Category Archives: Pep Talks

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.

Pep Talk #13: Dance Like No One is Watching

Rachel Dancing
Rachel dancing, age 3

I’m feeling really good these days, despite the fact that the news is getting worse, not better. Maybe my husband is a prophet (or a pessimist), but he saw all this coming. Two months ago, he was listening to the medical advisors’ and the economic advisors’ contradictory advice, and it seemed to boil down to this: shut everything down to save lives, keep everything open to save lives. If we keep vectors for the novel coronavirus apart from each other (issue shelter-at-home orders), fewer people will die and we won’t overwhelm the medical system. Alternately, if we open the economy after a short quarantine, we may be able to prevent the collapse of our economy and social breakdown, thus saving lives. And while it is easy to criticize a leader who comes off as a buffoon, without the benefit of omniscience, we can’t really say what the correct approach to this thing is. Unprecedented means we’ve never done this before. With such disparate viewpoints and polarization over something as simple as whether to wear a mask in the grocery store, we are left each to himself to decide what it means to “do the right thing.” And once we’ve decided, we take sides and begin to tear each other apart, right? My goodness, how quickly we lose our humanity and resemble wild dogs!

So, yes, we may be facing the “end of the world as we know it,” and someday we may be able to look back and see what we should have done, hindsight being 20/20 (no pun intended). But that doesn’t necessarily help us decide what to do now, where to put our mental and emotional (and sometimes physical) energy—if we should respond with sadness, fear, anger, apathy, compassion, joy. Yes, I said joy. How you respond to this crisis might become your coping mechanism, so choose carefully. And study your history books: it’s always a slippery slope from labeling people (or hanging an auction number around the neck or pinning gold stars to a sleeve) to annihilation. If we forget what makes us human, if we forget to look at our enemy as a wayward brother, if we choose competition over cooperation, we are going to create the thing we are afraid of: complete breakdown, in which we all lose, but some lose more than others.

I choose joy. Do not confuse this with happiness, or naivete, or delusion. It is a deep-down, smile-no-matter what, focus on something good kind of joy. Joy stands in an attitude of defiance: “no matter what happens, I will continue to demonstrate love. I will continue to dance, sing, create, help others, feed my soul, and laugh at absurdity.” Where ephemeral happiness disappears with the rain cloud, joy goes under cover and concentrates on remembering the sunny days of yore and hoping for sunny days ahead. Joy can co-exist with sadness and anger, but it prevents one from slipping into hatred, apathy, fear, and self-destruction.

I am a slow learner, and joy does not always come easily for me. I am capable of doom-and-gloom, stinginess of love, taking things too seriously, snappishness, trying to control things and then whining when I don’t get my way. These things tend to send joy running. Maybe you can find joy another way, but the way I find it is in the context of faith.

For many, Christianity looks like a vast self-deception, one in direct opposition to scientific thinking. To others, it is a social construct to keep people under control. I have heard it said that it is merely a crutch for the weak, who are uncomfortable with the unknown and need a God-is-in-control narrative. To me, it is a life-raft: I am in the middle of a dark ocean, defeated as much by my own negative thoughts and behaviors as the various horrors I see in the world, my boat is sinking, and though I can swim, I can’t do it long enough to save myself—and then a bright-yellow self-inflating raft pops to the surface, someone extends a hand and I climb in—so relieved that I can’t help but whoop and holler. This is what God did—and does for me. Call me delusional and weak-minded if you like, but I heard God’s voice, and I am undeniably afloat instead of at the bottom of the ocean. We can discuss endlessly the complicated details of divisive theology, abuse done in God’s name, seeming contradictions in the Bible or in the fossil record—I am not ignorant of these things. But most of the problems with religion are man-made (big surprise there). Maybe we could discuss these things inside the rubber raft instead of while treading water in a sea full of circling sharks.

Here is some advice from the first century, from a letter written to a church suffering persecution in the Greek coastal city Thessaloniki. It is encouragement to the believers there to live lives worthy of their calling. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 5:16-22, NIV Bible).

