Category Archives: Pep Talks

Pep Talk #23: Hold on Tight

I Want to Hold Your Hand

Are you weary? Perhaps you are weary of 2020, of the pandemic or its cascading consequences, of continued social or economic or political disruption that means your normal safety net is not catching you. Here in the hurricane belt, we are weary of a hurricane season that seemed to last forever. We have heard news from friends in Guatemala and the island of Providencia, places that were recently devastated by the late-season storms. While I am personally in a good place at the moment, I am weary of all the sad news. I left little pieces of my heart in places where there is great suffering, and I bear a burden even when I am smiling.

At the same time, it is not a year to take things for granted, and I am encouraged because we have been able to visit with our family and host nieces and nephews on our boat, some for the first time, during the week of Thanksgiving. I feel more grateful this year than usual; life is fragile, and I am counting blessings large and small.

Weariness shows us the limits of our self-sufficiency. We can only carry so much on our own before we buckle under the weight. I have learned about that this year while carrying around sadness that is often not even my own. We carry the weight of responsibility for our families, our friends, our own decisions and well-being. We carry the things we witness, like violence, bad news, and environmental destruction. And we carry things for which we couldn’t possibly be responsible, but feel their weight just the same. And it drags us down, slowly sucking away joy and motivation and hope. We feel heavy and dark. We feel it, physically, in our necks and shoulders and backs. Perhaps that is why the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew have always appealed to me:  

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (11:28-30)

A good friend recently explained what she had learned about the way oxen are trained. While two young oxen are often raised and trained as a team, a young ox can also be trained with an older, more experienced ox. In this case, the older ox wears the bow of the yoke more tightly so that it does most of the work while the less-experienced ox is learning. The young ox follows the lead of the older ox but does not carry the weight because the bow is fastened more loosely. Imagine that—walking through life, through hardship—yoked with someone who can carry the burden for you and show you which direction to turn.

Similarly, I love it when Jay holds Rachel’s hand. It melts my heart to see my husband’s tenderness to our daughter, and to see the perfect picture of trust as Rachel walks along, linked to that big, strong man. Holding his hand, she’s able to do things she otherwise wouldn’t, like walk across the Devil’s bridge in Antigua, a natural rock formation where the crashing waves have worn the shoreline down and left a treacherous walkway. You have to time your trip between waves so that you don’t get wet, or worse, get swept off the bridge and onto the sharp rocks below. She also holds his hand while crossing a busy street or walking in a crowd where she doesn’t want to get lost among strangers. His firm grip provides a sense of security and protection. Other times, she holds his hand while on a casual stroll, or while walking on the beach, and their physical connection is a sign of companionship and emotional closeness.

This is what it feels like to walk with God. I am beyond debating whether he’s “there” or not—it would be like Rachel doubting whose hand she’s holding! My faith has given me the confidence that no matter what is going on in my life, I am not alone. God is there, offering comfort and companionship. I can do things even when I am afraid, sad, or worried, because someone stronger than I am is holding onto me. Sometimes life is a walk on the beach—I am happy, feeling thankful, acknowledging the beauty in Creation. But other times, it is a narrow pass over treacherous rocks, and I’m holding on for dear life, trying not to be swept away.

I once prayed that I would learn to depend on God. It was stupid, I know, like praying for patience and suddenly getting a cosmic pop quiz whereby you find the limits of what you can handle. That was 2004, the year we moved to Florida with two toddlers and a new baby. I hadn’t yet made a friend, my parents divorced after 38 years of marriage, the pastor of the church we attended cheated on his wife, Jay traveled for work, and four hurricanes made landfall in our part of Florida (Dean, Francis, Ivan and Jean). I couldn’t even trust the lights to stay on. It was the year I became a morning coffee-drinker and got consistent with my prayer-and-devotions. I did learn to trust God, to sense his presence, to find peace in the middle of a hard and lonely time. It was an invaluable lesson that I have carried into other seasons of life—it made it possible for this neurotic nail-biter to move onto a sailboat and brave storms at sea, and it helps right now.

When times are hard, when all else fails—family, friends, health, finances, church, experts, government officials, self-confidence, even the elements of nature—where does your stability come from? Are you yoked to someone strong enough to handle the chaos so that you can take a deep breath and carry on? My prayer for you is that you will know peace in this hard time, find rest for your soul, and hold tightly to the hand of a Father who does not fail.

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)

Pep Talk #22: Shelter From the Storm

What is peace? And where can it be found? Maybe you, like me, are asking these questions a lot right now. We certainly know what , and where, peace is not.

Tobago Cays Squall
Approaching squall, Tobago Cays , SVG

I’ve learned a lot about peace from the ocean. If we have a “peaceful” passage, it usually refers to the sea state: a gentle swell, a nice breeze and smooth sailing, sunshine sparkling on the water, maybe a pod of dolphins playing in our bow wake. Or it might indicate the condition of our crew: no one suffering seasickness, everyone occupying themselves and getting along well with each other. Likewise, a peaceful anchorage is a quiet respite from the motion of waves, the promise of a good night’s sleep at the end of a long day.

