In an upscale suburb of Lansing, Michigan, a woman walked through her living room. She picked up a perfectly shaped, intricately detailed red lacquer Chinese vase, and turned it over in her hands. “Singapore,” she thought. “1982. With my parents. I spent almost a week’s wages for this thing; I’m not very good at bargaining.” She sighed and replaced it on the shelf it shared with a stack of books, a crystal bowl from her wedding, and some oddly-textured cholla cactus wood from a vacation in New Mexico. All of these things, these pieces of her history, were going to be left behind. Who else could ever cherish these as she did, and understand their stories?
I half-recognize her, pensive and overwhelmed. She’s me, 10 years ago, sorting through a houseful of possessions deciding what to let go of, what to pack into storage, and what to take along. It was a very emotional transition, disengaging from the accumulated treasures of half a lifetime, keeping only the most basic, practical and durable of essentials to fit the limited space, moisture, and jostling of the sailboat she would move on to. I remember her feeling of disorientation, of rootlessness, as the souvenirs and heirlooms were packed away. I wish I could tell her that it was going to be okay, that the most important things in life aren’t, um, things at all.
Despite the moodiness, mostly what I remember of that time is excitement, a sense of looking forward. So many people dream of chucking it all and sailing away to the tropics; we were doing it -- if we could just figure out what to bring, and what to do with the rest. I had learned how to downsize and declutter and adapt to new living spaces from many previous moves courtesy of the U.S. government, but this was going to be qualitatively different. Not only were we moving to a very small space, we were moving to a different kind of life. At first, it had been like a game. “Shopping at Our House,” I had called it, as visions of palm trees swayed in my mind. The approach was not like the decluttering I had done prior to other moves – i.e., subtracting items from our house’s contents and bringing what remained. It was more like packing for a voyage, selecting just a few critical items in each category and adding them to a box. The lawn mower and the sofa went to a garage sale – we were moving onto a sailboat! Winter scarves and cross-country skis went into the “donate” pile – we were headed for the tropics! Those things that were just too wrenching to get rid of, including the red lacquer vase, went into the basement of close friends for long term storage. I’m convinced that there’s a special place in heaven for people like those friends, who help others achieve their dreams.
I imagined that life afloat would have wonderful amounts of leisure, reading and creative cooking and art that there had never been time for with two crazy-busy careers and a house to maintain. I packed intriguing books that I had never gotten around to reading, a machine for making homemade pasta, a box of pastels I hadn’t really allowed myself to get lost with since college.
Much of that creative time never materialized, or maybe it’s more correct to say I never created it. Under way, there was so much to look at! Along the shores as we traveled the ICW there were little towns and busy harbors and mazes of swamps, boats and bungalows and birds and bears. Offshore, I was filled with the wonder of the open ocean experience, and the incredible shades of blue. I spent hours just gazing, sometimes at the sky, sometimes at the horizon, sometimes at the glittering water just alongside our hull. The books I thought I’d read on passage were mostly unopened, and grew moldy on their shelves. In port, the pasta machine never came out when there were new local foods to be explored (which was, essentially, all the time) and those quiet evenings that I’d imagined sitting at anchor sketching a tropical sunset were replaced with hikes and explorations of new cities and happy hours with fellow cruisers.
They say that being at sea teaches you about yourself. And what I learned is that I’m just not wired for introspection, contemplative peace and quiet. I’m wired to seek new experiences and learning and if there aren’t any to be found, then I’m wired to create my own fun. I had packed well for the life I thought I was going to have … but because I wasn’t exactly the person I thought I was, I ended up making a life that was quite different from the one I thought, but that suited me better.
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