Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Long Passage (Connecticut to North Carolina): Becoming a Family, Becoming Elders

Sunset at sea

We left New London for what would be the longest passage of our trip -- the 5 day offshore run to Wilmington, NC.  The weather for the first day was predicted to be stormy, then it would get calmer. I was really looking forward to the trip.  It spanned my birthday (yay! birthday at sea!) and the Perseids meteor shower (yay! stars! far from any cities, with no light pollution at all, and a new moon!) and I was curious to go around Cape Hatteras.  I expected the weather to change from chilly foggy New England to sunny warm South.  We were going to a port I hadn't known well but was looking forward to.  I would miss some of my crew friends who were leaving the ship, but we had also picked up some new crew and I was curious to get to know them better. Most of all I was looking forward to spending a longer time at sea without being as sleep-deprived as I get when it's just the two of us on Cinderella (yay! for a full crew divided into three watches!)

The trip began with rough seas as predicted.  We noticed who got seasick, and who didn't, and, most commendably, who got seasick and did their absolute best to stand their watch anyway.  We didn't really have a "party" for my birthday because of the rough conditions, which suited me just fine anyway.  I have no trouble with the idea that I'm aging, or with being the center of attention.  It's just that I want to be celebrated for something I did or accomplished, rather than simply for surviving another year. We did, however, have ice cream and sang the old familiar song. Amusingly, I learned that "Cumpleanos Feliz" and "Happy Birthday To You" both have the same number of syllables.  I didn't even mind that Dan and I ended up on the midnight watch again, because I was hoping for the sky show. Day 1 was a bust due to the heavy cloud cover, but at least I neither got seasick, nor rained on.

Day 2 and 3, though , the weather moderated enough for us to do minor maintenance during the day watches.  I learned to enjoy painting and oiling teak -- tasks that were by turns good opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, almost meditative, and chance for long conversation when doing a 2-person project.  The nights had magic skies above and bioluminescence below.  I learned the Spanish name for a meteor shower, which translates to "rain of stars." The sky was packed so full of stars, it seemed there wasn't room for all of them, and some fell out. The stars were absolutely dazzling and the weather was chilly but clear.

As we went southward and ever warmer, I packed away the fleece long underwear, hat, gloves and scarf that I had felt silly including in my luggage in June in Florida, but was glad to have during the night watches. By the end of the trip heat, and not cold, was our weather concern. It was so warm that we needed to rig a bimini over the helm for shade. The thing I most enjoyed was observing the way the crew became a tight family, helping each other, trusting each other, interacting in that confined space. 

Dan and I had been a bit concerned about we ourselves would fit in when we started the trip. We were far older than most of them -- heck, we were older than many of their parents -- and certainly far less strong.  We couldn't "pull our weight" (and where do you think that phrase comes from, if it didn't arise in this very context?) and what did we have to offer in other ways to do our share of work? 

We were participants in a society that respects seniors. And certainly, we were treated well by everyone … maybe, too well.  They were careful of us, helpful – I couldn’t even begin to do any strength related task or carry anything heavier than a bottle of wine without someone stepping forward to take the load. So, what’s wrong with that? I could bask in being the queen. 

But there was something wrong with that. There is, I think, more than one kind of respect. There is the respect you have by virtue of your position, independent of the kind of human being you are. You are obligated to act respectful toward your boss, if you want to keep your job. You are obligated to act respectful toward local law enforcement, or toward the king, or as in our case, the seniors. That is what I feared we were getting, what I think of as structural respect. What I wanted was the kind of respect that is earned, because of our actions and our character, independent of our gray hairs.

My Spanish was coming along, but not fast enough.  The total immersion plus the wonderful Duolingo app on my phone had gotten me to the point where I could handle the vocabulary necessary for our daily lives, and I know they appreciated my effort.  I could say "There's a fishing boat off our starboard bow;" or understand the command to "Make that line fast;" or ask someone at the dinner table to pass me a fork or a napkin. But what I really wanted, and still lacked, was the language for deeper conversation. "What will you do when your tour on the Galeon is over?" "Tell me about your home back in Spain."  Impatient with my language progress, I complained to one friend, who told me that what I was experiencing is exactly the way a child learns their native language.  Concrete ideas and objects first, ideas and philosophy later.  

Still, with the weird Spanglish we all used, we haltingly had some of those deeper conversations. I loved that I had some friends who were less than half my age, and we treated each other as equals.  My vanity loved that they refused to believe Dan and I were in our sixties; we were supposed to be all stodgy and sedentary instead of swabbing decks and staying up all night. I realized I was becoming the repository for some heavy confidences from my colleagues, the kind of things that it's easier to talk about in the dark.   One had had some legitimately traumatic things that happened in childhood.  There had been the constant distractions of the social whirl and the internet while in port, but at sea without that buffer those awful memories came bubbling back up.   One was ready to settle down but was in love with the wrong person -- not someone who was unavailable, but someone with a fundamentally different set of values.  For these I had no answers or even suggestions, just a listening ear as they heard themselves talk through the issues.  One was terrified of heights, but with gritted teeth climbed the rigging anyway, and I expressed my sincere admiration for the achievement. One consistently "forgot" chores or did things halfway and left for others to follow through on, that one was last in line when there was work to be done but the first to show up when the dinner bell rang.  For that one, one morning I chose a private place and said, “Look, I totally realize that what we’re doing here on the ship is not what you thought you were getting into when you signed on. I understand you weren’t quite prepared. That’s no reflection on you.  But the mark of your character is what you do next. You either commit wholeheartedly to doing all aspects of this job to the best of your ability, or you acknowledge that this is a bad fit and move on, because what’s happening here now isn’t serving anyone.” I thought it was a private conversation, but ... somehow ... everyone seemed to know about it very quickly, not the details, but the resulting changes.

In those conversations and more, I began to get my own answer about leadership and about the kind of respect I had been given. I remember one interview with a tribal elder I heard when I still worked in Washington DC. “How do you get to be an elder?” he was asked.  There’s nothing formal, he replied. Just, when the hard questions come up, and there’s no one else they can ask.  That’s the way it felt – I felt totally unqualified and unprepared, but the hard questions came up, and in my mind we’re sitting in a circle, and I look around to find someone smart who is going to answer the question, and when I look back, all those faces looking at me, waiting to hear what I have to say.  


  1. This is a most wonderful post. I love your take on birthdays and what it means to be an elder.

  2. Thanx! I'm absolutely loving being older. Yes, I'm bummed that my body isn't as strong and flexible as it used to be, but given the tradeoff with accumulated insight and a clearer sense of my own values, all in all I'm happier now. (Being retired doesn't hurt, either.)