I don’t know what else to do right now. Maybe I will be called to act or to resist action. Maybe I will soon be in survival mode myself. While I wait, watch, and take care of daily tasks, I am also playing my ukulele, writing songs, editing my book (which feels like it will never be done), playing with my kids, making delicious meals, homeschooling, writing down my thoughts, reading good books, walking and biking and kayaking, talking to friends on the phone, listening to music, praying—both alone and with a group of faithful sisters (via Zoom), and occasionally adding my two-cents-worth to the wide-ranging virtual discussions.

Whatever the circumstances, we have the freedom to choose our responses. We can choose joy, if not happiness. If the Titanic of our “normal life” is sinking, we can emulate the musicians playing on the slanting deck. We may fall down, have a bad day, backslide, but we can get back up, remember that we are loved and are capable of love. If people’s fear, arrogance, or hatred reduces them to snitching on their neighbors (may we never forget Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia), it may make it hard to freely do the things that bring us joy, but for now, we must continue to dance like no one is watching.

Pep Talk #12: No Time Like the Present

Sunset, Providenca

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

–Roger Waters (from “Time” by Pink Floyd)

When we traded our plot of dirt for a floating home 12 years ago, we also opted out of the “normal” life. Until we came back to the United States from the Caribbean last July, none of our children had ever attended class in a conventional school setting, played on a sports team, or owned a cell phone. They had rarely lived in one place for more than six-to-twelve months, and they almost never missed a family dinner. We came back, in large part, to give our teenagers some of the normalcy which they had missed and to help them take steps to integrate and find independence. By the fall, we were so swamped in busy-ness that we found it difficult to sit down even one night a week with everyone in the family to have a conversation at the dinner table. I was looking around at other families and wondering how they could stand it—how could this be “normal”? When everything ground to a halt in March, one of the things I felt was relief.

This week, my friend Sadie admitted that she has loved this aspect of the COVID-19 mass-quarantine. She has experienced in the last couple of months what I feel like we’ve had for the last decade. Don’t get me wrong—homeschooling five kids on a boat, traveling, working from home, cooking everything from scratch, doing laundry, and keeping a boat running smoothly—that’s a full and busy life! But we’ve done all those things out of choice, not obligation. The schedule we set was our own—if we got overwhelmed, we could cut something out to give ourselves margin. The routines we adopted upon our return, however, seemed so much harder. Taking kids to and from school, sports, activities, and appointments, and trying to live according to the clock left me feeling rushed, anxious, and guilty (when I couldn’t keep up).

Now of course, we have plenty of time, copious amounts of unstructured hours and days and weeks, while we shelter at home waiting for whatever comes next. This is not necessarily good. Without goals and a sense of purpose, time ends up getting frittered away, and as it is a limited commodity, something we can neither buy nor save for later, we cannot afford to waste it! So I am looking for the middle ground, a productive-but-enjoyable life somewhere between frenetic and idle. I am seeking this balance in the purgatory of self-isolation while we wait for a worldwide pandemic (and the looming economic and social disaster) to run its course.

Initially, we were hopeful that this would “blow over” in a couple of months, though it was clear from watching other countries that this was just wishful thinking. Things may not get better for a long while, and they may never go back to normal (which I argue wasn’t that great, anyway). If we are entering a period of prolonged instability, we’re going to need a sustainable outlook. How we prepare for a marathon is very different than for a sprint. Until we have more information about the virus and its long-term effects, it’s hard to make an informed decision about how to proceed. In the meantime, how ought we to live day-to-day?

Everyone’s situation is different. Those who are convalescing may feel like they are stuck inside Thomas Mann’s 900-page novel, Magic Mountain. Some people (like my husband) are busier at work, and don’t feel the slow-down at all. Others have been adjusting in stages—first enjoyment of a slower pace, and creative use of the extra time, then despondency or frustration as it seems to stretch on longer and longer, confusion over mixed messages from media and leaders, and, if your state is still closed, resignation and boredom. Still others are in survival mode and beginning to feel desperate. But what we all share is a universal feeling of uncertainty, an inability to plan for the future.

