Archives for posts with tag: rain

It is difficult to explain the existential risk that the writer—at least this writer—undertakes when working. It is tantamount to this:

One time we (my father, two crew mates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first timer sailor) had slipped into his bunk clutching his life jacket, stricken with an indomitable case of seasickness. We were sailing short handed into stupid weather.

For the next four days we sailed in 30-50 knot winds, in a sea that was more like a protracted set of sand dunes, the water whipped by the wind into twelve foot peaks that barely seemed to move. They were moving though, faster than we were in our 36 foot sailboat. The ship sailed up and down these wet rolling hills, making ragged progress toward our goal: Bermuda.

Sensible men would have waited, but for all my father’s strengths (long range planning, and in the moment decisiveness among them), he had a stubbornness that did not waver. Once he had a plan, he stuck to it. Later in life, this supported him as he battled with Parkinson’s Disease. He suffered with the adaptations the illness forced on him, but refused to be stopped. In the end this led to his death. On this trip, his drive took us into an ocean that would challenge us.

I should also note that when I point to a crew mate who became seasick, I do not cast aspersions. I get seasick, and had each time I had sailed on the ocean before this. It always strikes me when I take my first late watch, when the horizon is shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear cannot properly make sense of the several directions that my body is moving. It is an ugly sickness, driving the guts empty in rebellion, until there is nothing left but bile. I never missed my turns at watcher helm because of it. The nausea would strike, and I would turn my head, and do what I needed. I did not eat or drink while it was on me, and it passed, for me it did, and after 36 hours.

On this trip, in this ocean, I was entirely spared. All my other crew mates, even my father, were struck. In retrospect perhaps the swell of the sea was so distinct and regular, that the three way (pitch, yaw, and roll) motion did not take grip of me. Or perhaps the danger created a necessary clarity. As with all retrospect, I cannot be sure.

After four days, we finally passed into the fringe of whatever had driven the gale. In a matter of hours, the wind created new swell patterns. Around midnight, the sea that had been a reasonable set of rolling hills, turned, and became more like waves breaking over an invisible reef or sand bar. 18-20 foot waves rose and broke, all headed in one direction. They are called following seas, which means the breakers were rising behind us, and rolling toward us. They were moving faster than we were, and lifted our boat to each peak, at which point our boat would slide down the front of the breaker like a sailboard.

That sounds easy enough, but as the boat fell down the surface of each wave, it carved a path driven by gravity and the force of the wave it was riding. Its path down the wave became, temporarily and repeatedly, unmanageable. Pushed by wind, pushed by water, pulled by gravity, the rudder merely suggested a direction. And yet, when at the helm, every suggestion made a difference. Caught at the top of a breaker, the boat could easily go sideways, and roll over. Sliding down the side of the breakers, it could turn too sharply and roll over.

A sailboat is not a surfboard.

My father and I took the helm when the sea turned. We held it in half hour turns, and it was exhausting work that required dense and specific attention. And, we were exhausted after the previous days of sail. Usually, in harsh conditions, one man took the wheel, and the other took refuge propped against the cabin in the leeward side of the cockpit, using the cabin as a wall against the constant water that broke over the windward gunwale. In this case, as we planed down the sides of the swells, the leeward gunwale cut into the water, and the water rushed into the cockpit. This added a new threat. The boat could be capsized, swamped with water if the helmsmen was not attentive. And, because no attention was enough, at the very least, we were soaked, the water pooling in our yellow foul weather gear, which was not designed for repeated submersion.

At 4 in the morning my father looked at me and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to send another crew member up, but you cannot let him take the helm until the sea settles down. You have to sail until then. The boat is yours.”

I brought a waterproof Walkman on these trips. And can admit that for the times I took the helm that night, I listened to an array of the loudest songs I had: Dinosaur Jr’s “I Know You’re Out There,” Medicine’s “One More,” and Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” Nothing was loud enough. Nothing matched the ocean or my attention. Nothing matched my awareness of what might happen, or when my father relented, what had happened.

I sailed. Every time I turned the wheel, I felt like I was making a decision that could imperil the lives of all of us. We would go down fast, without time to throw the life raft overboard. It would happen in an instant. We were at sea—tempest tossed as Shakespeare wrote. The end would come quickly. Each time I turned the wheel, each millimeter I moved it to port or starboard, I felt as if I was making a decision for speed and forward motion. It felt, again, as the bard wrote, giddy. Not happy, and not drunk—although I felt as drunk as I could be—drunk with sailing, with water and with wind—but transported out of my mind, beyond all thought, and into every thought possible. I sailed as I never had before, as I would always want to sail afterwards.

