get something out of my car, which is parked in the driveway at my in-laws’ house where Rachel and I have been visiting. I woke up this morning, as I often do lately, feeling troubled. I filled my gas tank yesterday and it cost $114. This was a reminder of the horrible conflict happening in Ukraine, and how something seemingly far away has an effect on everyone, because we are all interconnected. I have a friend whose marriage is collapsing, multiple friends whose teenagers are struggling, and a family member beginning cancer treatment this week. And yet–I was stopped in my tracks by a rose, it’s glowing face turned to welcome the morning sun. I could not walk past it; it demanded attention. I needed to know if it smelled as beautiful as it looked. It did not disappoint. And then I chuckled, because stopping and smelling roses is something I often advocate, at least metaphorically, but rare is the rose in the subtropical climate where I live.
Here’s what it means to stop and smell the roses: to be arrested by that which is lovely; to think, if just for a moment, about something other than war and cancer and teen suicide. It is not to deny or ignore the loss and pain happening in and around us, but to acknowledge that even this dark and broken world there are moments of clarity and delight, things that seem absurdly out of place sometimes. It is to change our focus. Amid some hardship, we may be told to look at the “big picture,” to see a rough time as a chapter, and not the whole story. This isn’t bad advice, but we can also zoom in on the details, and know that even when everything looks grim, there is breathtaking beauty—it reminds us that there are always things for which we can be grateful.
Stopping and smelling roses becomes a kind of prayer. Despite the horrors I see on the news, despite the gaping pits of sadness around me, despite the inevitability of death: thank you! Thank you for this freshness, this loveliness, this reminder that all is not lost. Thank you for growth, for a new day, for life itself.
Stop and smell the roses. Do not be overcome by despair. As long as there is life, there is hope.
(If you have not read it, I recommend Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, a book that helped me form a gratitude habit.)
This is the text of the speech I prepared to give at the Marathon Library Tuesday, March 1, for those of you who couldn’t be there but want to know what I said. Of course, after the first five minutes, and knowing most of my audience, I went off-roading and barely looked down at the outline on my notecards. So this isn’t exactly the talk that I gave!
I. Welcome and Introduction
Good evening, welcome, and thank you for coming. My name is Tanya Hackney: I am a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, a wife to my high school sweetheart, Jay, and mother to five children (Eli, age 20, Aaron, 19, Sarah, 17, Sam, 15, and Rachel, 10). I am a public-school teacher who shifted to homeschooling my own children aboard a 48’ sailing catamaran, Take Two, in 2008. I’m a liveaboard sailor, a ukulele player, and a writer. My book, Leaving the Safe Harbor: the Risks and Rewards of Raising a Family on a Boat, was published in October of 2021, and much to my surprise, won several awards and spent some time on Amazon Best Seller lists.
This evening, I want to give you a little “behind the scenes” tour of my book—where I come from, what it’s about, and why I wrote it. For about 25-30 minutes, I’d like to talk about what it means to “leave the safe harbor,” to find the adventure life offers, overcome the fear that holds us back, learn to live now so we won’t have regret later, and to keep the promises we make to ourselves. At the end, we’ll have some time for a Q&A, and then if you would like to purchase a copy of my book, I will be signing them and giving a portion of the proceeds to the library.
I’d like to begin with two quotes, first, Marcus Aurelius (the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher):
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
And next, Oscar Wilde: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
II. A Vicarious Journey
I would like to take you with me on a vicarious journey. You won’t need a ticket, a passport, a suitcase, money, or a PCR test! We’ll travel back in time, into the future, through the minefield of the human psyche, over land and sea, and to distant islands—from right here in Marathon, Boot Key Harbor, and back again. All you need is a good imagination.
Buckle your proverbial seatbelts, close your eyes, and open your minds. In your thoughts, I want you to turn around and run back in time. Run as fast and as far back as you need to in order to find a happy childhood memory. Can you see yourself in this memory? Reconnect with this younger version of yourself. Introduce yourself, shake hands, tell this young you that you are here with an important question.