But sometimes “peace” is what we have despite circumstances. In the middle of storms at sea, I have felt an amazing inner calm (after the initial panic, of course)—I understand that the situation is dangerous and that my life is fragile, but can accept with tranquility whatever may come. Peace can also mean running from a storm and finding an anchorage in the lee of an island. The wind still howls, the rain pelts, the lightning flashes all around, but our anchor is buried in the sand, the motion of the waves is stopped by the island, and our boat is still afloat. Despite the noise of the storm, we can relax.

For me, inner peace is a supernatural occurrence—a state contrary to my normal, anxious, internal monologue. It’s a sense that no matter how bad a situation is, I don’t face it alone or without hope; I have an anchor for my soul. It takes conscious effort not to focus on the outward circumstances, but to take a deep breath, pray, and change fretting into meditating on the positive. This has helped me access this peace-in-the-midst-of-chaos. I still have an embarrassing tendency to freak out, but I’ve learned to pause and find this place of peace with a little concentration.

Many times over the last few months I have had to draw on this well of peace—as I see and hear of turmoil both around the world and close to home. Chaos reigns on personal, social, and political fronts, but I have not lost the hope of peace. Sometimes after receiving bad news, it feels like my anchor is dragging, but in life, as on the water when we experience a sudden shift in wind or tide, I reset the anchor in a firm place, pay out some chain, and go back “inside” to find rest.

Take Two Anchored in the Bahamas 2016
Take Two at anchor in the Bahamas, 2016

I don’t know whether you are experiencing a personal crisis, whether you are feeling isolated or afraid, whether the country you live in is experiencing disasters natural or man-made, but I know that we are all touched by the storms of life at one time or another. We can seek and ask for peace—inside our own hearts, with God, in our relationships, and in our spheres of influence. We can pray that our leaders will seek peace. Maybe circumstances will change, or maybe we can effect change ourselves, but if not, then the only thing we can control is our response. Let these words anchor your soul as they have anchored mine:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” –Jesus, in the gospel according to John (14:27)

Pep Talk #21: Change is the Only Constant

“The only constant in life is change”-Heraclitus

It’s the time of year when we watch the weather carefully. We’re from Florida and have experienced our fair share of stormy weather, from the afternoon thunderstorm that can pack 50-knot gusts to tropical storms with sustained high winds that can last for days and make sensitive crew seasick at anchor. We’ve managed to avoid hurricanes since we bought the boat (though we’ve experienced a few in a house), both by luck and by active avoidance. We’ve spent past hurricane seasons in “safe” places like the Patomac River, Grenada, Panama, and Guatemala.  We know our limits—when to hunker down, when to sail away, or when to tie up the boat and evacuate.

Watching weather analysis videos or tracking storms with NOAA is a whole-family affair. We usually have a lot of warning before a storm threatens, giving us time to plan. Even when a forecasted track crosses our path, there is a lot of wiggle room in the “Cone of Uncertainty.” For those who do software development, project management, or live in a hurricane zone, this is a familiar concept. Those watching weather reports know that it’s that shaded patch between “where the storm is now” and “where the storm is likely to land,” fanned out to account for margin of error. Small directional changes at the point of origin result in large changes as you follow a trajectory. And just because you’re “inside the cone” doesn’t mean you’re going to get hit, nor does being “outside the cone” guarantee nice weather!

The Cone of Uncertainty is a helpful tool for assessing danger and for making decisions about risk mitigation. In some ways, the computer models that predicted spread of the new global pandemic are like hurricane models. Remember the red circles on the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map? Even now, getting a visual picture of higher-risk areas could be a useful tool for deciding whether to travel, for example. Unfortunately, right now it feels like the whole world is living inside a Cone of Uncertainty! Even if you live in a place of relative safety, the Butterfly Effect predicts that you will still be affected by small changes in faraway places, like economic fluctuations, social unrest, global supply chain disruptions, or travel bans.

Uncertainty is nothing new. We humans may operate under the assumption that we are in control, but our lives are, in fact, fragile, circumstances can change quickly, and safety is largely an illusion. Instead of crippling us, this realization gave us the courage to leave suburbia and buy a boat. We thought, “Since we can’t know what tomorrow brings, we’d better enjoy today!”

Living on the water has helped us to grow comfortable with discomfort. On the boat, we are affected by weather changes, motion, breakage, and the whims of officials in foreign ports. I am a planner by nature, and sudden changes and a lack of predictability rocked my boat (sometimes literally) at the beginning of this adventure. But living aboard for more than a decade has helped me learn to recover a lot faster when plans change and to develop qualities that make survival inside the Cone of Uncertainty possible: patience, courage, persistence, creativity, perspective, faith, and peace of mind.

