I’m not exactly a nautical type. I’ve been in a variety of boats. I’ve paddled a canoe and rowed a row boat. Someone taught me how to come about on a sailboat many years ago. I’ve driven a motor boat, one of the few positive benefits of having my in-laws who owned one. I’ve traversed lakes and rivers on paddle boats, pontoon boats and riverboats. I’ve been on a hydrofoil and a whale watching boat. I’ve been on a cruise ship a couple of times and the smaller tenders that transport you from ship to shore and back. I’ve even been on a faux submarine that felt like being in a washing machine, plus one retired battleship. These were all good and interesting experiences but truthfully, I’d rather be in the water than on it.
I try thinking back to what led me to think about trying to keep an even keel. Maybe growing up close to the lakefront in Chicago had an impact on my marine-themed psychological reference for stability. I can’t count how many times I traveled on both south and north Lake Shore Drive. I remember always having my eyes glued to the water which was endlessly interesting to me. Full of life and mystery. That’s the place where I learned to swim. Maybe I’m somewhere in that black and white photo, trying to copy those people who actually knew what they were doing. My family wasn’t big on swimming. Usually on steamy summer days, when we were broiling in our un-air-conditioned third floor apartment, we headed to the beach and set up camp in the grassy park area. After a while, I always fled to the water.
My high school had a marine theme because of its proximity to the lake. South Shore High. The athletic teams were called The Tars. The yearbook was The Tide and the newspaper was The Shore Line. Deep blue and teal green were the colors I associate with that school, thinking particularly of my senior yearbook. When I attended my 50th high school reunion, I had some temporary teal streaks put in my hair, just for fun.
I’m not exactly sure whether the origin of my goal of keeping an even keel is important. Thinking about it is typical of my internal process as I always seem to be pondering something. Sometimes when I wake in the morning with a subject already on my mind, I wonder if I’ve really been asleep. I’m not sure my brain is ever empty despite my intermittent meditative efforts. I have to laugh. From the beginning of our relationship, I was always asking Michael what he was thinking about. Frequently, he’d say “nothing.” “What?” I would shriek. “That’s impossible. You have to be thinking about something.” He’d smile and say, “Some day toward the end of your life, you’re going to realize that all the mysterious thoughts you believe I’m concealing really were never there. You’ve just spent your life with a basically shallow guy.” Of course I never believed him and of course that wasn’t true. But it was a point well taken. Everyone isn’t afflicted with thinking all the time.I’m pretty sure all this perpetual cogitating began when I was a little kid. I was always tuned in to the emotional currents going on around me. I found them alarming and uncomfortable. I wanted to be a step ahead of everything. My family seemed to constantly be responding to crises which for me, as a little child, was just plain scary. As I got older, I developed strategies for getting ahead of the curve. I believe control is the operative word here. I wanted as much control as I could get. None of this aimless bobbing like a cork in the water, buffeted by random waves and currents for me. I figured if I thought hard enough I could keep an even keel, no matter what I ran into along my course. Obviously, that wasn’t entirely possible. Anyone with feelings can’t get away unscathed by those waves that ram into most people at some point or other in their lives. But trying to hold steady has been a good life strategy for me. I gravitate to my center and move forward from there. I’m not fond of operating from positions of weakness. So if I stay focused, I can manage. Most of the time. Last week, I gave myself a special event. Pete Yorn was doing a livestream acoustic guitar performance of my favorite album of his, Musicforthemorningafter. In addition, there was new and unique merchandise to go along with the show. Part of the proceeds were going to Covid19 relief, particularly in the way of food. I was so excited. I decided that after Michael died, I was going to go to as many concerts, plays and places as I could afford. The intervention of the virus has put a big hitch in my plans. Sometimes I wish I could be less conscious of the considerable risks it poses to my health and then, obviously, to my family and anyone else whose path I might cross. But I can’t. I’m constantly reasoning with myself, trying to stay rational instead of being impulsive. I don’t believe that most of the people who are breaking all the science rules are being deliberately malicious and uncaring about public