Once upon a time I learned to sail. Time steals the memories of that learning and now that I can navigate the river I can’t remember those days of running aground, of fighting the slow, easy current, or even of the repeated soakings as I was tipped into the water. Nor do I remember those early journeys, all way back upstream now, through the hurried rapids, down the narrow streams of my childhood. Perhaps at the time it all seemed bigger but looking back, up and across to the mountains we made our way down, I can barely make out the path of the water; like tracing my face for the lines left by tears that dried up long ago. As the river widened and relaxed into the valley some memories stick. I do remember that initial sense of freedom, striking out from the bank alone for the first time but secure in knowing that the river was slow, shallow, and not so broad that I couldn’t swim back to something solid. The river guides. That was the teaching: trust in its easy, forgiving flow and use it to learn for the sea. The unspoken truth though was that the river is poor learning for the sea but it is all we have.
The sea looked like hope from the river as I glimpsed it occasionally back then, wide eyed, staring downstream into the future. Just as looking back changed perspective, shrinking things that had seemed vast, looking forwards played the same trick but in reverse. The sea looked contained, bound by shore and horizon; it looked manageable. Navigable. The distance flattened the ceaseless rise and fall of the tides and ironed out the distant surges and storms. It looked like a gently creased, blue grey sheet stretched out between the land and sky and I miss that idea of it. I miss the time when I headed for uncharted waters with excitement and confidence, when apprehension felt like the precursor to discovery – something new and wonderful – instead of the prelude to fear. Even when the discovery was just someone else’s map of those uncharted waters, the discovery that they weren’t uncharted at all, that someone had sailed this course before and left you their notes.
And for a while, as I stuck to the charted waters or uncovered the notes from those that had sailed before me, the sea delivered on the promises whispered in its waves. Close to the mouth of the river it was as easy to sail as the river itself had been. The boat I’d built and sailed as a child rode the benign tides close to shore just as it had coped with the nudging currents that had eventually pushed it out into open water. The coastal squalls were exhilarating rather than frightening, the rush of adrenaline feeding the strength to trim the sails or tack back into the wind. And when they abated the sea was calm for long enough, and I was strong enough, open enough, to improve the boat, to make modifications and adjustments. To face each successive squall stronger than I’d faced the last. Perhaps the sea guides too. That’s what I thought in those days skimming the surface spray hugging the shoreline. I don’t think that anymore.
I don’t remember losing track of the shore. It must have happened slowly, over years, a progressive pull from the ebb of the tides winning out over the flow. Out here the sea doesn’t look contained or manageable and the notes left by fellow sailors are fewer and further between. Is it even navigable ? Out here there’s just the sea. Vast and endless and unforgiving: it can swallow you up and leave you cold, lost and adrift. When the storms hit my boat splintered and sank. I fought them until my bones ached and my fingers blistered from straining against salt lashed ropes in the desperate struggle to stay afloat. If I’d had a solid place to stand then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the drenched deck gave no purchase for my feet. If I’d battled a single, violent tempest then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the bad weather resolved itself into a change in the climate, storms piled on storms. If I’d learned to rest, to trust the sails to others, to admit to the weariness of near defeat, then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but even back in the days on the river I’d always sailed alone. There was no solid place to stand, there were many storms, and there was nobody to relieve me as captain: my boat splintered and sank.
The sea’s depths seemed to offer solace, they were untouched by whatever raged above. At first there was a relief in the isolation as I dropped beneath the roiling, rolling waves, pieces of my former vessel, fractured and sinking beside me. As I lingered there longer though it became colder and a kind of numbness set in; it became harder to strike out again for the surface. There was nothing up there but storms and the relentless toss and twist of the swelling waters. Nothing there but more sorrow. There was nothing here either but it was a constant nothing. It was predictable. Navigable. I was lost but if I stayed where I was I’d never be more lost and I’d never risk the hope of clutching at a way back to shore. I’d never feel the touch of the sun on skin but I’d never have to feel the rain either.
The sea doesn’t guide, it just is. The sea doesn’t guide but perhaps those that sail it still can and still do. The notes from fellow sailors are fewer and further between out here – down here – in the sea. But some remain. Even here some remain. I found one of those stray, rare notes and it said this: even out here it’s not truly uncharted. There’s a universal map written in the stars for those able to raise their eyes and read it. Perhaps it leads back to your shore but you can’t read that map ensconced and ensnared under water. You might see the lights, foggy and distorted, but the water refracts and changes the true positions of the fixed reference points you must follow. You must brave the surface to see the way. The only way back to the shore is to risk the storms. How do you learn to be still on the waves ? Or how do you learn to lean in to the teeth of the gale and laugh ? When does knowing you’re not in control of the boat stop being terrifying and fill your heart with exhilaration ? How do you leave notes as you chart your waters that others might find and learn from in future ? These are the questions I asked and still ask as I seek the playful exploration of the shores close to the river that I learned to navigate when I was young. I read the note and draw strength to seek the surface.
This is the sea. Terrible and terrifying and relentless. Open and hopeful and limitless. Build the best boat you can and learn to make it dance on the river but accept that when you reach the sea it can crush the strongest vessel or the skilled sailor without thought or malice. All you can do is learn to sail again. Seek out the constants in the sky, learn to sail and as you chart your course leave notes that others might follow and might know that they are not alone, adrift in their storms. The river need not be our only learning. We are each other’s guides.
Once upon a time I learned to sail. Happily ever after remains my destination, out there on the horizon, across the sea.
This is story 42 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
So that’s it. Took longer than anticipated but all 42 are done and, to date, I’ve raised £700 for Mind. This one’s about everything the other 41 were about but also, in spirit, was about the value in sharing stories.
It owes a huge debt to Mike Scott and The Waterboys who said in six glorious minutes and two chords what I’ve struggled to say here.