UNNNGH! UNNNGH! UNNNGH! UNNNGH! UNNNGH! That was the deafening blast of a tanker’s horn blaring as it bore down on us in the channel. Five horn blasts is a warning. We had decided to sail out into the ocean for the first time. We were sailing the narrow harbor channel to get out and, because of the wind direction, had to tack across it. The tanker, which would not even feel our boat hit it, hailed us on the VHF to ask our intention. Can I just say how big these things are and how quickly they come upon you? We look up their specs through AIS on our chartplotter. This container ship is 150 feet wide and .2 miles long. To put that in perspective, our boat is 13 feet wide and 41 feet long. I feel like a mouse looking up at an elephant prior to being trampled.
Our boat is heeling, there are raised voices and this is about the time I start freaking out thinking “maybe I [meaning me) can’t do this.” It’s the first time I’m really afraid. The channel is crowded and Matt doesn’t feel well. All I can think is what will happen if it’s just me and I need to bring us back in safely (did I mention that we have to pass through the jetties, i.e., a 3-mile long set of rock walls that are hidden at high tide on the way out? And that we’ve heard numerous stories of whole families perishing after crashing up on them?). [see below]
Matt, however, sees my freak out as progress. “You know that 4×4 quadrant with competence on one axis and awareness on the other?” he asks. “I think you’ve just passed from incompetently unaware to incompetently aware. It sounds like an insult but it’s not.” This from the man who, after we had been dating a few months, informed me that I was #10 on his priority list (after divine beings, family members and friends) and that it was actually quite an honor to be in the top ten [My sister had looked at me incredulously and said, “I’d break up with him immediately” when I told her]. But I understand what he’s saying and he’s right. I’m not that competent yet but at least I know it. He acquiesces to my fear and we save the ocean for another day.
A few years ago we had the annual celebration of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in May and June, respectively. “Why,” one of the boys asked, “isn’t there a day for us?” “What do you mean?” I said, “You each have a birthday every year.” “Well so do you,” they countered, still feeling there should be a separate day of celebration. And so, … Brother’s Day was born (Hallmark still hasn’t figured out this is yet another money-making opportunity). We celebrate Brother’s Day the weekend after Mother’s Day to ensure that we don’t forget it. [Matt’s card for the boys].
I had the flu so Matt did the preparations. He came back from the store and dumped all the stash on the table, saying he needed help deciding who would get what. I informed him that he set a new bar. I generally give a small token gift and a chocolate. They’re supposed to give a gift or do something for each other. There was a small Superhero suitcase, school workbooks, 30 feet of rope (sailors love rope), carabiners, a penknife, and a magnesium fire starter (you scrape shavings and then light them), among other items. I looked at Matt. “Really?” I asked. “We’re going to give a 6-year old a knife and a fire starter … on a boat? Maybe we should also give him some gasoline, a beer and the keys to the car.” The boys received Legos from their grandparents and then chose to have lunch at PF Changs, during which they informed the server it was Brother’s Day. He looked surprised, then amused. (postscript: Regardless of our decision to hold back the fire starter, the boys loved their gifts and had a wonderful day).
My parents arrived shortly after Mother’s Day and spent a week with us. The timing couldn’t have been better – I got the flu so the boys had 3 sleepovers with their grandparents. I had the luxury of being able to just be sick and not have to hold it together and parent. My mom and I always have a great time together so we have to actually plan to do things or we will just sit around talking and laughing. We went to Magnolia Plantation and saw the gardens, took a tour of the slave quarters, and saw alligators during a boat ride.
We also took my parents out for a sail. The wind was good and about 5 dolphins came up to the stern of the boat and played with us.
A rare candid photo of Matt and me together, courtesy of my mom’s obsession with taking photos.
In April, when Matt and I realized we couldn’t get further south, we mapped out alternative plans and talked about the importance of increasing my sailing skills. Fear raised its ugly head again. I confessed to Matt I was scared that I would go through all of the classes and training and that we would sail a lot and he still wouldn’t think I was very competent. I expected a comforting arm around my shoulder from him, in his various roles as my husband, cheerleader and confidante, saying, “Oh, hon … don’t worry. You’ll be great once you’ve taken a few classes.” What I got instead was a long, hard look as he stonily intoned, “I’m quite aware that is a very real possibility.” I occasionally and conveniently forget about his other role in my life as no-holds-barred truth teller. I approach my second formal sailing class on May 12-13 (after the abysmal first one) with some trepidation.