I am reminded of the oft-quoted Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” I also found a helpful article on mental health during COVID-19 that offered these five strategies and lots of practical tips (see link below) :

  1. Take action on the things you can control.
  2. Challenge your need for certainty.
  3. Learn to accept uncertainty.
  4. Focus on the present.
  5. Manage stress and anxiety.
https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/dealing-with-uncertainty.htm

Pep Talk #20 Let Your Light Shine

Emily Dickenson Quote
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one life the aching
Or cool one pain
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again
I shall not live in vain

--Emily Dickenson

Part I: Accidental Kindness

I was supposed to meet a friend at the park the other day to practice ukulele, but it didn’t work out. It was one of a long string of disappointments that day. Homeschool and chores hadn’t gone smoothly that morning, and when I went ashore to run two errands, both businesses had closed early. After a week of rain, we finally had sun but we didn’t make it to the beach. And then the timing for meeting the friend didn’t work out, either. As I sat in my car, wondering whether I should just go back to the boat and call it a bad day, I realized that I could keep the appointment and go to the park to practice by myself. So I did.

There was no one there. So I sat in the shade and played and sang to the trees. And when I say “sang,” I mean I sang my heart out, like I was in the shower, like no one was listening—all my joy and sadness, pent up energy came out in that music. It cheered me up considerably. I finished a song (one I recently wrote) and was dismayed to hear the sound of applause. I turned to see a man in the nearby pavilion smiling and clapping. I mean, it’s better than booing, but still, I turned bright red. I laughed and said, “Uh…thanks…I didn’t know I had an audience…” He said it sounded good and encouraged me not to quit. So I played a couple more.

After a few minutes, he came over to the picnic table where I was sitting and introduced himself. He offered me an Altoids curiously strong mint. His name is Michael. And he said that he too had been having a bad day. He had felt discouraged and didn’t even know anyone else was at the park until he heard music. We talked about the ways humans deal with sorrow; he had drowned his in alcohol, but was free of it now. I don’t always deal with mine in a constructive way, either, but one of the reasons I love the ukulele is because this small-but-cheery instrument, believe it or not, is making the world a better place (Amanda Palmer would back me up, she says so in her Ukulele Anthem).

Sound carries. I had unintentionally made his day. I wasn’t even trying. In fact, it’s better that way, because instead of being “proud of myself” or some other self-righteous nonsense, I instead felt pleasantly surprised, amused, and humbled. I let my soul shine, and someone saw it. Sometimes I have been the recipient of unexpected joy, so I was just paying it forward. When he left, he gave me his box of mints. I can say for sure that I received more of a blessing than he did from the interaction. And all I did was show up.

Part II: Random Acts of Kindness

This is a story from February. We were at the park for Homeschool P.E. and it was our Valentine’s Day celebration. All the homeschool kids were running around with pink cupcakes and cookies and swapping Valentines. Rachel came running up to me with a pink glitter heart on which she had scrawled a loving message. She said, “Mommy, I noticed that man over there seems lonely. I want to give him this Valentine I made, but I don’t know him and I shouldn’t talk to strangers. Can you give it to him for me?”  

I asked if she wanted to come with me and she said, “No. I just want you to give it to him for me.” So I did. He was sitting on a park bench, accompanied by his suitcase and wheelchair. I introduced myself and said that my daughter (pointing to Rachel) had made him a Valentine but was too shy to give it to him. He laughed and said, “that just made my day.” And then he dug around in his backpack and pulled out a small heart-shaped mylar balloon. He said he had found the balloon that morning and knew he would meet the right person to give it to, and asked if I could pass it on to Rachel. I was touched, not just by my daughter’s act of compassion, but by the thoughtful exchange of gifts between strangers—the way kindness multiplies.

Part III. Regular Acts of Kindness

We are looking at each other over our masks with suspicion these days, viewing strangers and even friends as if they are the carriers of our demise. We are limited in our communication, some feeling literally and figuratively muzzled. But we must not let the current circumstances stop us from practicing kindness. And I don’t mean random acts of kindness, but regular acts of kindness. We must form a habit, daily looking for opportunities to be kind, loving, and considerate. It requires intention, and sometimes it’s not easy, especially to those we see every day. But it’s worth it.

Five Reasons to Be Kind:

  1. Compassion takes the focus off of ourselves and our own unhappiness—it lifts our spirits.
  2. Kindness, even a small kindness like good manners or a smile (smiling eyes?), lifts the spirits of others. Something that seems small to you can mean the world to another person.
  3. Regular acts of kindness give us a sense of purpose and community. We are feeling isolated, but we must not forget we are part of something bigger. Doing something kind reminds us that we are part of the human family.
  4. Kindness is disarming. We can speak and act kindly no matter how other people speak and act. We can’t control others’ behavior, only our responses.
  5. The qualities of kindness, gentleness, and compassion are good for our health. Really. Look it up. They can produce hormones like oxytocin and serotonin which reduce anxiety and and lower blood pressure, among other things.

Beyond cheering someone else up, lightening your own heart, and adding something beautiful to the world, there is one more reason why you should practice kindness. It reflects the love of God. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” –Jesus in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:16

Pep Talk #19: Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water

Rachel after a bath

Have “We the People” lost our ability to think clearly, behave morally, and govern ourselves? We seem to be falling apart at the seams, the general public divided into disparate camps: so gullible that we can be persuaded to believe anything or so cynical that we can’t believe anything.