Ask yourself: “What do you dream about?” Not your night-time dreams or nightmares, but the deepest desires of your heart, your hopes for the future—the thing you think about when you’re supposed to be reading your history book or doing your math homework. What do you really want out of life? The answer might sound silly to your older, more jaded self, but try to listen without judgment or laughter. Do you have the answer? Thank your young you…and open your eyes.
Hold onto that answer, that dream you once had—or maybe still have—and take it with you on the next leg of your journey. You’re going to stow away with me, travel the world, get a glimpse of life on a sailboat with a large family, and explore the treacherous waters of fear and regret.
III. Travel Memories
My earliest memories involve travel. My dad had a unique job: he was in urethane foam construction and coatings. We lived in one of those funky foam dome houses in the mountains of Colorado in the 1970s (think Woody Allen’s The Sleeper). My dad traveled all over the world working on interesting projects like the Sydney Opera House, dome constuction in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and the roof of the Chiang Kai-Shek Airport in Taipei, Taiwan. He brought back amazing gifts and coffee table books with photographs that my siblings and I would pore over.
When he finished the roof of the Chiang Kai-Shek airport, I was four years old. My sister was two, and my mom was pregnant with my baby brother. When he called to say that he wouldn’t be home in time for the birth, my brave mother got on an airplane eight months pregnant with two little girls in tow, and went to live in Taiwan, having a baby in a hospital where no one (not even her doctor) spoke English. My earliest memories are of that time: going to the fish market, learning to use chopsticks, eating sugar apples, standing in a doorway during an earthquake, and the monsoon season during which our house flooded and my dad served us breakfast on the stairs with his pants rolled up to his knees.
When we returned from that trip, my dad decided he needed to find domestic work to support our family. As an independent contractor, it was feast and famine. His business was affected by weather, the rise and fall of local economies, and the clients he worked for. But even when we were struggling financially, travel was always a priority. We couldn’t afford to fly, so we drove. We couldn’t afford hotels, so we stayed with family or camped in tents. I have wonderful childhood memories of mountains, deserts, coastlines, forests, waterfalls, farmland, big cities, small towns…we camped in Rocky Mountain National Park, peered into the Grand Canyon, went to Yellowstone, and slid down the Great Sand Dunes. We stopped in Washington D.C. and New York City on our way to Niagara Falls. We drove to California, went to Disneyland, and toured the Queen Mary.
These early travels are not just the things of memory, but also shaped my dreams of the future, too. You could say that the travel bug bit early. Whatever I would do with my life, I knew it would involve travel. When I went to college, I studied English and French. I chose a college with a good study-abroad program and spent a semester in France taking classes at the University of Paris. On weekends, I took the train to Normandy, London, and the Loire Valley to see the Chateaus. I spent a Christmas break with family friends in Italy, Switzerland, and Sardinia. It was amazing, but hard on the long-distance relationship with my boyfriend back home.
When I got back, we got engaged. I graduated from college in June of 1997 and we married in August. Jay is the son of a son of a sailor, seventh generation born in Florida. He spent his childhood sailing with his family, exploring the ten thousand islands, Everglades National Park, the Bay of Florida, and the Florida Keys. We honeymooned in the Yucatan of Mexico—rode horses through the jungle, snorkeled in crystal-clear water, and climbed the great pyramid at Chichen Itza. We loved every minute and said we’d come back someday. (We did eventually return—on our sailboat, with our children, in 2019).