At the end of the first day, I’m on a high. I love the smaller boat and being able to feel how it handles immediately. The instructor (Sterling) at the Charleston Sailing School is great, patient and hands-off. At the end of the day I tell Matt I want a smaller boat. On the second day, after reviewing the ‘rules of the road’ and safety issues, we have a 100-question certification test. Sterling says I set a new bar with scoring 100%. Sadly, I admit to him that there is no correlation between being book smart and having common sense (recall the bear incident). By the end of the second day, I am toast. The instructor saves the challenging ‘man overboard’ drills for the end of the day (about 2 hours after I’m ready to call it quits). After he throws the life preserver (simulating a person) out of the boat for the 6th time, what I want to ask is, “Do we really care enough about this person to actually save them or can we just head back to the dock?”
Someone once wrote that life is just a series of opportunities to face your fears. While I was meeting with my friend Patti in Cleveland, she reminded me of what I had said to explain the trip, “I’m afraid that if we don’t do this, we might never recover from it.” And what I had meant was that sometimes the Universe hands you an opportunity and you either say yes or no to it. There is a tiny part of you that is jumping up and down excitedly screaming “Do it!” but then the very large and very rational side of your brain takes over and says it’s ridiculous and impossible and provides an excellent and well-thought out list of all the reasons you shouldn’t and mustn’t do it. It’s one of those soul-calling opportunities and if you say no (because of how scared you are), you might never take a risk again. That’s how it felt to us. As if we would be shells from then on, more fragile and fearful because we hadn’t said yes. Others saw this link before I did. One of my doctoral students said, “So you just faced one of your big fears.” I looked at him blankly because I had no idea what he was talking about. He reminded me, “Your big concern was what if you don’t get tenure and have to leave Cleveland and create a new life.” Hmm…. I had conveniently forgotten that one. Back to the earlier question of internal change, maybe it’s about facing fear. I guess I can check ‘create a new life’ off the list. Still to be faced: realizing we’ve blown all our savings and will need to work at Starbucks until we’re 92 (but, hey, I’ve heard they have free coffee and good health benefits so that’s a plus …).
While in Cleveland, one of my friends asked, “Has this trip strained your marriage or made it stronger?” She is someone who asks big questions (if you don’t believe me, check out her site www.pardonmyfringe.com) so there is never any small talk between us. It took me a minute to respond. I later asked Matt the question. It turns out we had the same answer, “Both.” It has strained our marriage because it can be tough having two strong personalities living together 24/7 in a very small space with constant childcare (and homeschooling) duties, continuous boat repairs, and none of the modern conveniences that make life easier (e.g., a fridge, washer/dryer, dishwasher, etc. – I confess to asking a Cleveland friend if I could open her fridge and just stare into it …). At the same time it has made us stronger because whenever you do something challenging as a couple (e.g., have children, take a trip), it makes you see what the other is made of. How can I not be in awe of someone who was supportive of my idea for this trip? And by ‘supportive’ I don’t just mean that he was willing to do it but that he took quick and decisive steps to make it happen (telling friends the plan before I could talk myself out of it, getting the house ready to sell, finding the boat, etc.).
The ‘both’ answer is also linked to a question another friend asked, “How have you changed internally?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. I’d love to say I’m more relaxed, cool and flowing … and that I thrive on living in the moment. The reality is that it just shines a light on how damn uptight I am. I thought leaving everything would change me but, as someone said to me before I left, “Remember that you are still bringing you with you.” I am understanding this in a new way. At the same time, I sometimes feel like a constant self-improvement project. The thing is, if you are always ‘working’ on yourself and trying to get better, it seems that your fundamental assumption is that you are flawed, not good enough, broken, somehow ‘less-than’ and that things (i.e., your life) might be better if you were ‘fixed/not broken.’ So this is part of the strain on the marriage – you are working on yourself and trying to fix your stuff while having it be SO apparent what your stuff is. You can’t escape it by going to the office. Back in March, I had a dream that Matt and I were in a two-on-two battle. We kept switching sides so we alternated being on the ‘bad’ or ‘good’ team (this made sense in a way that only dreams do). Right before I woke up, I was on the good team and so was Matt. We were ensnared in a huge fishing net that was full of a bunch of junk, essentially trapping us. I was hacking at the lines with a knife trying to set us free. After we talked about taking a second year for the trip, Matt said, “Wouldn’t it be so great if we figured out our ‘stuff’ and were really healthy after this trip?” I think that’s the symbolism of the dream – free yourself and stop dragging around your baggage (e.g., grief, disappointment, fear, anger, whatever past stuff inhibits your present). And maybe the answer is just to stop trying so hard and R-E-L-A-X. This is where faith comes in … trusting that the Universe will deliver what you need, when you need it and that the Universe’s plan for you is probably much cooler than anything you could dream up on your own.