Friends ask me if I have been sailing in the years since my father’s death. I have not. But even before he died, I knew that I would not—not because of fear or seasickness (an anti-vertigo drug helped allay that)—because I had done something then that I would never replicate. Not on the ocean. I have sought it ever since.

I do not know what has ever led me back to safety. I know that what calls me is not simply mastery (I have a PhD in English, I have some level of mastery there), but the exhilaration of being over the edge of control and into the realm of the impossible. To be the captain, which I became that night. Sometimes, too often, I have exercised the caution I faulted my father for lacking. I have stayed controlled, almost too calm. In some measure, this is because I feel a lack of control and a lack of mastery around me. Even the experts profess a quietness or steadfastness, when sometimes what is needed is to go out of ones mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, an must all go out of our minds, together.

I have over-prepared, or tried to know, to tame the ideas in my head, worried that they were unintelligible, or that they were somehow too strange. I feel myself now, at the top of the breaking wave again. And look down into the night sea. This way. Now. Down. For life.


This morning light grey clouds cover the sky. The high blue sky of yesterday might be somewhere above, but no gaps appear this morning. It feels as if the roof has been lowered to a space only a short way above my head. Walking into work feels like walking through air that was only a shade less thick than water. And then the rain begins.

When caught in the rain, people walk with their shoulders hunched down and their heads bowed. Their pace slows. I feel it too, the reflexive inward pull against the precipitation. If I can just make myself smaller, I will not get as wet. Still, I do get wet. Sometimes lightly moistened, sometimes soaked. Until I get to my car, where my umbrella waits in the trunk, rain will get me no matter what I do.

When I sailed, rain could last for days. We would sit in the cockpit in our two man watches and just take it. Even in weather gear, water finds a way right down to your skin. After six or fifty six hours of rain, you just become swollen. Your fingernails soften. Then the calluses on your heels peel away. It’s only a matter of time before the bones in your face melt into some new configuration. But at some point, and almost in spite of of your soup-ification, your shoulders unfurl from their mock-fetal crouch and you become human again. Your head rises and you scan the horizon, which is your duty anyway, so you make it as easy as it had been when you were dry. You break out of the shell of reflex and return to humantiy.

When I walk into rain now, I feel that first crimping each time. Not doing it would mark me as inhuman, and I am, if nothing else, too human. But I stretch my neck, roll my shoulders back into place, lift my chin, and stride, as I always do, into the rain. It’s just rain, I remind myself, no matter whether it is a sprinkle or a torrent. It’s just water.

And I think, if this is how my body responds to a temporary inconvenience, what must my mind be doing in this moment? How many things are like the rain in my mind, causing me to shorten my sight, draw inward, become less than what I am? Bernie Sanders is making a case about the impact of living pay check to pay check–surely, this is like walking in the rain. Or of the impact of making less money for the same day’s work. Or of having to think about whether you will be stopped or shot at because of the color of your skin, or the color of your uniform. Imagine what it must be like to feel as if there was a steady insistent mental rain falling on your shoulders.

A few years ago, I had to explain what depression felt like to my daughter. A friend of ours had committed suicide after struggling with depression. I told my daughter that our friend couldn’t see any other possibility. I took a magazine and rolled it into a tube and said, “This was all she could see.” I imagine that the experience of mental rain causes us to limit our vision, forcing our gaze, if only by reflex, to the puddles in front of our feet, (Don’t step in this one, that one, this one), until all the world is puddle and all our shoes are ruined and there is no place to put our feet down dry.

We live among the raindrops. I can say this, not living in Seattle, where the steady rain can threaten to wash even the green from the morning. I can say this because I can look at forecasts that have sun just a few days away. I can say this because I can remember when the rain started. And so I do say it, and I do look up, and my vision can distinguish the drops as they fall—small beads of water spun around motes of dust. And I do look up, and into the faces that I meet, and we are here, together, in the rain, just as we are together in the sun. And I look up and see the water between us, like a connect-the-dots page in three dimensions, extending as far as there is rain.

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