25 October 2007

Taking Things With a Grain of Sea Salt...Separating the Facts From Fiction

"It is only with the heart that can see rightly..." Antoine Saint-Exupery.

But it's still a good idea to keep your eyes open.

Every morning I get an e-mailed meditation courtesy of Hazelden. It's interesting how often these meditations seem to present a particular concept that I need to employ in my life. They're short, but they always leave me with new avenues to explore as I go about my day.

"Today's Gift" had this particular paragraph and the above referenced quote: When we see with our hearts, our responses to the turmoil around us, the fighting children, the traffic snarls, the angry lovers, will be soft acceptance. When our hearts guide the action we can accept those things we cannot change, and change those we can. And the heart, as the seat of all wisdom, will always know the difference.

It was good for me to read "Today's Gift" because my heart, along with my mind, have been been reliving a particularly unpleasant episode that occured on June 2nd - specifically, sailing through Tropical Storm Barry. I know I've written about that storm, but not in the fine detail that I read about it when someone who had "crewed" for the erstwhile captain a few times - once resulting in a voyage she's quite likely never to forget - alerted me that an essay had been posted on the experience, and yes, that essay was found on the illustrious ragbagger website - the one owned by the person I was engaged to this past summer. The essay can be found here. "of storms and other blessings"

I read it and in doing so I relived those twelve harrowing hours to the point it made me shiver and left me feeling like I had dodged a bullet who's path I was completely clueless as to having been positioned in. It haunted me. The reliving of the storm, remembering the noise of the flogging remnants of the sail that was reduced to tatters courtesy of T.S. Barry's 60 knot winds and shivering in the cockpit as waves rhythmically assaulted me as I sat in a corner wondering if the next one would result in my imminent demise, knowing I was powerless to do anything to prevent it.

First of all, I appreciate the "accolades" offered to me in the essay for having an "intuitive hand on the helm" and we can both thank God for my "cool head in the storm". I take no credit for either. I loved sailing, even after that awful day and I love it still. It spoke to something deep inside me. Maybe the Aquarian part of me but it was probably borne of my profound love of the ocean. I loved sailing from the first moment I was on the water, no question about that.

But about that storm...I try not to, but I still come back to this one burning question: "What the h*ll were you thinking, sir?".

When I wasn't pondering how I might survive, I had mental images of my family huddled around "The Weather Channel", not knowing if the storm was being broadcast in all it's glory, back in the states. Wondering if Jim Cantore was giving a "play by play" of all I was living through was actually more agonizing than the pitch and roll of the small sailboat that was being pelted from all directions by wind, waves and horizontal rains that stung my salt water saturated skin. I dearly hoped my dear family had no idea what my Saturday was like that day and my heart ached imagining their concern and fear.

Perhaps Neptune laughed, but I can promise you that for a woman who tries very hard and with great dedication to find something funny in the most absurd of situations, I couldn't for the life of me find anything to laugh about in our tangle with that tropical storm or the swim to the island 3 miles away on the first day of our sail or any number of other situations that you exhibited no regard for safety and sensibility. It was just about the most unfunny situation imaginable. I value my life. I wanted to live to see my kids, parents and friends again. I wanted to see my future grandchildren, my home, and so many people and animals who define that word for me. No, I couldn't find anything to elicit the slightest smile or faintest chuckle. Truth be told, I don't think Neptune would have found any of it funny, either. I'm betting Neptune was shaking his head, genuinely puzzled, like the sailors safely tucked in slips at the marina.

Now, I'm not one to promote the writings of a person I have no affection or any shred of respect for, and I'm hesitant to publish a link to this person's website because, to be honest, the beginning of this "essay" strikes me as generously fictitious and self-aggrandizing. If he finds being a father "the best fun I've ever had", he certainly never exhibited any signs of it during my four month relationship with him. I would be more than bereft if my kids didn't have any contact with me for that period of time. I can't imagine such a situation and I certainly wouldn't be sailing on the high seas, laughing my way all over the Abacos, but everyone is different, I guess. My family comprises what is best in my life - they always have and always will. I left for my flight to Marsh Harbor with hugs of love and good wishes from my kids and parents and I returned to warm embraces nine days later. I would never have made the ill-fated journey without their knowledge and approval. Not for one-second.