GullibleCynical
The pastor/pope said so, so it must be true.God cannot exist because priests abuse children and believers are hypocrites.
I heard it/read it on the news so, so it must be true.All journalists are liars because they are biased and don’t check facts.
The guy with letters after his name said it, so it must be true.We don’t believe in science because scientists are paid to find certain results and keep changing their minds.
The leader said so, so it must be true.We don’t believe in government because leaders are corrupt and dishonest.
He was wearing a uniform and a badge, so he must be in the right.We reject all law enforcement because police officers take justice into their own hands.
My teacher/history book said it, so it must be true.History books are biased and full of mistakes, so it’s pointless to study the past.

I know there is a middle ground, but I’m not seeing it very often on social media! Why is that? Have we lost our ability to think logically and critically? And to argue respectfully instead of fighting when we disagree? I have been mulling over the various conflicts and wondering what about American culture and education has resulted in this polarization of opinions, lack of discernment, and general antipathy. As a homeschool mom/teacher I think I’m onto something.

Thomas Jefferson said that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.” If we are concerned that our country is descending into chaos and anarchy, we might ask ourselves how we have failed think and behave reasonably, and whether we have fostered in our children a sense of common morality, decency, and respect for life, or whether our idea of freedom has shifted to mean, “to do whatever I want.” I think that we are on thin ice, and that the way back to solid ground involves a return to the teaching of morals and logic.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are the thoughts of two famous Adams:

“If we continue to be a happy people, that happiness must be assured by the enacting and executing of reasonable and wise laws, expressed in the plainest language, and by establishing such modes of education as tend to inculcate in the minds of youth, the feelings and habits of ‘piety, religion and morality,’ and to lead them to the knowledge and love of those truly Republican principles upon which our civil institutions are founded.” –Samuel Adams, in an address to the Legislature of Massachusetts, January 16, 1795.

“…We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” –John Adams, in an address to the Massachusetts Militia, 1798.

Social breakdown results when people fail to govern themselves, to live by a set of agreed-upon rules, either because they were not taught to do so, or because they do not see the benefits and consequences of following or failing to follow these rules. Our culture has communicated to a generation of people (or two or three) that life has no discernible meaning or value beyond pleasure-seeking, and we are facing the unpleasant consequences of people acting according to that belief. We may want to blame religious institutions and schools for failing to uphold morals and instill logical thinking, but the most important influence on a human being, and the most basic unit of any society, is the family. It is “we the people” who have failed to raise our own children, to teach them right from wrong, and to think logically instead of reacting emotionally.

COVID19 and its aftermath have exposed our weaknesses as a people and as a country. But we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It may be time to rethink what we want for the future of our country, what it means to pursue “life, liberty and happiness.” But the structure of our government, the wisdom and forethought of the Constitution’s framers, which took into account fallible human nature, should not be abandoned. Their ideals of a God-given ability to reason and to choose right over wrong should be reaffirmed.

The opportunity to do so is knocking now. We can reinvest in the future by modeling good character for our children, by developing healthy coping mechanisms for our families during this difficult time, and by filling educational gaps. We don’t know what the upcoming school year will hold. Some children will go back to brick-and-mortar schools, but in a very different way. Others will be schooling virtually. Many will be homeschooled (at least temporarily) for the first time. I have even heard of small communities hiring a teacher to start a co-op school. None of these options will be easy.

As a homeschool parent, I can attest to the challenges of providing for all of a child’s needs from home. But “no school” does not mean “no education.” Home education means the family has the freedom to choose curriculum, structure learning time organically, integrate religious or ethical principles into academic material, and foster learning in accordance with brain development and learning style.

However children go back to school in the fall, with love and logic, we can shepherd our families through this difficult time, find peace in the middle of chaos, fill our days with purpose and meaning, and raise a new generation of responsible and caring citizens.

Logic and Reason

Some materials I recommend:

  • The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer
  • The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper (children’s book)
  • The Fallacy Detective and The Thinking Toolbox by Hans and Nathanael Bluedorn
  • Educating the Whole-Hearted Child and Our 24 Family Ways by Clay and Sally Clarkson
  • The 5000 Year Leap (28 Principles of Freedom) by Cleon Skousen
  • Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline

Pep Talk #18 FRAGILE: Handle with Care

Mason Jars

We store a lot of non-perishable food in mason jars. Visitors receiving the tour of our home are often surprised to see so much glass on a boat. But we have very little loss, even in rough weather and big seas. The jars are stored tightly packed so they can’t move, and we’ve added bungees to keep them from falling off the shelves, so we don’t lose the precious contents.

