Into the Abyss, and other fun things

One of the hardest things about this journey—beyond the heat and cold, the financial stress, fear and self doubt, the trying to live in a confined space with another (albeit lovable) human being, the banging my head on the bulkhead every damn time I go to the aft cabin—has been the absence of a mission. I anticipated that Bill and I would both be challenged living a life without clear purpose—without trying to do something intensely meaningful every day. But I didn’t know or guess what it would feel like, or how long it would last, or how I would plan to get past it. 

It feels like this: a void. A hungry void. An airy abyss of emptiness where the idea of food, fullness or sustenance hasn’t any meaning. It feels like a tightness and a looseness at the same time. It disorients, like you are in the middle of a vast body of water with no clue as to where you are or why. Rudderless, Bill says.

Bill had worked for 20 years in the environment and sustainability profession. First he wrote stories about wildlife and wild lands for Defenders of Wildlife and National Parks Conservation Association magazines. Then he built green houses of various hues with a visionary architect, Bill Hutchins. Then he installed solar systems…and finally began a long stint crafting energy and building policy for the city of Washington DC. All his life was geared toward one goal: helping to lighten the footprint of humanity so that other creatures would stand a chance. I did the same in my way.

This gave our lives a rudder, strong and deep. But also heavy. We decided not to have children guided by this same rudder and reason, to lighten the footfalls of humans on this already overburdened planet. Most adult Homo sapiens get much of their meaning and purpose from their kids. We had our own work-rudder-kid, but we dropped it when we stepped onto this boat, just dropped it, on purpose. We know where it is. We can go back and pick it up one day perhaps. But it was becoming too heavy and our souls too tired to carry it. We had a new rudder, hard but light, aiming us toward a new goal to sail around the world. A squirrel, some shysters, and some real bad luck broke that rudder. We may one day repair it, but for the time being we are drifting in the void.

I have days when I feel the hunger as a vibration in my bones, like restless leg syndrome of the soul. Those days I sit on deck all day watching the water, listening to birds and leaves, reading about wind, stars, weather, and meditating on some good old fashioned Mary Oliver: And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire–clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.

And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire–clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.

Mary Oliver, The Buddha’s Last Instruction

This is one of those days. Today the wind approaches with obvious intent from the north, pushing the boat toward a forested shore within a deep cove in the St. Mary’s River, just off the Potomac, near the mouth. Bill sits beside me eating oatmeal while I practice my eagle call, hoping to approach the genius of John McCain’s 2008 rendition. (Sorry, this doesn’t actually sound like an eagle’s cry, but Bill does an imitation of McCain saying Ahmadinejad that sounds exactly like an eagle).

Crows fly out of the forest bluff as a dark cluster, a Gang of 8. Three of them break off and dive swiftly toward the water, then level off a hands-breadth above the sparkling surface. I can only presume they are wanting to feel the wind as it glances off the waves, pressing up against their bellies and shining, sun-warmed black wings. With little fetch the wind can only stir the water into low peaks, but they are insistent and serious as they march toward me, pass by without a glance, and continue ever on toward land. One after another, they take my every thought with them. Sparing only one. That as the juvenile bald eagle circles round and round on thermals that rise along the forest edge, he is engaging in something pointless, perfect, meaningless and a complete distillation of all the meaning the world has ever held: he is practicing his communion with all that is within, and all that is without. He is learning how to soar like only an eagle can.

9 Comments on “Into the Abyss, and other fun things

  1. Thank you. You take my breath away, Krista, and then I breath more easily and somehow feel refreshed—every time.

    You are needed, Krista, each and both of you, you and your beloved Bill. Perhaps not in the vastness of it all—perhaps none of us is “needed” from that vantage point, (or perhaps each and all of us are), but in the here and now, I think you are desperately needed.

    Please be gentle with yourselves. The burden is not yours to bear, but you have knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, and special kind of realistic hope that is in a combination like no one else.

    Take your time. You’ve clearly earned the extended recess. Nonstop love is coming from here, along with heartfelt wishes for all that is good. Your Ma

  2. If you find yourself half naked
    and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
    again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
    you are the air of the now and gone, that says
    all you love will turn to dust,
    and will meet you there, do not
    raise your fist. Do not raise
    your small voice against it. And do not
    take cover. Instead, curl your toes
    into the grass, watch the cloud
    ascending from your lips. Walk
    through the garden’s dormant splendor.
    Say only, thank you.
    Thank you.

    By Ross Gay

  3. Wow. I have read and re-read this post, knowing that it captures what I and so many others are feeling right now, that abyss in the middle of our lives. This past summer, I was in an online book study group focusing on the book “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” which is what we’re all doing, of course. Now, many of these same people are in another group reading “When Things Fall Apart.” One by an Episcopal priest, the other by a Buddhist teacher. The experience is the same. I am sorry that your round-the-world adventure fell apart. I am sorry that meaning and direction seem so foreign right now. I am sorry that we can’t pretend to know what lies ahead. But like your mom, whose response was incredibly moving, I’ve very grateful for your words. Indeed, I see a book in the making for you–Sailing into the Pandemic: When Dreams Fall Apart. I think you have what it takes to shape this godawful experience into something beautiful and lasting. I’m grateful for that.

  4. Hi Krista and Bill! This is Pat! You are missed very much but I so admire your adventure! Think of you often and pray for your safety and sanity! God bless, Pat

    • Thank you so much Pat. We miss you too! I hope you and your family are doing well these days. Looking forward to catching up one day!

  5. Hi Krista and Bill! This is Pat! You are missed in the Mount Rainier community. I think of you often and pray for your safety and sanity. I’m saddened that your voyage hasn’t taken off as you had planned but I believe this experience will continue to shape and sharpen an already astounding couple even deeper! Hang in there!

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