When we had been married for about a year, Jay’s parents invited us to go on a sailing trip with them. We took off on an adventure on their Prout Quest 31-foot catamaran, Double Entry. We sailed overnight to Dry Tortugas National Park and then on to Key West before returning to Naples, Florida. It was a typical sailing trip—sunsets at sea, clear blue water, snorkeling, exploring, long talks, starry skies, and, of course, storms and breakage! On the return trip, I made a terrible mistake that led to a terrific revelation. We were motor-sailing away from Key West in light wind when I clumsily broke a fitting on the fuel tank that connected it to the outboard engine. Though Jay and his dad got it jury-rigged and running again, they couldn’t get the engine back in gear because of a previous transmission problem, and so we were forced to sail all night over calm seas and call for a tow when we reached Naples. I sat up in the cockpit all night—amazed by the stars and the phosphorescence in the water. Had it not been for my little blunder, I might not be standing here today. That beautiful night sail was the spark that lit a smoldering fire—one that burned for years until we were able to break away, buy our own boat, and travel with our family. It was on that trip that I knew what I wanted to with the rest of my life.
IV. Easier Said than Done
It is easy for me now, standing here in this library, having traveled for more than a decade aboard our boat, having successfully homeschooled our children from kindergarten to high school, having written a book about the experience, to talk pithily about overcoming fear to follow a dream, but there was nothing easy about doing those things. In fact, every aspect of turning an idea into reality is fraught with difficulty, from figuring out what you want to do and how to do it to overcoming the inevitable obstacles that crop up. And these driving questions which I had to answer, I also ask you:
What do you really want and why do you want it? (You will have to find a vision for yourself that is so clear you can imagine all the details and see yourself in it.)
How will you get it? (You will have to figure out the million tiny steps that take you in the right direction.)
How badly do you want it? (You will have to put so much faith in that idea that you never give up, that you overcome all your excuses and fears and surmount any obstacle that gets in the way.)
It’s a herculean task, but worth doing or dying in the attempt. Here’s what’s easy: going along with the crowd, doing what’s expected of you, following the status quo, letting your life slip by one day at a time until it seems like it’s too late to do the things you really wanted.
When attempting something difficult, but worthwhile, sometimes the hardest thing is getting over our own fears. We often ask “what if…?” In my case, going sailing seemed impossible. How could we afford a boat? What if we bought one and then hated it? What if it broke? What if we ran out of money? What if we want to have a family? What if we encounter storms at sea, sharks, or pirates? What if we sink? What if we fail? Fear doesn’t seem to know the difference between life-threatening and comfort-threatening.
What we don’t do, but should, is ask the other “what if…” questions. What if it’s amazing? What if we love it? What if we get to live a life of travel and adventure? What if we could take our kids sailing? What if we make great memories, learn new languages, and meet other travelers? What if we don’t try and later regret it? Following our dreams gives life a sense of purpose and direction and helps us step out of a safe and boring life and into one of adventure and fulfillment. We need our dreams, no matter how crazy or impractical they seem, to keep us from stagnating. If, by some amazing combination of determination and circumstance, you too have followed a dream to its exciting conclusion, you know exactly what I am talking about.
I promised you a journey through space and time, through landscapes both real and metaphysical—and I will keep that promise, at least in part. To get the whole story in all its detail, you’ll have to read the book, but I can give you a glimpse of my own dream-come-true, and the things we have learned from chasing a crazy dream.
The adventure begins in an unlikely place: a suburban house with a white-picket fence. After we married, Jay and I moved to Atlanta and got regular jobs. We loved the idea of sailing off into the proverbial sunset, but we were sensible people, so we did what everyone else around us was doing: we went into debt, bought new cars, bought a house, bought furniture, worked all the time to pay bills, and then started a family. It’s the American Dream! We should have been satisfied, but, oddly, we felt unfulfilled.
Jay was sitting in traffic for hours each day, I had quit my teaching job (which I loved) to stay home with two boys under the age of two (up to my elbows in poopy diapers). We bought a mini-van when I got pregnant with our daughter and Jay acquired a weekend car, a Porsche Boxster. We had been talking about moving to a nicer neighborhood with better schools, but we began to feel uneasy. Where were those young people who wanted to go on a sailing adventure? Where was the romance and travel that I had dreamed of? Taking annual trips to visit family with small children in tow was not my idea of “exotic.” We were doing all the things we were supposed to do—working hard, raising kids, going to church, paying our bills, putting money away for college and retirement—but something was missing.