I have been feeling very fragile recently, and I know I’m not the only one. We are in some rough waters, and we need to make sure we are bungeed in emotionally and spiritually to keep from cracking! Here is one of my coping strategies when I am struggling: I open a new page in my journal and use the left-hand side to write down all the things I’m feeling. I then read what I wrote, weigh it against what I know to be true, and use the right-hand side to correct my thinking and be encouraged. I call it “telling myself the truth.” Sometimes it works, and sometimes I need someone else to give it to me straight. So many people have called “out of the blue” and done this for me when I needed it most it that I have ceased to call it coincidence. And I pay it forward whenever I can.

Here is a glimpse from the left-hand page of my neurotic inner life, fueled by summer heat, a cramped space shared by seven people with strong personalities, poor sleep, isolation, and global crises:

“I’m so tired I can’t think straight. I don’t even trust my own emotions in this state. I feel so utterly alone in this crazy world, and yet I realize that sinking into self-absorption/self-pity just makes everything worse.

It feels like we have been cut to pieces—each to his lonely sphere. The old and the sick are dying alone, all the important celebrations of life (graduations, weddings, births, holidays) have been cancelled, and people are trapped—like musical chairs, wherever they were when the pandemic hit, that’s where they stay, if they were lucky enough to get a seat.

Inside our boat, everyone is merely coping, but the loss of activity and friendship is painful; there’s little to offer as alternatives to screens. And we are the lucky ones with work, food, shelter, health (for now), and each other.

Outside the family, each household is cut off from the others, each group picked apart by conflict, fear, race, sex, disagreements over ideology or politics, loss, loneliness, and suffering. Even the body of believers seems to have been dismembered—a hand here, an eye there, a lonely foot.

I am so tired of hearing this at the grocery store: ‘Please remember to stay at least six feet away from other shoppers…We are all in this together.’ Can anyone else see the irony there? We are all in this alone—a friend across town might as well be on the other side of the planet. Digital substitutes for real people just make things worse. I’m longing for community: common + unity.”

And here is the result of my morning Bible reading from Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, written on the right side:

“You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)

“Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

“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.” (2 Corinthians 4:8)

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Sometimes we forget that our bodies house an eternal Spirit and we lose our Big Picture thinking. Nothing terrible lasts forever. We do have to withstand a lot right now—but our resilience does not come from what’s on the outside. Our strength is not physical, but spiritual.

We are fragile, with bodies that age, sicken, and die, hearts that can be broken, minds that can become unstable, relationships that can be damaged. But on the inside we possess something powerful—King Solomon said “God has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:10). If we can hold onto the knowledge that “the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53), if we can remember that despite our loneliness we are not really alone, then we can find our stability like the jars in my pantry: pressed but not crushed, standing firm, and holding the imperishable inside the fragile.

Pep Talk #17: Fish Out of Water

Flying Fish
Sam with a flying fish found on deck during a passage.

Have you ever observed a goldfish in a bowl? It swims in circles, it examines (and sometimes nibbles at) the colored pebbles on the tank floor, swims in and out of its little plastic cave, eats food flakes off the surface and generally doesn’t seem to mind it’s surroundings, as long as someone keeps the bowl clean and feeds it. To me, it looks like an inane life—a fish can only be content with this small world because its brain is tiny and houses no ambition. And yet…

I am married to my high school sweetheart (together 27 years now), creative problem-solver, father of our five children, captain of our boat, database engineer/consultant…and introvert. His “office” for the last twelve years has been a 3’ x 4’ x 6’ shared pace in the fourth cabin on our boat—office by day, kid’s bunk by night. It’s not air-conditioned unless the generator is running or we’re living at a dock, but he seldom complains. He rarely leaves the boat, since the work he does for fun is in the same place as the work he does for a living; when he gets up from his computer, he might pick up a sander and go to work on our decks, or a screwdriver to rebuild a broken pump, or do something with one of the kids. He meets many of the requirements for happiness in a solitary life and fitness for living aboard a boat. He’s no brainless goldfish, but he is content with a self-contained life.

Of course, since opposites attract, I possess other, complementary traits, like an outgoing nature, a love of language, hospitality, and creativity (especially when shared). These traits are also helpful when living on a boat—when we get to a new place, I am the one who meets new people, figures out where to get things, who acts as translator if necessary, who invites friends for dinner and arranges get-togethers and field trips with other sailors. I am the ambassador. When I’m forced to curtail these social activities—due to long passages, isolated locations, bad weather, or a global pandemic that requires social distancing, this outgoing nature is quickly frustrated. I begin to view the “goldfish bowl” as a small, uncomfortable, limiting existence.

Occasionally, a pet goldfish will try to leave its watery habitat. It usually happens when the temperature is off or the tank is unclean, or if the fish is stressed or ill. It might jump out of its bowl, hoping to discover better conditions, only to find itself flopping around on the dresser, gasping for water. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it may discover too late that “there’s no place like home.”