As I work through these stages myself, as I journal my thoughts and emotions, I have come to realize that planning itself is a luxury and an illusion. The majority of the people on our planet live day-by-day, hand-to-mouth, without having a choice or the ability to save and plan for the future. And even in my privileged life, I never had more than today. And neither have you. We were never guaranteed a “normal life” or anything resembling consistency. Life—and death—on Earth is anything but predictable. Our lives are a fragile gift—granted largely by circumstances over which we have little control, and we have never had more than the breath we are breathing right now. We can’t see the future, and we struggle to make sense of conflicting stories about the past. All we can do is carefully spend our limited time in the present.

All we have is now.

And now is not the time for laziness, but for learning to control our emotions, sharpening our minds, strengthening our bodies, and building up our spirits. Our humanity depends on it. Hopefully, we will emerge from this crisis stronger, because it will not be the last. What are we learning about ourselves and our values that we can bring with us into a new normal? What needs to change? How can we, individually and collectively, add love and light to a world where there is so much darkness and despair? How can we invest this time so that we’ll have something to show for it?

Without a clock, calendar, or plan for the future, we can still have goals for now. Here are mine:

  • To wake up every morning and say “thank you for my life.”
  • To do one thing every day for my mind, for my body, and for my spirit.
  • To monitor and adjust my attitudes about my daily tasks.
  • To be kind to myself and the people I live with.
  • To keep informed about what’s going on in the wide world without losing sight of the small world at my fingertips.
  • To limit my screen time, play games with my children, pursue creative endeavors (writing, painting, music), read good books, make nourishing food, keep in touch with my neighbors, get enough rest, do what brings joy and share it when I can.
  • To support those who are struggling.
  • To take life one day at a time and keep my thoughts in the present.

Pep Talk #11: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy in the present is to recall happy times from the past. Photos are a great memory-prompt, and because we tend to take photos of happy occasions, they weight our memories to the good.” –Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

IMG_4217
First Mate Tanya & the Crew of Take Two in the Tongue of the Ocean, Bahamas, 2014

If my title holds water, I can stop right here and save you my ruminations…but of course I’m more of a writer than a photographer, so you know I’m going to say something anyway. I’ve been using some of the endless expanse of time after school and chores are done to go through old photographs. Our external storage drive is full of folders like this: “Unprocessed 2014.” That’s a photo-dump—every picture we took in 2014, un-sorted, un-edited, sometimes un-looked-at since it was taken. I’m enjoying, organizing, and labeling the happy moments in our life at a time when everything else looks like it’s heading to hell-in-a-handbasket.

There is a lot of bad news right now, and not just in the mainstream news. I have friends in low places, countries where children are dying of malnutrition faster than people in cities are dying of the new virus. Things that were bad before seem to be getting even worse. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, reports of disease, famine, violence, and death come riding across the internet, and even though I would like to close my eyes and stop my ears, some of these stories are touching people who are like family to me. My heart is breaking, and yet I still have to function in the day-to-day. I’ll let you know when I figure out how to get through a day without springing leaks.

I know we’re supposed to live in the present, but when the present is dark, we can also dig into the treasure-trove of the past. No matter what happens going forward, here’s something that can’t be taken away: yesterday’s happy memories. We stored them up for such a time as this.

Today I found this one: on a hot and boring passage to the Bahamas, we did what we often do, put the engines in neutral, toss drift lines off the transoms, and jump in. We were crossing the Tongue of the Ocean—1000 fathoms of indigo water. If you put on a mask and look down, it gives you the feeling of standing on the old Sears Tower lookout deck (now Skydeck Chicago), more a fear of heights than of depths. You feel like a water strider on a pond, and the next step in your imagination is the predator from the deep coming up for a snack. It’s terrifying, invigorating, and fun. I will never forget that day, and I loved having the photo to bring it to the surface.

So many times since we returned from the Caribbean in July, I have found myself expressing gratitude for our travel memories. I’m so happy that we took the plunge, sold our house, and went sailing with our children. I know you have memories of happy times, too: dredge them up and let them bring you joy.