There was nothing wrong with the things we were doing—the “have-tos” are a necessary part of life. But whole days, weeks, months, and years were zooming by and we were in danger of becoming entrenched in a safe and boring life. Under the yuppie veneer, we were still longing for more adventure, more challenge, more freedom. Our restlessness led us to re-examine the direction we were heading. Jay was on a sailboat race crew on Lake Lanier. We subscribed to sailing magazines and talked about leaving Atlanta, but it seemed impossible.
The story of how we broke free and left our suburban trap is a good one, a roller coaster ride of ups and downs and twists and turns, one that took a lot of faith, courage, and stubborn determination. In brief, we almost bought a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, but at the last moment, we realized that what we really needed to do was downsize, move back to Florida, and trade the sports car for a sailboat. We prayed a lot during that transition, trying to determine what God’s plan for our lives was. We wanted not just what felt comfortable, but what would grow and stretch us. The faith we developed during that time is what gave us the courage to do all the things that came next.
V. Practical Steps
It is one thing to have a dream—you’ve got one with you right now! And another to make it reality. Without practical steps, it remains in the realm of castles in the air. In a nutshell, these are the things we did to change our trajectory: we got out of debt. We had made a plan before we had children that one of us would stay home, so we had learned to live on one salary and use the other to pay off debt. When we lost my salary, we lost the gravy, but not the meat and potatoes. We decided to homeschool our kids so that we wouldn’t have to yank them out of a “normal life.” We sold our Atlanta house and downsized. We made a five-year plan.
We moved to Florida, sold the sports car and bought a small sailboat to practice sailing on Tampa Bay. Jay took his job in database engineering and consulting and moved it to a home office that could eventually be taken anywhere. We saved money to buy a bigger boat, trading stuff now for adventures later. We went to boat shows and read everything we could get our hands on. We looked at a Tayana ’55 and almost bought it, but we were expecting a fourth child and felt really nervous about taking the leap. We learned from that failure and put ourselves in a position of receptivity and readiness, surrounded ourselves with supportive people, and cut out things and people that did not propel us forward. Just after Sam was born, Jay found Take Two—our second chance! It was a catamaran, bigger, more stable, perfect for our growing family, so we bought it. Within a year, and just hitting the end of our five-year plan, we had moved aboard, sold most of our belongings, and put our house on the market. We took day trips, then weekend trips, then a week-long thanksgiving trip, and then, after selling the house, we left!
Of course, summing it up this way makes it sound easy, but it was hard—hard to face our own doubts and fears, hard to go against societal norms, hard to make what seemed like an unwise financial decision, hard to live in a small space with lots of small children, hard to fix the boat and learn to sail it, hard to untie the dock lines and leave the safety of the known for the unknown adventure. But one thing propelled us forward: the possibility of regret. We knew a lot could go wrong with our plan, but we also knew that if we didn’t try, we would always wonder what it would have been like. We did not want to wait, because life is unpredictable and if we didn’t take the chance when we were young and capable (and a little crazy), we might not get another opportunity. Most importantly, we did not want to die with regret—wishing we had done things differently.
When we set off into the proverbial and literal sunset—we sailed back to the Dry Tortugas. It was our first overnight, and we had aboard an 8, 7, 5, and 3-year-old. When you travel with small children, you are always single-handing; one person is on-watch and the other person is responsible for the safety and comfort of the kids. When we arrived the next morning just in time to see the sea plane touch town near Fort Jefferson, we felt a rush of excitement and accomplishment. We had made it! We were cruising with our family! We set the anchor and all jumped in for a swim. That week was so much fun—touring the old fort with our kids, snorkeling, going exploring in the dinghy, learning how to be truly self-sufficient. We sailed to Key West and did some sightseeing—introducing our children to the historic southernmost city. And then we made our way to Marathon and motored into Boot Key Harbor.