Of course, I am not a fish, nor am I ready to “jump” because my social life has shrunk to a sunset happy hour with Jay on the back steps. Put in perspective with the real suffering of illness, poverty, and injustice, our mere discomfort does not merit complaint. If anything, now is the time to be grateful; we are healthy and safe, and the slower pace has been good for our family and our homeschool. But in addition to bemoaning the state of the world, I have also possessed the attitude of a spoiled brat; I confess to feeling discontented and ungrateful, to pining after something I can’t have right now, and to complaining about disrupted plans and lost opportunities. Without the normal rhythms of work and play, social activities and gatherings—some of which are, in truth, distractions—I am doing some soul-searching, and realizing that saying “God’s grace is sufficient” and living it are two different things (from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians 12:9). That verse continues: “His strength is made perfect in weakness,” but who wants to admit weakness? When the going gets tough, the tough are not supposed to act like toddlers, but sometimes they do. The verse finishes with, “therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

My main weaknesses consist of self-centeredness and a choice to focus on the wrong things. I have discovered in the last three months that the difference between a “good day” and a “bad day” is where I keep my focus. If I am using a screen as a substitute for time with a real person, if I am spending a lot of time looking at bad news, if I am giving way to feelings of loss, frustration, or anxiety, then I am heading for trouble and probably tears. Instead, if I wake up early and have my morning quiet time, if I am praying for those who are suffering, if I am counting my blessings, if I am truly present and willing to accept the gift of this day (whatever it holds), if I am investing in real relationships, then I am content. A simple change of focus makes all the difference.

Here are the things for which I am especially grateful today:

  • For my marriage of almost 23 years, for the daily sunset “date” Jay and I have set aside in order to give each other undivided attention, for Jay’s calm, steady, unflagging nature, and for his tireless patience with my ups and downs, and for his honesty and hard work.
  • For my children, who offer pearls of wisdom every time I stop to listen.
  • For my extended family, whether by blood, marriage, or “adoption,” who are encouraging and supportive, who will stop what they’re doing to talk or pray, who demonstrate what love is.
  • For the homeschool community and the sailing community—despite the curtailing of activities, there I find love and connection.
  • For the privilege of living and traveling on Take Two, for all we have learned while living aboard, and for friends from around the world.
  • For the simple things—a safe place to sleep, food to eat, fresh air and sunshine, health, time with family, the gift of life itself.

Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, Greece, offers this thought on contentment: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through him (Christ) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13).  

Maybe, like Jay, you are a happy goldfish. Or, like me, you might be feeling sometimes like a fish out of water, gasping for community, struggling in relationships, and experiencing a mixture of sadness, fear, and anger about what’s going on in the world. Your situation might be worse, or it might be better. Whatever the case, we can all use our present circumstances to delve deeper into what it means to have faith, to be thankful no matter what, and to find strength in weakness.

Pep Talk #16: We Are Family

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain

Providencia
Providencia, Isla de Colombia 2018

Something that travel has offered me is the chance to see myself as part of the human family, to go beyond labels of “white” or “American.” Making connections with locals in the places we traveled highlighted how much we humans have in common, despite differences in class, language, religion, appearance, and place of birth. We have been welcomed as friends by complete strangers, despite our awkwardness and our “otherness.” This reinforces our desire to do the same to others.

The kind of travel we do on our boat is not a vacation; we sail to a new place to learn about life in another corner of the world, to meet new people, and to hopefully go beyond the superficial. While we enjoy it, we also find it to be humbling, difficult, and eye-opening. And even the chance to live this way is a privilege of which we have become more and more aware.

Upon our return to the United States, we realized something else that travel offers: the chance to see our own country with new eyes. I hear music and language, see faces, and interact with people in a completely new way. I was raised to love and accept everyone as a child of God. I was raised to respect people even when I disagreed with them. While I may not have been “blinded” by racism or classism, I have had tunnel vision. I have made certain assumptions, had prejudices, and followed patterns of thought that put people in a box or even made them invisible. I probably still do; and will likely spend the rest of my life making course corrections as cross-cultural relationships broaden my horizons.

Tachi and Tanya, Providencia, Isla de Colombia
My friend Tachi , Providencia 2018

I am disheartened by the division I see in our country—by the ignorance, disrespect, and open hatred. Even among those who agree that there is one God, one faith, and one love that binds us together, there is disunity. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Those who claim Jesus as the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, must grapple with what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And who is my neighbor? His parable of the good Samaritan answers that question by challenging racism and bigotry explicitly; he’s calling his listeners out on their hypocrisy.

It is easier to stand on the sidelines and criticize something as obviously wrong as looting and vandalism, to point out how it doesn’t honor the dead or further a just cause. It is much harder to see that the rage that leads to social breakdown is a result of systemic injustice, of our own actions or inaction; harder to admit that “there but by the grace of God go I” (John Bradford). If I had been born in other circumstances, I might be the one lighting fires. The potential for chaos exists in every human heart.

But so does the potential for compassion, communication with respect, and love. Do not lose hope. If you believe we can be governed by something beyond raw emotions, if you believe that God can set us free from all the things that bind us (including our own ignorance, bias, and past mistakes) and make us into a family, if you pray “Your kingdom come,” if you are willing to cross cultural barriers to form authentic relationships, then there is no reason to despair. I retain the hope that one day we will break down the walls that separate us, that we will treat others the way we want to be treated, that we will lay down our lives—our agendas, our judgments, our pride—for our friends. Hate is real, but so is love.