health. Mostly I think they’re either not able to conceive that one bad move can be enough to change their lives or someone else’s. Having constant awareness of vulnerability is hard and exhausting. I think my life made me good at this heightened awareness. I often remind myself that everyone is just a phone call away from life-altering tough news. Frankly, it’s not my favorite thing to be self-aware. In my coronavirus dream journal, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern. Mostly, I’m in unfamiliar places, but I’m almost always with Michael and our kids. Usually it’s between 15-20 years ago, so our little nuclear family is intact. But there’s always something threatening near us and I’m trying to protect one person or another. Invariably, I’m required to navigate a dangerous area, usually a narrow walkway, bridge or balance beam-like path. Water is on both sides of me and it’s usually active, with waves lapping over my feet. So far, I’ve always gotten to the other side. I’m thinking this subconscious process is a metaphor for this time. The world around me can be simultaneously simple and complex. I’m my best self when I’m in my garden, listening to music, watching the behavior of the insects, birds and little mammals out there in my habitat that I’m still trying to improve every day. Part of the reason for that is to do my share of being a healthy influence on nature as it groans under the weight of climate change. I also am trying to help my future self as the work around here will only get harder. Maybe I’ll have a healthy decade in my 70’s or maybe not. If I design my outside for as little maintenance as possible, my chances of staying uninjured improve. That project is keeping me occupied in the dance of staying balanced. There’ve been 50 bird species that have shown up here this year. I’m working on my list of butterflies now. I finally got a few photos of the speedy goldfinches and an amazing first, a video of monarchs mating. The simple part of life.
This piece of my life is satisfying. I wander around for hours, headphones on, listening to music, old and new. But there’s a darker side. I’m worrying about lots of people I know and ones that I don’t. I have friends dealing with cancer, their own or their loved one’s. That’s a road I can walk with them, albeit carefully, as I’ve learned well the limits of my abilities. Friends’ parents are dying in this lonely time when the virus separates people when they should be together. Many people I know are depressed and lonely. The incessant alone time gives many who weren’t satisfied with their lives too much time to reflect on their negatives. That’s another road I can walk partway before stepping back. I’ve experienced a lot of loss, both parents, a sibling, a best friend, a former lover and of course, my life partner. Sometimes I think that I’ve already experienced the worst thing that could happen to me. But then I remind myself that for me, the loss of a child could overwhelm all my internal resources. So my private inner dialogue continues. Then there are all the people on the streets. I’m seeing more of the homeless and the hungry. I buy sandwiches and hand them over but it’s so terrible to know how insignificant is that act which only provides the most temporary respite. I’ve handed out water bottles on hot days. But I feel helpless and overwhelmed and angry. This is a rich country and the economic gaps between the top and the bottom are just wrong. I rail away on social media about everything. Then I feel guilty that all I share is anger and rage. So I go to Instagram, a most peculiar place indeed. I follow scientists and nature photographers so I can share some beauty instead of simply vitriol. I also check on a variety of news outlets and conservation groups. I confess that I do the fan girl thing, following Roger Federer, musicians and the television character who reminds me of Michael, at least the Michael he’d have been as a Scottish Highlander in the 18th century. But Instagram’s a weird place with all these influencers who seem mostly vapid to me, and then the lonely souls out there who send me private messages and ask to follow me them though my account is private. My profile photo is flattering but do these mostly middle-aged men think that anything substantive could develop in this peculiar forum? Maybe that actually happens for some people. I delete all those requests. I do wonder about them. But I’m sticking with my Outlander hero who reminds me of my guy, absent the kilt. So, up and back I go, or rather I shift from side to side, trying to hold steady in the midst of this strange time. I hope I can keep that keel firmly centered, while knowing full well, I can be knocked off my course in a split second. You know, that’s really how it always is but thinking that way round the clock is too hard – taking a break from dwelling on the uncertainty is necessary for survival.