If you are sitting here, you probably know what a special place Marathon is. There are many metaphorical “safe harbors” that we have had to leave in order to live an adventurous life, but Boot Key Harbor is the literal safe harbor where we really began our journeys. It was where we first met the community of cruisers and liveaboard sailors, where we learned to provision by boat, to manage our power and water usage, and to take care of chores and repairs while living on a mooring ball. We met a colorful cast of characters that call this place home and made friends in the homeschool community. It was where we learned to get comfortable with discomfort. I learned I was expecting a baby in the summer of 2010—and we lived on a mooring for about six months until we could get our boat ready to cross the Gulf Stream in November. It was hot and buggy and I was pregnant! We knew we only had a few months before we would need to be in a stable place for the birth of our baby, so ready or not, we left the safe harbor and set off for the Bahamas.
It was everything we had hoped for and everything we had promised our kids—white sand beaches, palm trees, snorkeling, water that looks like a bottle of Sapphire Gin, and lots of other boats with families. There were also challenges and opportunities to learn from mistakes. We felt like we had finally “arrived”…we were doing the thing we had always dreamed of, and it was worth all the trouble to get there. Of course, just as we were beginning to get comfortable with the cruising life, it was time to decide where to stop and have a baby.
One thing we had learned while traveling is that our boat was not very “kid-friendly.” In addition to needing a physical space to put the new baby, we also needed to re-do the upholstery, update the galley, add a head (we were all sharing a single hand-pump jabsco toilet!), and generally make the living space more comfortable. After more than a year of living aboard, we had decided we were not camping and wanted to make Take Two our home long-term. So we sailed back to Florida to have a baby and re-fit the boat.
If you can’t imagine having four little kids aboard a boat full-time, then the idea of bringing a newborn baby into that environment will be inconceivable. I won’t lie—it was an intense experience. We spent a year at a marina in Bradenton, Florida, renovating the boat and learning how to manage yet another person in a small space. When you live long-term on a cruising boat, one thing that is really challenging and important to figure out is how to balance living, loving, working, traveling, parenting, and making repairs. We found that alternating seasons of travel with seasons of working to replenish funds and upgrading or fixing the boat worked really well for us. So we have these wonderful travel memories and friendships from all our voyages, and also these moments of stability that allowed us to take care of the demands of homeschooling our kids, making money, fixing the boat, and taking breathers so we would not go crazy.
That baby who was born in 2011, Rachel, is now 10 years old. She has spent her whole life afloat, and she really is a well-traveled and cool little person. Along with our older kids, she has been back and forth to the Bahamas several times, she’s learned American history hands-on and on-location as we traveled up and down the East Coast of the U.S. from colonial cities to Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, to field trips at the museums of the Smithsonian while we spent a month at the Capitol Yacht Club in Washington D.C. We stopped in Marathon anytime we were on our way past to touch base with friends and enjoy the relative safety of Boot Key Harbor.
In 2016, we set off from here to head to the Caribbean—a trip that gave us more than 20 stamps in our passports and took us 3 ½ years. We spent six months traveling from the Bahamas to Grenada, stopping at almost all the islands on the way down the Eastern Caribbean. After a hurricane season in Grenada, we went west to the ABCs, spending a memorable December in Bonaire, one of our favorite places on planet earth. We spent a lot of time underwater there, but also toured the island, learned to windsurf, went swimming in an underwater cave system, made local friends, and celebrated holidays with boat friends. We took the last weather window of the year just before the arrival of the Christmas winds to sail for Colombia. I will never forget coming around Cabo de la Vela, a place where the wind gets funneled and even on a nice day you can see gusts to 50 knots, and seeing the mountains of the Sierra Nevadas—the snow-capped peaks in South America. We were sailing downwind under a double-reefed mainsail and surfing down 10-12-foot waves, seeing 15 knots of boat speed. It was a wild and exhilarating ride. With our brave crew taking watches, we had sailed to another continent!