Previous post on a similar topic:

Pep Talk #10: A Tree is Known by its Fruit

Frutas del Mundo Farm, Jack Fruit
The Distinctive Jackfruit

A crisis reveals a lot about you and the people you love. When normal life and decorum are stripped away, you may be left exposed and raw, emotional and fragile, or you may demonstrate a strength of which you were previously unaware. You may be alternately strong and weak, or both simultaneously. When you are hurting, you know your friends by whether they stand by you or criticize you, or abandon you altogether. You find out how well you love others—whether you have a reserve out of which to give. Patterns from your childhood may reassert themselves, or you may find that the only solid ground to stand on rests on the healthy habits you have formed in adulthood.

I have made some observations about myself, some of which are not pretty. I have laughed heartily at all the introvert/extrovert videos circulating, at how true they are. I am married to someone who once told me “I would be perfectly happy on a deserted island.” This idea filled me with horror…I would be suicidal on a deserted island, or, like Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away, I would be making friends with inanimate objects. I am surprised at how resentful I feel at Jay’s ability to remain calm, steady, happy, industrious…so normal despite the abnormal circumstances.

We have been isolated before—I mean, we live on a boat, right? But I’ve discovered that I can handle about three weeks in paradise, surrounded by the six people I love most in the world, before I need a new face to look at, a new person to talk to. An extrovert needs people like a plant needs sunshine. Some days, I’m fine, and the two-dimensional substitutes for a real live friend (facebook, phone, Zoom) are good enough. Other days, I feel trapped and cranky—I can’t even be nice to the people I am around. What’s wrong with me?

When I have very little control over the circumstances around me, I always go back to the mirror. Not to stare like Narcissus, but to examine my responses, which I can control, and to look at who I really am. It’s the oldest question in the book: Who am I? And the second, Why am I here? These questions invariably lead me back to the bedrock of my spiritual faith; either I am here by cosmic accident or I am here because Someone put me here. Both answers require faith—no one was there at the beginning to see how it all got started, and it requires an astronomical amount of time and a stretch of the imagination to get from an amoeba to a human mind.

For reasons with which I could fill a book, I have come to the conclusion that Someone put me here, that it wasn’t an alien civilization (because if it were, I would still have to ask who created the aliens?), that I’m not part of a computer simulation (because if I were, I would still have to ask, who is the programmer?), that we are more than mere physical manifestations of the life force, and that life has meaning, and that Good is as real as Evil, and that the source of that Good is personal and knowable. If you’ve read what I’ve written before, this comes as no surprise.

But I also see the darkness in my own reflection—my capacity for meanness, sadness, selfishness—a human nature at war with better impulses. I see the choices before me: to be patient or angry, to sow peace or discord, to respond to irritations with gentleness or harshness, to spend my time satisfying myself or caring for someone else, to offer thanks or complain, to forgive or hold a grudge, to focus on the negative or the positive. And the Someone who has me in the here-and-now has given me the power to exercise the better option, according to a favorite quote, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control” (Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, verses 22-23, New International Version of the Bible).

Fruit of the Spirit, by Rachel
Fruit of the Spirit, by Rachel

Just like grapevines need rocky soil and harsh conditions to produce good fruit (in better conditions they produce only foliage), I myself grow spiritually during hardship. Circumstances may grow worse, or they may get better. But whatever the environment, I want to be the tree producing good fruit. Nothing could be simpler…or more difficult.

Because love is a choice I make, not a fleeting emotion, the small decisions I make every day become essential. To choose loving actions, I must make a connection with the Source of Love. I must learn to love myself—to accept that I am loved—in order to love others. Then, maybe then, I can “love my neighbor as I love myself.” Right now that means loving well the people in my direct environs, and the people with whom I have contact because the gift of technology brings humans together in an unprecedented way.

Paul warns the Galatians, just as he would warn us now, in an age when a person can hide behind a digital persona and say ugly things to his fellows with impunity, “if you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature…the one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians chapter 5, verse 15 and chapter 6, verses 8-9).

I had a rough week, and maybe you did, too. I’m struggling to discipline myself and keep us in a routine that fosters productivity and positivity. Even if I limit the news coming in, I know things are bad—I am hearing from friends around the world about horrific circumstances that put my petty complaints into perspective. And so I write these pep talks as much for myself as for someone else who might benefit. I must wake up every morning and tell myself the truth: “God loves you. He has a plan. Don’t live in fear, but in love. Choose kindness. Be thankful. Don’t give up. Be the tree that bears good fruit.”