Mi hermano Deibi and kids
My “hermano” from Venezuela, Deibi, 2017

As a starting point, I can recommend these three books from different genres that have caused me to stop and question my own thinking and to see life from another vantage point:

  • Jodie Piccoult’s novel, Small Great Things
  • Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime
  • Spencer Perkins’ and Chris Rice’s non-fiction book, More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel 

Pep Talk #15: The Caged Bird Sings (and Other Creative Coping Mechanisms)

Cartagena

“Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.” –Elizabeth Gilbert (in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear)

Humans create things because we can’t not create. The cave paintings of Lascaux bear witness: even those hunter-gatherers whose lives were defined by the eat-or-be-eaten struggle still found energy to create beautiful images by firelight with materials they had on hand. Whether rich or poor, free or slave, homo sapiens write, draw, sing, paint, dance, cook, design, play instruments, sew, tell stories, take photographs, make up games, and decorate themselves and their living spaces. Creativity is universal, and not dependent on circumstances.

Tiny tapestry by Ray Materson: "Prison Musician"
Prison Musician, a miniature tapestry by Ray Materson,
housed at the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

Hardship, in its many guises, cannot quash creativity: I once saw an exhibition of tiny embroidered tapestries by Ray Materson, a man serving time in a state penitentiary who got ahold of a needle and unraveled socks to make art. Similarly, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum houses a collection of “illegal art” made by concentration camp victims, demonstrating that even in a seemingly hopeless situation, hope finds a way, and that way is marked with beauty. America owes much of its musical heritage to African slaves—who brought rhythms and styles from another continent and who made up songs as they labored under compulsion. Maya Angelou nails it in her poem, “Caged Bird”:

The caged bird sings/with a fearful trill/of things unknown/but longed for still/and his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/sings of freedom.

Cages take many forms. There are the bars and chains you can see, and the ones inside the mind, which may be invisible but no less limiting. There are cages made for us, and barred doors we lock ourselves. Slavery and persecution are cages, but so are the greed and hatred that cause them. Poverty is a kind of cage, and so are fear and depression. Childhood abuse can keep people locked up long after they’ve grown into adults, and mental illness can be a cruel and unusual punishment that leaves both body and mind imprisoned.

Even a quarantine is a kind of cage—though we can justify its necessity and though it may be temporary, it chafes just the same. Talking with a fellow sailor who finds himself in geographical limbo because of the pandemic, country closures, and the impending hurricane season, we agreed that though we are grateful for our relative comfort, the restrictions on movement and social interaction and the inability to plan for an uncertain future leave us feeling trapped. It’s a gilded cage, for sure, compared with nursing homes, shoebox-sized apartments in big cities, prisons, and hospitals, but a cage nonetheless.

One of the deepest longings of the human psyche is freedom—not just the ability to physically move without restriction, or to make our own decisions, but to be liberated in our thinking, to be unchained in our hearts. And when we can’t get out of a restrictive situation, creativity can breathe freedom into our souls. While it’s easy to focus on the negative because bad news sells, I have also been so amazed by the positive responses of the human race in the last couple of months.

Despite suffering from ALS and nearly complete paralysis, my friend Lisa’s grandmother was smiling and singing from her chair in a locked-down California nursing home. A college friend wrote a song with his suddenly-homeschooled kids and posted the music video. My daughter Rachel and her friend Zoe on S/V Rothim began an exchange of letters and art projects—each one more fantastic and creative than the last.

Practice with a quill pen

Projects people put off for years are getting done, murals are popping up on walls, and photographs are getting shared. People are making music and not just downloading it. People are learning to grow vegetables and cooking homemade meals and not just consuming convenient calories. Despite cages of illness, fear, sadness, and anger, creative humans are responding with love, light, color, sound, and joy.

Our creativity can be fed, and not choked, by our circumstances. We can take our mixed emotions, our limitations, our pain, our frustration, and make something. It is always within our power to make or destroy, to raise or raze. While it is arguably easier to destroy—to give in to rage or apathy—the hard work of making something beautiful brings us a sense of accomplishment and joy that frees our minds even though our circumstances may remain unchanged.

To do this fearlessly, without self-criticism and without worrying about what someone else will think, is to engage in something magical, miraculous, and transformative. I leave you with a quote from Rachel Hollis (in Girl Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be):

“Creating is the greatest expression of reverence that I can think of because I recognize that the desire to make something is a gift from God…if you’re unconcerned about other people’s interpretations, then everything you make is fantastic.”

Go make something fantastic.

Laundry Day Uke Practice
Uke practice in the community garden, photo by Erica S/V Tulsi

Pep Talk #14: You Never Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone

Mom's Night Out

I was accosted in the grocery store parking lot…by a friend who ran up to my car window, hugged my neck, kissed my cheek and then promptly stepped back a foot or six and apologized. Though we live in the same small town, I hadn’t seen her in person since early March. A few months ago, this would have been bizarre behavior on two fronts: I would neither have thought twice about a hug-and-kiss, nor would she have felt the need to recoil after realizing her impulsive behavior might offend me.