We spent a month in Colombia, taking trips to Cartagena, National Parks, the mountains above Santa Marta to see coffee farms and cacao groves, brushing up on our Spanish, and waiting for the wind to abate so we could head further west. We arrived in Panama in January of 2017 and didn’t leave again until January of 2018. Imagine sailing with your family to another country where you don’t speak the language and homeschooling your children in a place where indigenous people paddle by in dugout canoes! It was an incredible experience. We explored the Bocas del Toro archipelago, had a visit with Jay’s parents, traveled overland to Costa Rica, stayed a night in the Chagres River on our way to Shelter Bay where we stayed for a month so we could travel by train along the canal and see the Pacific side from Panama City. We spent a month in the island of San Blas, explored historic Portobelo and reprovisioned for our passage north to San Andres and Providencia (probably our favorite island in all the Caribbean). We spent another year in the Western Caribbean, improving our Spanish, hanging out in Grand Cayman, the Bay Islands of Honduras, learning to free dive in Utila and swimming with whale sharks, exploring Belize, and spending a hurricane season in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. We were able to haul our boat out there for painting and repairs, visit Mayan pyramids, hang out in the ancient city of Antigua, climb active volcanos, hike in the jungle, and swim in ice-cold waterfalls as well as thermal springs.
By this time, our crew was beginning to grow restless. We had left the United States with a 14, 13, 11, 9, and 4-year-old, but during our travels, they had grown from children to young adults. At 17, 16, 14, 12, and 7, they were capable crew-members, seasoned travelers, and Spanish-speakers. We had made lots of friends on other boats, but they were missing friends and family back home. They were beginning to wonder about their own journeys and what the next steps were for their educations and life goals. Though we had pretended that we would just travel around with our kids forever, we knew that a parent’s goal involves working yourself out of a job, and that it was time to come back to our home country and give our teenagers a stable place from which to launch. We exited the Rio Dulce in April of 2019, and headed north to Belize and Mexico. By the first of July, when we motored toward the Florida Keys over seas so glassy they looked like a mirror, we had sailed over 5000 nautical miles in our circle of the Caribbean.
My oldest son was just weeks shy of his 18th birthday, and he had never owned a phone, gone to class, or driven a car. Though we returned to the safe harbor, we were not the same people who had left, and we felt as though we were beginning a different kind of adventure. There was certainly a lot of reverse culture shock! I felt overwhelmed in Publix—everything was so bright, so clean, and so plentiful! Gone were the days of pulling my wagon from the produce stand to the butcher to the street vendor. Gone were the small Caribbean shops the size of a walk-in closet. Gone were the mysterious food items with labels in another language. As happy as I was to come “home,” I also really missed our traveling lifestyle.
Our kids went full-speed into a “normal” life for the first time—the teenagers took standardized tests, started classes at the College of the Florida Keys, learned to drive, got jobs, and hung out with friends. Our younger two joined a community basketball league and reconnected with homeschool friends—and we found ourselves taking multiple trips ashore every day and spending a lot of time zooming around like chickens with our heads cut off! My one consolation was coming back to the boat in the evening to watch the sunset from our peaceful back deck. Some days I just wanted to push the “pause button.”
VII. What We Learned
And then came COVID. You can all thank me (or forgive me!) when that giant “pause button” was pushed. We went from busy-busy-busy to being all seven back on the boat 24-7. It was a rude awakening for many of us, but for me, it was also a confirmation: you never know what can happen, which is why you have to live as if every day is your last! We had not waited until “someday” to travel, had lived outside the box, developed self-sufficiency, and made so many wonderful memories. We had no regrets. And, most helpfully, we already knew how to homeschool!
Like Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” so we used the time provided by COVID to take a long road trip out west and go to all the places you can’t travel by boat—the Grand Canyon, the National Parks of Utah, Rocky Mountain National Park, Mammoth Cave, and the Great Smoky Mountains. I decided to take a manuscript I had been working on and finish and publish it. I did this for three reasons: to relive all the good memories during a time when we were feeling stuck, to reflect on all that we had learned, and to inspire others to live boldly and pursue their wildest dreams.