If invited (or uninvited) to choose one word to express my opinion on the the behavior I witnessed over time and with horrifying repetition, I would choose "reckless". Pure, unadulterated and unapologetic recklessness and a terrifying disregard for safety. Not attributes one desires in a captain.

I may have exhibited calm, but make no mistake, my eyes were wide-open. I also know, as most everyone does, that you are at a decided disadvantage when disrespecting the power of the ocean. It's bigger and more powerful than we are and, dare I say, it simply doesn't care if you're an attorney. Makes no difference. Did they not clue you into that fact in "captain college" or "skipper school"?

Before I set sail with this man, I was informed (by him) how he had scored highest on his tests for certification as a charter boat captain and he even proffered a copy of his (expired) captain's license. I assumed those facts implied practical ability and I was wrong in my assumptions. There's a vast divide between sailing through a test with flying colors and actually applying the principles of sailing in practical terms. An impressive test score doesn't count for much if the captain has an ego the size of Texas and the imperiled decision-making to go right along with it. This captain proved time and again - the man with the highest score nearly landed us at the bottom of the sea. A prudent, cautious man, even one "running away from a bad marriage" would have turned back when the storm changed, but this was not a prudent, cautious man.

The boat was marginally sea-worthy. Unfortunately, the captain was "sea-worthless", and that's the bottom line.

It's no surprise at all, to me, that this man lays part of the blame for the situation we found ourselves in at the hands of the fishing boat skipper he ascertained the informal weather forecast from the morning we set out, and that's not fair. That is simply not right, but it's typical. Every error this captain commits is somehow the result of someone else's mistake. The truth is, that the captain needs to learn something about owning his mistakes and admitting them, taking full responsibility. His failed marriage, the failed relationship with his kids, and failed relationships with those who went before me, were always assigned as being "the other party's" fault - it was a common theme - but not a reputable one.

I returned from that sailing trip internally shaken and confused. My life had been placed in danger and I wasn't consulted or informed of what might happen prior to June 2nd. Seeds of doubt had been planted during that fateful Saturday and they grew with each passing day. I was clueless about sailing, a true novice in every sense of the word. I made the mistake of casting my fortunes and, unfortunately, placed my safety in the hands of someone who had no issues with tossing all manner of caution to the wind, even if those winds blew from every point on the compass and at a velocity of 60 knots.

I remember when we finally, blessedly crawled into West End, the look of confusion on the mass of sailors waiting to welcome us and the unrelenting question heard over and over was, "What were you doing out there in that weather??". The captain summarily dismissed such inquiries and seemed annoyed at the repetition with which we heard that query over and over as we walked around the marina at Old Bahama Bay. I became increasingly, albeit privately, haunted by that question. I didn't have an answer and he never offered much of one to them or to me.

Privately, when I would engage in conversations with these fellow sailors, I couldn't help but realize that they had sat that same storm out safely in port. They were aware of it. They knew of its existence. I would try and quiet myself and buy into the belief that the good captain couldn't help it. He couldn't know. There was no way he would have set out that fateful morning knowing we would be faced with those sea conditions. No one would be that crazy and purposefully place our lives in such danger. Surely no one would do that, right?

"You did have on a personal flotation device the entire time, right? You had your harness tethered didn't you?", several people in the marina would ask. Well, um, no, I didn't. Not at all. Then I would wonder, "Why didn't he hand me a PFD?". Lifelines? At the time, I had no idea about harnesses and lifelines. I didn't know I should have been TETHERED to a LIFELINE because it was never, ever mentioned. It wasn't offered. Why were there no safety precautions? As captain, isn't it sort of assumed you protect your crew? I was the ONLY crew so how was it that I didn't merit a PFD????? A harness? Was I overlooked? I WAS the crew.

But the fact is, he should have known. When we left our anchorage that morning to sail for West End, the sky was gray and ominous and even the novice that is me, knew something didn't feel right. I don't recall the patches of blue sky he alludes to in his essay. My recollections of the morning before we weighed anchor were of atmospheric conditions that were in turmoil and certainly not conducive to a clear day of sailing.

