There are a few things that never get any easier even with practice, and for me, and many others I've met, saying goodbye falls into this category. Some people I know seem to relish farewells, initiating leave-takings and closing doors behind them enthusiastically, rushing into new adventures without much apparent difficulty. Other folks avoid good-byes at all costs, staying in the same town all their lives and only waving adieu to those who leave. And, there are those who fall somewhere in between the two. That’s where I put myself.
Mostly, I love to travel, especially by boat. I love the idea of the beckoning horizon that promises the experiences of new sights, sounds, smells and friends. But, there is another part of me that dreads leaving, and that, in the days leading up to a departure, wakes me up early with a weird sinking feeling. It makes me prone to waves of anxiety when I have to say goodbye and leave the familiar for the unknown.
When I was growing up, my family moved around a lot; we also traveled and spent a year cruising, so I was introduced to good-byes at a fairly early age. When I was younger, I had a much harder time with them, and would completely surrender to my emotions because I hadn't yet learned how to identify these feelings. Now that I can recognize and articulate them for what they are, however, I miss the innocence that enabled me to brave that end-of-the-world feeling so poignantly, the flailing that has now been replaced by that jaded this-too-shall-pass feeling.
Good-byes and my maturing relationship with them played a big part in my coming-of-age saga, which didn't follow the most traditional of paths. In my eighteenth year, I found myself saying goodbye to an adolescence with my friends, my family, and absolutely everything that felt safe and familiar, as I headed off into the Atlantic Ocean, alone, on a little boat, with all the world in front of me. The plan was to keep going west until I got back, whenever and however that was meant to happen. In those first months, my landfalls were Bermuda, St. Thomas, Panama, the Galapagos, and French Polynesia. Each stop meant I had to learn about a foreign place, get acquainted with the facilities and the culture and most importantly, make the new friends that I would have to eventually leave.
A huge dimension of cruising is colored by the friends we make and the force of these encounters. Originally, humans were a tribal species so there is something about cruising that runs decidedly counter to our instincts, where every man or boat is his or her own island. As a result, harbors around the world become like petri dishes of cruisers swarming about and making up for lost time by creating instant social communities. Because boats keep moving, friendships are forged much faster than they are on land where time seems more plentiful. Consequently, an anchorage full of boats with scheduled itineraries is a fertile place for rapid bonding with fellow humans of like interests, which is something we crave and waste no time dithering over. I sure didn't.
|"Because boats stay on the move, friendships are forged much faster while cruising than they are on land where time seems much more plentiful."|
Alone as I was on my trip, I clutched on to human contact and made many friends who felt very close. The harbors were merely the backdrops, part of the stories that arose from these alliances, and leaving these people and places, to head off into the unknown, not knowing if I would ever see them again, was incredibly difficult for me. Each time I pulled up anchor and headed back out to sea, I spent days crying and feeling a gut-wrenching sense of loss. The people, sights, smells, and sounds would be replaced by the meager contents of my little 26-foot home, the ocean, and the sky.
The utter simplicity of it all and the stark contrast between land and sea would make me feel so anxious. I felt I was being denied something big, as if I had been not invited to a party with everyone I knew. The world was busy doing stuff and I was left out, and for the first several days at sea, these moments would swoop in and overpower me, leaving me feeling breathless. My subconscious worked day and night to sustain the fervor, and it conjured the people I missed back into my dreams, where we would have conversations and interact vividly enough to renew the sorrow every time I awoke.
Routinely, though, through no help of my own, the severity of this angst would diminish with the passing days. Time would work its magic, and the responsibilities involved with getting a boat from one place to another would reestablish themselves as my preoccupations until my normal curiosity and excitement about seeing new places and meeting other people was restored. The ocean would become the best place in the world to be, and I would begin to feel so lucky for being able to know it and to be experiencing such drastic extremes. I could disappear into the
books I was reading again, or sit for hours in the cockpit, staring at the skies and the water around me, taking in the nuances of color, the sounds and rhythms of swishing progress that was my life just then. The world could have itself and its parties without me. I would reach a point where only the present moment mattered, and present moments melted into each other endlessly until the next landfall. That was enough; and so I came to understand that good-byes are part of an unending cycle where every unknown eventually becomes the familiar that gets followed by a new unknown, and that time is the only cure.
Looking back over the years since those days, I remember how I learned to describe this process, one I have come to compare with withdrawal—a withdrawal from friendship and land. And, I have seen other people go through different versions of it since. On coastal and transatlantic deliveries, as well as many 10-day cruises in different countries, I have been able share the experience with others. Each time the last dockline or anchor is pulled in, each time land disappears in the wake and there is nothing visible ahead, whether it is a day-long crossing where the whole process gets accelerated, or a longer passage, in varying degrees I have seen this withdrawal kick in.
Once the departure hullabaloo dies down and land disappears in the wake, whether the trip is 10 hours, or 10 days, the boat gets quiet. I can see eyes straining for a glimpse of land, either ahead or behind. The charts get looked at and it slowly dawns on everyone that there is only one way to get wherever we are going; we'll get there by boat and at six or eight or knots, no faster. Until then, the boat is our world, and it and everything it carries is what stands between us and being reunited with civilization. It takes some time before being able to appreciate just how cool this is.
Of course, when we're not alone, the withdrawal must be experienced with more decorum, and everyone deals with these feelings by retreating to a corner with a book, sleeping, or chattering aimlessly to cover the malaise. I still feel it, too, and am there along with everyone else, running the emotional gauntlet until the tide finally turns, and the responsibility of feeding ourselves and getting the boat back to land demands attention, and we forget about the world over the horizon and tend to the needs at hand, savoring the moment because it won't last.
Somebody once said to leave is to die a little. It is true. All these little deaths, though, are the dots in the big picture, connecting the experiences that wouldn't be possible without them. Good-byes and the ongoing relationship we establish with them are part of the cycle and an integral aspect of a traveling way of life. This is what I keep telling myself as I move between my dots, saying my good-byes, because when all the articulating is said and done, they still aren't easy.