I’m sure you have questions about some of the difficulties we faced—storms at sea, long passages, close calls, encounters with dangerous animals and people, and how we stayed sane while living aboard with five kids—so I will close with this: the real danger for humans is not the obvious fearful circumstances that we all must face. It is not even death, which is inevitable. It is a life unlived. My daughter has a shirt with Coyote Peterson’s slogan on it: “Be Brave, Stay Wild.” And this is what I want to leave you with. We have safety messaging all around us all the time. But if we follow all the advice given, we will never leave the safe harbor to experience the wild beauty of the world. If we risk little, we gain little. Fear can keep us alive, yes, but it can also keep us from really living.
My book is largely about the risks we took and the rewards we reaped: how sailing is a perfect metaphor for life, how we learned more from failure than success, and how we prioritized relationships and memories over collecting stuff. It is about evaluating risk and living despite our fears—how ordinary people can live an extraordinary life. It explores the physical journeys we took, yes, but also looks at the spiritual journey, the inner voyages of the heart and soul that is the real adventure God offers each of us.
Do you still have that dream you brought with you from the past? It is time to carry it with you into the future. What does your dream from back then tell you about what you want out of life now? What keeps you from pursuing a life full of risks and rewards? If you have already fulfilled a dream, what is your next adventure? What is the next step to getting yourself out of the safe harbor?
Thank you so much for giving me your time and attention this evening. Does anyone have any questions?
This recipe is a crowd-pleaser, each roll filled with molten mozzarella. I learned it from Jennifer on S/V Cerca Trova. Forever grateful for that recipe and the silicone Bundt pan that we pass back and forth whenever we’re in the same port! Recipe below.
Italian Pull-Apart Rolls
Prep time: 2 hours
Makes: 32 pull-apart rolls
3 1/4 to 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
2 tablespoons sugar
1 packet yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
8-ounce block mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons Garlic Powder
1 1/2 teaspoons Italian herb seasoning
Combine 2 cups flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Combine milk, water, and butter in a small pot. Heat until warm but not hot (120°F). Add liquid mixture to flour mixture and then add the egg. Mix well with a wooden spoon and then add another cup of flour. Incorporate well. Add just enough remaining flour so that dough forms into a ball. Turn onto floured surface and begin to knead, adding flour if necessary, so that the texture is tacky, but not sticky. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 6 to 8 minutes. Cover the dough with a towel and let it rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, coat a Bundt pan with olive oil and set aside. Cut the cheese into 32 cubes. Make coating by stirring together melted butter, Parmesan cheese, garlic powder, and Italian herb seasoning in a small bowl. Divide the dough into 32 pieces. Wrap each piece of dough around a piece of cheese and form into a ball. Roll each one in the melted butter mixture and place gently in oiled pan. Pour any remaining butter over rolls and cover with towel. Let the dough rise in warm place until doubled in size. Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake the rolls for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 5 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a serving plate (or pull rolls right out of the pan).
“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
My mother-in-law gave me a piece of advice when I was a newlywed that I have never forgotten. She said that every woman wants three things: a good marriage, happy children, and a successful career. Of the three, we must pick two. She knew this from personal experience. I took it to heart, recognizing quickly that juggling a marriage and a career that I loved was hard enough without trying to add children into the mix. So, for a few years, I focused on those two things. When I had my first child, I chose to quit my job, retiring from teaching in an Atlanta public school at twenty-six so I could spend my energy and time raising happy, healthy humans and supporting my husband so he could work hard to provide for us.