It is hard to know how to behave right now—that’s what’s got all of us on edge, and some of us at each other’s throats. I’m married to a self-employed introvert who doesn’t mind retreating for a couple of months while the rest of humanity learns about this novel virus through trial-and-error, but I am an incautious extrovert, unhappy with the sacrifice of three-dimensional friends for anything short of the plague (which this is not). As a result, we’ve met somewhere in the middle—doing risk-benefit analysis on everything from grocery shopping procedures to allowing our boys to go to work to going for a walk with a friend outside. I have resorted to asking Jay before I do anything, except for maybe stopping by a friend’s boat in the dinghy, where “social distancing” is the norm based on the size of our dinghy and the height of the deck of a boat.

Because we really don’t know what the risks of this new illness are or how easily it spreads, because there’s so much conflicting information, it takes time to sift through possible responses and come up with a reasonable approach. I have tried to remain humble and non-judgmental—any posturing from either end of the spectrum (“Fear nothing!”  Or, “Fear everything!”) looks like arrogance to me. Solomon, in his wisdom, said that the man who fears God avoids the extremes of foolishness and self-righteousness (paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 7:18).

So as we begin the slow process of opening up, coming out of our collective quarantine, returning to work, school, and social lives, our family will continue to govern itself by this middle path: we will neither shut ourselves up indefinitely to “stay safe” waiting for a medical miracle, nor will we behave flippantly during a pandemic—our behavior can and does affect others, and we ought to be governed by compassion.

And we will never, never, never take relationships for granted.

They say you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. There’s some truth in that—ask anyone who’s ever lost someone they loved. Or ask a New Englander how he feels about summer sunshine during the middle of a hard winter. Or ask a traveler how she feels about home a few months into a long journey. Living on the boat has taught us something about deprivation and appreciation, too. Until we lived without an endless supply of hot water or without air conditioning on a hot, still night, we didn’t properly enjoy a long, hot shower, or a cool night’s sleep.

Gratitude is magnified when we experience abundance after scarcity.

A few things have made this apparent to me. My Bible study group here in the Keys consists of praying women in different stages of life; it has continued to meet at our normal time during quarantine. Every Wednesday morning, we grab our coffee and log into Zoom, our faces popping onto the screen like the intro to The Brady Bunch. Last week, we met at the beach, which had recently re-opened, spreading out in a wide circle, but in person. It was a night-and-day difference. Their love, faith, and encouragement have been wonderful during this strange time—and I’m grateful we have the technology to stay connected, but I didn’t really grasp the metaphysical difference between 2-D and 3-D until I saw them again in living color.

Phone calls/video chats with family, virtual “tea parties” with friends, and keeping tabs on people via Facebook or Instagram are better than nothing, but a poor substitute for the real thing. Going for a walk with a friend, celebrating a birthday (outdoors, just to be on the safe side), and sharing a happy hour wine-and-cheese with neighbors in their cockpit—these simple joys from the last couple of weeks have reminded me how much we need real people in our lives. And, how much they need us.

Last weekend, we helped some friends whose house is finally getting repaired after hurricane Irma damaged it in 2017. They needed some extra muscle to remove the furniture from the second-story living space and to finish a chicken coop to protect their birds while they are away living in a rental house so that the construction crew can demolish and rebuild part of their home. This work couldn’t wait until we have decided it’s “safe” to come out, so we took the risk of offering assistance. We had a literal barn-raising—a true community effort. I had forgotten what a joy it is to be with a group of people, working together, sharing a meal, seeing teenagers chip in cheerfully—lugging couches downstairs, preparing lunch for others, painting the chicken coop. This is what life in a community should look like.

And what is life without community? We need each other; our very survival depends on cooperative behavior. It is essential to our well-being as social creatures. I am reminded of a quote from a favorite animated movie, The Croods, about a family of cavemen who venture out into the dangerous unknown. Commenting on their “safe” life inside the cave, the teenage daughter Eep says, “That wasn’t living! That was just…‘not dying!’”

The message, “stay safe,” that we see on billboards, that flashes across our screens, and that we hear on the intercom at the grocery store, contains an inherent fallacy. Life, love, the pursuit of our dreams—these things were never safe. Everything we do requires a risk of one kind or another. How long can we live inside a cave, simply not dying? Every person will have to do this risk-benefit analysis going forward, and when we reach different conclusions than our loved ones, only compassion and humility will smooth out the wrinkles.

My heart is full of love and longing: for our parents, who we haven’t seen in months and who face a much higher risk of life-threatening infection if they go out in public or visit in person, for my siblings and the close-knit group of friends who have supported us for years in our homeschool journey, for our friends old and new in far-flung places, now that travel has become difficult-to-impossible. I remain hopeful that we will be able to normalize our interactions someday, but until then, I can see already how much more I appreciate these relationships.