I had no idea that we would be sailing out of sight of land or that I would close the day out having experienced what is easily the closest to death I've ever been. I was bruised, exhausted, hungry and filled with anxiety.As soon as the hook was dropped, the captain headed for bed and I spent the evening quietly drinking jasmine tea, cleaning up the sloppy mess the storm had made of the cabin, and walking out to the cockpit and searching the sea for hope in the slowly clearing sky. There were a few stars available that night and, though the sea was still angry, you could feel her mood shifting and settling down. I remember sitting out there alone for hours, trying to understand what I had just lived through. I looked at my arms and legs and torso and realized there were very few inches on my person that weren't bruised or nicked. Mostly, I worked on my mind and told myself it was a fluke, unavoidable and that probably everyone sails through conditions such as this from time to time. I had no yard stick by which to measure what I'd been through.

Only later, and not much later, mostly from hanging out in Oriental this past July, I would learn that most sailors don't encounter the conditions I unwittingly found myself in one month earlier. Most people never see 60 knot winds in foreign waters. The ones who do sometimes don't live to talk about it.

I had to adjust my mental attitude because my "adventure" was hardly finished. I still had the Gulf Stream to cross and while I'd heard a few sea stories from people on the boisterous and unpredictable nature of that river in the sea, I could only wonder if that passage would mimic what I'd just been through. I dearly hoped it would not - oh how I hoped it wouldn't be ANYTHING like the 12 hours I'd just spent being tossed about like a rag doll. But again, I didn't know. I'd never been through any of this before and when you have nothing to measure something against, you just hope for the best and try and remain calm. You tell yourself, "this is normal". And for a time, you buy into it because it's just the best you can do.

Of course, now I look back at that day now and I feel gratitude directed toward God, for allowing me to survive, and anger and frustration that any man's ego could allow him to thumb his nose at the sea with a brand of arrogance I'd never encountered, and allow his boat (and crew!) to be caught up in such dire straits. Yes, I learned a lot about myself, employed coping mechanisms I wasn't even aware I was in possession of, and I survived without a single fit of hysteria or panic - purely by the Grace of God.

The most intriguing part of remaining calm is that I have had panic disorder since the day my sister died when I was 13. I'm talking full-blown, hyperventilating, heart palpitating, dizzying panic attacks that can randomly occur when engaged in the most benign of pursuits. I KNOW how to panic, make no mistake about it. And yet, I can only credit God with preventing even the tiniest hint of those terrifying symptoms to arise during that tumultuous sail on June 2nd. In my mind, that's nothing short of a miracle and I know deep within my marrow that God truly sailed with me on that tiny, tossed sailboat that first Saturday in June. There is no other explanation for it. I felt God with me that day. I prayed like I've never prayed in my life and God was right with me and I experienced the essence of what is called the "peace that passes all understanding". It was one of the most spiritual experiences in my life and should I ever find myself doubting Divine Intervention, I need only recall that day on that ocean in that storm. I know it's real. I lived it.

And I also know, in time, the same God who kept me calm in that storm, will allow me to find a way to let go of the anger that I feel at times, toward the man who placed me in "harm's way". I'm human. I'm not there yet. I struggle with it. I know progress is being made - the anger softens and I remind myself that the man (I can't use the term gentleman because frankly, I know too much) who steered us in the path of that storm has, let us call them, "issues". Personally, I don't believe that he'll ever seek help or even acknowledge the presence of insanity that swirls inside of him. That's simply my opinion based on what I observed and experienced. I can't do anything about any of it but wish him the best and I try hard to sincerely feel that way but, again, I still deal with a great deal of anger directed squarely at him because I almost lost my life courtesy of his arrogance and misdirection.

My experience on that boat and my feelings aren't singular in nature because I've heard from others who have had similar voyages under his direction. These women found themselves on raging seas (though not of a tropical storm variety - thank God!), completely ill-suited to sailing offshore, and they also felt afraid and similarly in danger because the captain's ego overpowered any common sense that would have directed a more humble, reasonable and sound man. Two of them were nearly overdosed on Dramamine and bullied into taking it not per the directions on the label, but as he prescribed which was potentially dangerous. For some reason, he never made the attempt to dose me with Dramamine but I wouldn't have complied because even in the midst of my ill-advised infatuation, I would never take anything prescribed by a lawyer. I hadn't completely lost my marbles! No, I just set sail for parts unknown with a nut - which proves hands down that I'm hardly brilliant and I most certainly don't always make the best decisions.