And then motherhood swallowed me whole—and I’m not just talking about pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, diapers, and sleepless nights. It was the giving of my whole self to another human being: body, mind, and soul. And then giving everything to several more, spreading myself even thinner. In typical all-or-nothing fashion, I gave up my personal ambitions (for a time) to become a Supermom to four kids under six. And then we decided to homeschool…on a boat, while traveling. And then we had a boat baby. Without some very firm boundaries—an inviolable morning quiet time, date night with my husband (even if it was just sunset drinks on deck), strict bedtimes, solo kayaking, and individual time-outs to pursue other interests, I might have found it nearly impossible to relocate my identity once my kids began to be more independent.
I have begun to feel the effects of what is called “empty nest syndrome,” when a mother has done her job satisfactorily and her grown children begin to leave home. My oldest is off the boat, the second has one foot out the door, and the third is almost done with a simultaneous high school diploma and associates degree. It is at once encouraging and heartbreaking to see your children spread their wings and take flight. Though I’ve still got two kids left to nurture, I’ve already invested twenty years in this second career and I’m beginning to think about what comes next.
I began volunteering recently with my youngest daughter at the Crane Point Wild Bird Center that takes in birds from around the Florida Keys to rehabilitate and release them when possible, and to care for them long-term when a return to the wild is not possible. There is a small community of pelicans and cormorants housed in a large enclosure with their own pond, nesting areas, and places to perch.
Living on the water, I have seen thousands of these birds in different habitats, but I had never gotten such a close look until I went into the enclosure to clean up bird poo. Cormorants, for example, have the most beautiful blue eyes. And pelicans will take sticks, if offered them, to build a nest. They also like to buzz right over your head as a punishment for entering their enclosure to clean and feed them.
Some of the resident cormorants are too injured to be released, but not so injured that they cannot form mating pairs and lay eggs. This presents an uncomfortable dilemma for Kelly, who has been caring for these birds for more than twenty years. She explained that if they allow the birds to sit on the eggs, the hatchlings will be born in captivity and require care for the rest of their lives, filling up the sanctuary with healthy birds who don’t need to be there. But if they release the baby birds into the wild without the important training from their parents to be able to provide food for themselves, they quickly die of starvation, a fact she once learned the hard way.
Furthermore, if the eggs are simply removed from the nest and destroyed, which is probably the most humane outcome, the mama birds will grieve and mourn the loss. What to do?! Kelly told me that they have discovered a creative solution: smooth, round river rocks of about the right size and shape, painted blue, and warmed. Someone distracts the birds, while someone else does a quick swap, replacing eggs with warm rocks. The mama bird doesn’t seem to notice the difference, continuing to sit on the “eggs” for a while, eventually giving them up as duds, and moving on with her life.
This seems like a stroke of pure genius. A warm rock. This discovery strikes me as particularly timely for my season of life. As my kids begin to pack their cars with all their earthly belongings and drive away from our boat life, this is the question I must ask: with what will I replace the demanding full-time role of raising children when they fly the coop? I have been reflecting again recently on the advice Jay’s mom gave me about choosing carefully. I think in one sense, she was right. It’s very hard to juggle all the worthwhile goals we have for our lives; something always gets dropped when we try to do it all. But in another sense, we can have all three things—marriage, kids, career—just not all at the same time. If we view life seasonally—as in, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1), then we can find fulfillment in the best gifts life has to offer, one or two at a time.
For me, my writing has become my warm rock. I spent several years keeping my writing skills simmering on the back burner, writing for our blog, and dreaming of a time when I could write for a living. As my kids have gotten older, I’ve begun to find myself again—my voice, my goals, my value as its defined by my skills and not my relationships. At the same time, I have begun to feel pulled in multiple directions, as early success with my first book has temporarily shifted my focus from my husband and children. I’ve realized that although I’m glad I wrote Leaving the Safe Harbor and hope that I set an example of dreaming big for my own children, I am not ready to be a full-time author. In just a few short years, the children will be grown, Jay and I will be enjoying a second honeymoon, and I will have lots of stories to tell. Until then, I will sit on this warm rock and keep writing whenever I can, plugging away at projects without losing myself in them.