“It sounds like you’re getting the ax.” This is what Matt said to me, laughing, when I updated him in Cleveland about my work situation. I had called my department chair in April to say that we hadn’t accomplished what we wanted and that I was taking another year for the trip. She was wonderfully supportive and later emailed that the Dean wanted to meet with me while I was in Cleveland. Once we arrived, she said she was also asked to attend the Dean’s meeting. A day later she said she wanted to talk to me in advance and, if possible, in a face-to-face meeting. This was the part where Matt started laughing and I started getting nervous. Frankly, I had been ready to be told to pack up my office since April when we made the decision to extend the trip. The final outcome is that my Chair, my department and the Dean have all been wonderfully supportive and approved a second year leave of absence. It still needs to go up the chain of command to the Provost but no one seems too worried about it [Below is a photo of my building, the business school, at Case Western Reserve University]. Thus, we will extend the trip and continue on …
It felt odd coming back to Cleveland – and even odder knocking on the door of our old house. The new owners let Joshua go upstairs to see his old bedroom. He came back down with a bewildered look on his face. The visit was full of doctor’s/dentist appointments and some work meetings but was also full of friends. Neighborhood friends, school friends, church friends, work friends, pottery co-op friends, parent’s group friends. If being back in Cleveland felt odd, being with friends felt anything but. If I had to capture it in a photo (because, of course, I didn’t take any actual photos with friends – we were too busy chatting), it would be this one … Malachi and a friend walking home after a playdate, arms around each other the whole time.
That’s exactly how it felt with friends – being literally and metaphorically embraced – and picking up right where we left off in that timeless way that characterizes good friendships. This is what coming home feels like.
On Sunday, Matt pruned the top of our friends’ evergreen tree (he’s barely visible in the tree up near the second floor). Before he went up, Jill asked me if it was okay. I said sure, figuring he’d be fine. Once he was up there, I whispered to her, “Listen, if he falls out of the tree, here’s the plan. We take a quick photo for the blog and then we call 911.”
We pack the evening before, knowing that we have to wake the boys at 5:30 am. At some point in the night, I hear Joshua say, “Dad, it’s 6:00.” Panicked, we jolt awake. Matt gets up and Joshua points out to him that “the long hand is on the 6.” Yes, my child it is, but the short hand is between the 2 and the 3 [note to self: focus on telling time in homeschooling sessions]. We all go back to bed.
Matt habitually checks the weather. He will occasionally shove his phone in my face and say, “Look! Look at this! Can you believe this?” I have no idea how to read his weather charts. I’ve told him this repeatedly.
All I can think is “Hmmm … cubism?” He says there is a low pressure system going through Chicago and he really doesn’t like the fact that we fly Charleston-Chicago-Cleveland in the morning.
Upon arrival at the airport, the agent says our flight is cancelled. “You don’t understand,” I say, “I have minor surgery scheduled for 9 am tomorrow and a 3:15 pre-op appointment today.” The agent shakes his head and says he doesn’t even know if he can get us out tomorrow – particularly with four of us. Malachi looks at me and says, “Mom, I’m going to pray” and then squeezes his eyes shut tight. I stand, mute, willing the agent to figure out a solution. I say that I’ll fly alone and Matt and the boys can follow later. The agent leaves and comes back, still shaking his head no. Joshua pokes me and says he is praying and that I should too. The agent leaves again. I quickly ask the Universe for help. The agent comes back and says that, miraculously, he found us four seats on another airline – re-routed through weather-friendly Atlanta. I get to my appointment with 8 minutes to spare.