If you read his essay on "Storms and Other Blessings", I warn you that this is a man who readily admits to writing in a style suited for the likes of the deceased former president, "Woodrow Wilson", and it's a bit on the superfluous, flowery side and, as the captain once reported, he doesn't write for "real people". To be honest, the style is reminiscent of someone trying to mix a "wholesome folksiness" within a dry, stiff framework more suited to writing an amendment to the constitution (of a country I wouldn't want to reside in IF he was in charge of writing anything attached to said constitution) rather than an engaging, page-turning tale - but that's just me and everyone has their own favored literary style. Suffice it to say, I'm not impressed.

I personally found the beginning of the story about "Master Kip" segueing uneasily into the tale of Tropical Storm Barry to be a disjointed meld - kind of like when you have an almost finished puzzle and the final one or two pieces left to place, you discover that in order to make them fit you must aggressively twist and push in order to achieve the necessary interlock and yes, you may have a completed puzzle, but then you have to hope that onlookers won't "notice" that not all the pieces quite fit the way they're supposed to when the puzzle is worked the way it's intended.

What a metaphorical example of my four months this past summer. The puzzle pieces ddn't fit right and it looked askew. Nothing interlocked the way it was suppose to - the way it was intended.

Something about the essay is off but, again, I'm not a "critical first reader" and I'm sure my assessment would be labeled "deconstructive criticism". So be it. I stand behind it. I'm entitled to my opinion. Then again, the captain's literary style sort of befits a man who isn't at all comfortable in his own skin and I don't believe for one-second that he's honestly ever felt comfortable in his skin for more than five minutes in his life. You may well find his style more literary-pleasing than I do. I guess I'm just one of those obstinate "real people" who enjoy nonfiction. I like it when I feel a writer is talking to me in a conversational style. His writings always felt more like homilies and there's nothing wrong with a good homily - I just prefer to receive mine in the sacred setting of a church, rather than read one bound in a book.

Oh, and there's a video attached to the site as well. I don't advise lunch before viewing. Then again, I know the guy. The "Gypsy Moon" lives again, I just fear for whoever takes to the seas under the current administration. I know one thing, my own experience with T.S. Barry aboard the Gypsy Moon most definitely brought me "nearer my God to Thee.".

As for the "acceptance" alluded to in today's meditation at the beginning of this post, I'm seriously working on it. I want to peacefully put this episode behind me, but it's still fresh and there are days I am completely addled by the events that colored my summer of 2007. Hey, I managed surviving a tropical storm and a car wreck that totaled my car. The car wreck, in retrospect, wasn't nearly as difficult to understand and process. Another driver ran a red light and smashed into my car as I was making a left hand turn at an intersection. It was an accident. A mistake. It wasn't pre-meditated and I don't think for one-second that the woman assessed conditions and decided to plow right into the side of my PT Cruiser. She didn't know me and I certainly didn't know her. Yes, it was scary and frightening and I wouldn't ever want to relive it, but it was also so random.

Sailing aboard a 32 foot sailboat in the Abacos into a tropical storm with someone who supposedly had great volumes of skill and all manner of knowledge was not random. He did know me. Because of that, it was all just so much more personal and I still to this day can't understand how someone with such supposed knowledge and skill can act with what I can't help but term an "arrogant miscalculation" and no forethought of safety for his "crew" (me). I try to find answers or understand the thought processes that lead to the decision but, honestly, I'll probably never know. At some point, I know I'm going to have to let go of any hope for logic, and simply "accept" the fact that I can't change any of it. Acceptance is, in fact, an action and one that I am taking...one grateful day at a time.

And I am grateful - even to be around to try and figure out something that will ultimately prove impossible to understand. It's OK, and I'm getting there.

I got a note from my Dad a couple of nights ago after he read the epic, fiction-laced, "Of Storms and Other Blessings":

"Susan - Your Mom is reading a copy of this now.
We are THANKFUL you are HOME TONIGHT.....Love, Dad"

Me too, Daddy. Me too.