Pep Talk #9: Feeling Blue

Blue

Despite the fact that I live on a boat and homeschool my kids, I’m not the kind of person who lies around in my PJs all day. For my own mental health, I have gotten up every morning for the last 18 1/2 years (as long as I’ve been a stay-at-home mom) and started my day dressed for success. For me that means a sundress or skirt/skort and top, or maybe blue jeans if it’s cold, and a matching necklace. If I’m having a really rough morning, I might put even put on a little makeup to spruce myself up, but those extreme measures are rarely necessary.

This quarantine has probably pushed all of us to the edge of our emotional comfort zones, and maybe over the edge in some cases. For people who have never been at home full-time with their kids, it has probably been extremely challenging. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are single people suffering from isolation and wishing they had family around to keep them company! Though I am more accustomed than most to being in a small space with my family, having nowhere to go to get off the boat even has me struggling a bit. I woke up Saturday feeling so blue I didn’t bother to get dressed. I wasn’t able to pep-talk myself out of my funk by the first cup of coffee, so I took the second cup down to my cabin and wallowed. When my youngest kid came down to see what I was up to, I responded this way:

“You know when you’re having a bad day, when you have a bad attitude and everything that comes out of your mouth gets you into trouble, and I have to send you to your room to get control of yourself? Well…I sent myself to my room. And I’ll come up when I have control of myself.” She accepted this explanation and did a great job of entertaining herself the rest of the day.

Later, Jay came down, worried, and tried to snap me out of it by offering the old “we have a lot to be thankful for” speech. I acknowledged that he was right, assured him that I was feeling grateful…but that I still felt sad. That I could both realize what I have (food, family, health, home, love) and grieve at the same time (suffering of others, loss of normalcy, missing time with friends, loss of freedom, ruined plans). To make matters worse, the weather had turned hot and buggy for a few days and the mosquitoes and sweat had lowered my sleep quality. Nothing like physical discomfort to enhance the experience of wallowing. And hormones, don’t forget hormones.

So I spent the whole day just being sad. In the afternoon, I reached out to a friend, whose elderly mother lives with her. I had just read some news about how nursing homes are death-traps right now, and I got outside myself long enough to send a message saying I was so glad her mom was at home with her, even though I know that care-taking has been hard sometimes. She responded, and asked how I was doing. I answered honestly, and she called. Bless her—she’s no stranger to anxiety and depression—and she seems to have a knack for speaking kind words and making me laugh. We had a long talk, and by the end of our conversation, I no longer felt like crying. When we hung up, she sent me some photos of her daffodils, which are blooming, and it made me smile.

Daffodils (courtesy of Kimberly Ward)
Kimberly Ward’s Daffodils

I got up, took a shower, got a haircut (thanks to my teenage daughter’s newly-acquired hairdressing skills), watched the sunset with Jay on the foredeck, and made a nice dinner. I woke up Sunday feeling much better. And now I’m asking myself: is a day spent wallowing a waste of time? Is there something else I should have done? Does camping out in the valley sadness have a purpose? My conclusions so far:

  • Wallowing didn’t make me feel better. That’s the point. I was choosing to stay in my sadness, literally rolling in it. But there’s a fine line between sadness and self-pity.
  • It’s okay to experience the whole range of human emotions, as long as we don’t let them run the show. It’s okay to go to the edge of the lake, dip our toes in, get wet…but if we wade in over our heads, we might drown. I have a healthy fear of the deep end.
  • Crying out in sadness is a universally human thing to do. I love Bible stories with wallowing characters: Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, Elijah running into the desert to die, David pouring out his soul to God in sorrow, Hannah on her face in the temple begging for a child, Paul asking, “who will rescue me from this body of death?” Woe is me. They are not talking to themselves, though, but to God, with hope that help is on the way. We can let our grief become a prayer.
  • Sadness/grief that doesn’t move toward acceptance or healing can become simultaneously selfish and self-destructive—choosing to dwell in disappointment prevents us from caring for ourselves and others.
  • There are things I could have done despite my sadness: go for a walk, listen to music, take a shower, write in my journal, complete a task, read a book, play with my kids, practice ukulele, help someone else: any of these things could have done the trick. Sometimes, when we don’t feel like doing something, that’s exactly when we need it the most.
  • I have never battled depression. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to live with a life-sapping melancholy. I am talking about one day of sadness, something a pep talk can address. If you are depressed, if your feelings of hopelessness or despair are keeping you from being able to live your life, get help. Reach out and talk to someone who understands. You are not alone.

