I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I was about five years old, having just flown on a plane for the first time to Iowa to visit my grandmother, I told her that I wanted to be an airline pilot. My grandmother, a pragmatic German woman who had lived alone since my mother had married, shook her head and said that I could never be a pilot. I didn't hear well enough, she said. I know she was well intentioned; maybe she just meant I didn't listen well enough. In fact, she was right: a couple of years later we found out I did have a serious hearing loss. I never again thought that I could fly airplanes, and therefore I could never be an astronaut since in those days all of them were pilots.
One year into our cruse, we are still trying to decide to do next: hurry home to Tennessee, or spend the winter months in Florida or the Bahamas before going home. The biggest push to get home is financial--we have run through our cruising kitty, the proceeds from the sale of our home, with alarming speed--but it's also true that both the crew and the boat are getting worn down. There are other reasons to go back to the working world. We have no health insurance, and while so far we've been fine, I don't feel good about the prospects long-term. Despite getting a dental checkup the day before we left Chattanooga, I've lost two crowns in the past year and those won't be cheap to replace without dental insurance. It will be nice to have health and dental again once we are employed. On that subject, in the changing world of technology, the longer we wait to go back to work, the tougher if will be for us.
Yet I can't shake a vague feeling that if we simply go home now we have failed somehow, that our year of cruising proved only that maybe we weren't cut out for cruising in the first place. Have we lost the joy of simply anchoring in solitude and enjoying the sunset? After a year living in this tiny space, have we grown that bored with ourselves? I know this: it's definitely less fun when you're traveling alone, and we have been traveling alone since we left Luperon seven months ago. Annie and I are both shy by nature, so it's not always easy for us to make friends on the water. I can't help but think that we would be enjoying ourselves more if we were still having regular happy hours with the crews of Living Well, Promise, Encantada, Watermark, Pi Squared, and all the other boats who reached out to us and made us feel so welcome.
Instead, Annie reads a different paperback each day. Laura watches Spongebob or reads her nature books. I hang around to do repairs and drive the boat from place to place, listening to Elliott Smith on my iPod. Always, hanging over our heads as if from the masthead, is the question: are we going forward, backward, or just treading water?
Last February I had it made, and I knew it. On my 45th birthday I found myself up on the bow the boat as we sped under sail across the beautiful blue waters of the Exumas, thinking that I had never before been so satisfied with my life. I was newly arrived in paradise, accompanied by my wife and daughter, with our new friends on Promise sailing along with us into new anchorages and beaches with so much left to explore and experience. I didn't want that day to end. Now, of course, I want that day and all the others like it back so I can live them again...but of course that's not exactly how life works. Even if we go back to the Exumas, can we recapture the wonder of that first visit?
I don't want to go back to living our old lives as if we had never left Tennessee. This cruise was supposed to change our lives, force us to take chances and make changes. If nothing else, I'll always be proud that we broke free, if only for a while, and gave it an honest try. In some ways we have succeeded. There will be some real differences no matter where we land: we'll have almost no money in the bank, no jobs, and no house, but in some ways those are positives. This is a unique opportunity for us. We can go anywhere, do almost anything.
So what should we do?
Only once before in my life have I ever been at such a crossroads. When I was about to graduate from Vanderbilt with a degree in English, I took all the standard career guidance tests but still wasn't sure what to do with myself. That whole senior year I agonized over it. I wrote, "What will you do, R Ling, what will you do?" on the pine boards on cinder blocks I used as a desk. I remember getting so angry one day over my lack of direction that I punched the typewriter, bending the "J" key and getting blood on what I'd been typing, a list things I needed to do to get my life in order.
But in truth I've always known what I wanted to be. I know it so well that sometimes I forget: I wanted to be a writer. I still do. Why else am I sitting here in front of a keyboard at well past midnight? I knew what I wanted, but I somehow also knew that I lacked the courage and discipline to make that dream a reality. Although I may never have said it out loud, I thought that going cruising would reawaken that dream in me. Maybe it has, and that's why I don't want to go home yet.
Fortunately, cruising is more than a mid-life crisis, at least for most of the folks we've met. They live happily in the tiny spaces of their boats for years without complaint, migrating north and south with the seasons, accomplishing little by some standards but achieving nothing short of Nirvana by others. Mostly, more than most people I've known, they seem at peace with themselves.
My grandmother was right. It doesn't look like I will ever be an astronaut or even an airline pilot. I may or may not ever write a novel. But if I could be a cruiser, at peace with my life, I think that would be enough.
Title Photo: Cruising boats at the dock and at anchor in St. Marys, Georgia, where this small essay was written.