Pep Talk #8: Food for Worms

Dead or Alive?
All dead…or mostly dead?

I am really bad at keeping plants alive. Even the hearty aloe is not safe on our boat. The one I have kept since the last one got doused with salt water and I sent it, literally, to greener pastures to be revived, isn’t looking so good. With a tiny bit of hope (a last-ditch effort), I watered it this morning on deck, where it sat waiting to go ashore, to the top of the marina dumpster where there is a “free pile.” If the thing is all dead (not just mostly dead), at least someone could re-use the pot. This dead plant got me thinking.

With lots of bad news circulating, the death tally growing, I have been observing people’s responses and seeing very different reactions to the threat of COVID-19. There are people taking it seriously, people scoffing, people suffering anxiety, people arguing for a utilitarian response (where the ends justify the means), and people echoing the words of Revolutionary Patriots—”give me liberty or give me death!” With everyone eyeing each other suspiciously over a mask, fear is in the air.

There is a lot to fear right now: the pandemic itself—of getting sick, the possibility of interminable isolation, the loss of livelihood, the possible loss of liberty, the uncertain future—and, of course, the biggest fear: Death. We face (or run from) this fear every day as a life form on planet earth. If we have been ignoring our own mortality and the questions that surround it, the bad news all around us has probably brought them to the surface. And what we believe about life and death shapes both our responses to the pandemic and our reactions to how others are dealing with it, including elected officials.

We must face our fears, our worst fears, and we must find courage to get up every morning and do what needs to be done while we wait for whatever comes next—keep our spirits up , care for the people we love, and do our daily tasks as best we can. I want to say that I am not afraid, that my sense of God’s love and presence leaves no room for fear, but maybe it’s because death to me is still a concept, a number on a graph, or a news story. I don’t work at a hospital; I am not surrounded by the sight, sounds, and smells of death. But the first-hand accounts are harrowing, and anyone who says otherwise has their head—or heart—buried in the sand.

But I also want to say something about fear’s opposite. And it’s not fearlessness, but faith. My faith is not an ignorant, callous, blind thing that says, “let the chips fall where they may.” It is a fragile thing—fed by hope and a history of God’s goodness to me personally—and it leads to compassion: I see fear and suffering in my fellow creatures and want so much to alleviate it. I believe that how I treat people matters more than dogma and theology. I believe in a God that allows evil (without good and evil, there can be no free-will choice and thus, no possibility of love), but that there is a plan in place to remedy it. I believe that God did send his spirit here in the form of a human being, who had the power to show us what love is, and that he was given the power over death itself, so that we can have communion with our Creator, both now and in a time to come. When death comes, I don’t have to face it alone (in a spiritual sense), and since it isn’t the end, I don’t have to fear it.  

Because I am freed-up from the tyranny of fear (not that I never feel it, only that I won’t allow it to camp out in my soul), I can use my mental and emotional energy to love better. I can reach out to friends who are struggling. I can be creating instead of consuming. I can pray for healthcare workers, elderly in nursing homes, the sick and dying, my enemies, my hurting neighbors. I can give when called upon to meet needs. I can feel joy in the middle of hardship. I can focus on something other than cripplingly-dark thoughts. And I hope that you can, too.

Lastly, and because my poor little aloe got me thinking, I believe that loss and pain can serve a purpose, that my life (and yours) in all its glory and its mess, its triumphs and mistakes, has meaning, and that God can recycle all the bad and make something good of it. Maybe that little greenish spike will come back to life and my plant will get a second chance. But maybe it will die and “return to the dust from which it came,” becoming fertilizer for new life in the future. Without death—death of the selfish nature, death of a Messiah, death of organic matter—there can be no new life. It’s a hard teaching, but one that can also bring comfort.