When we arrived in Costa Rica last month, I could hardly wait to get the beach.
I unpacked and bee-lined it for the shore. Anchored in the distance was a boat that looked exactly like the boat I lived on as a child. As I sat there, a tsunami of memories flooded in. I was overwhelmed with joyful nostalgia.
My childhood was something out of a “choose your own adventure” book. At the time, it didn’t seem that way, it was my reality—just normal life. When I tell my story to someone for the first time, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to have the experience I did. My “normal” reality was built from an extraordinary dream; my father’s dream.
Since I could crawl, I’ve sailed. My parents took every opportunity to throw us aboard our sailboat and explore the coasts of California and Mexico. Two weeks, then a month, then two months: our trips extended longer and longer as I grew older.
I am convinced my father is the reincarnate of Ferdinand Magellan, so it made sense he would make such a bold decision to take sabbatical from his medical practice, to feed his insatiable love and curiosity of the high seas.
In 1989, my parents withdrew my brother and I from school, rented out our home and moved aboard our catamaran, Ariel.
We began in San Diego, California. We made the 13 day passage to our first port, Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico. We spent six months sailing the coast of Mexico and back, before making the three week passage across the Pacific to French Polynesia, where we spent the second half of the year exploring the Marquesas, Tuamotus (clusters of coral reef atolls) and the Society Islands (Tahiti to name a familiar island in the group).
Although I had an appreciation for my opportunity as a child, it has taken the maturity of adulthood to recognize how impactful my unconventional, adventurous childhood was to my development as a human being. My early exposure to the world heightened my awareness and understanding of it, as well as my place in it.
When a person young or old is stripped of all comforts and is left at the mercy of nature, he or she is forced to see the world as it is—the beauty, the ugliness, the injustices, the truths, the breathing ironies (joy amidst poverty and the unlimited wealth of simplicity).
I experienced humanity at its kindest and nature at her meanest.
During that year, I learned to speak two new languages (enough to get by). I read hundreds of books and survived being homeschooled by my mother, or shall I say she survived homeschooling us. I lived through a tropical storm. I caught a fifty pound Ahi tuna with the help of my father. I learned how to navigate. I stood watch and sailed during the day while my parents rested. I crossed the equator.
I broadcasted the daily results of my ongoing science experiment over the ham radio to hundreds of sailors each night. I spent three weeks at sea with no land or other humans in sight. I sat at the foot of Paul Gauguin’s grave in the Marquesas. I celebrated my tenth birthday snorkeling with a shark (unplanned).
The experiences were endless. Each day brought a new adventure and what birthed from my daily adventures were the invaluable lessons I learned about life that could not have been taught by a school teacher, sitting in a classroom, or learned in a text book.
The world was my classroom, the experiences and people I met along the way, my teachers. Here are some of the wisdoms I brought back in my suitcase.
1. Anything is possible if I make it possible.
My father was a successful surgeon. My mother was a social worker and a busy mom of two. My brother is developmentally disabled and required special care on a daily basis, including medications and weekly doctor and therapy appointments.
We had a life full of responsibilities and complications, but my parents didn’t allow that to stand in their way.
They set a date five years in advance and they planned. They made their dream come true by dedicating themselves to manifesting their idea and trusting they could do the impossible (what others thought was impossible).
I learned from watching my parents that anything is possible if I decide it will be, it just takes hard work to get there. If we could do it, you can too.
2. There is a higher power.
When you live on the ocean, you learn two things immediately.
1. Nature abides by rules.
2. You have to follow them too.
The ocean is the ruler, the boss. She owns everything that dwells in her depths and on her surface. She is the higher power.
I knew this, but I had yet to experience it until our first passage when we were caught in a tropical storm. We endured 70 mile hour wind gusts and 25 foot seas.
Although my father religiously watched the weather, there was no way to avoid this particular storm, which strengthened rapidly before barreling toward us. My father, being an experienced skipper, knew he had to follow the most important rule—surrender.
He didn’t attempt to navigate or sail through it. He bowed down. He released our parachute anchor (a deep sea solution to holding a boat in a mile drift radius during storms).
We were tossed violently for almost a full day. I remember being curled in a ball, whimpering. My father sat next to us as the waves crashed over the deck. There were moments he admits he thought we would capsize and was prepared with gear next to his feet in case he had to grab us and dive out of the hatch.
This experience was humbling and enlightening. It was the first time I felt the overpowering force of nature and my insignificance in relation to it. I learned then, I don’t have any control; it’s an illusion to think I do. The only thing I can control is how much or how little I trust in the universe and surrender to her.
Which brings me to another lesson from this story—
3. The storm always ends.
A day later, the winds died down, the seas calmed and we sailed on. As terrifying as it was, as furious the winds and waves were, it was all temporary. We lived to see the next day.
I’ve kept that memory in the forefront as I’ve rode out many storms in my life since that day.
I encourage myself to remember that petrified little girl from twenty six years ago, who thought she might drown at sea, but she didn’t. She prayed and when morning came she focused her eyes and trusting heart on the little crack in the cloud where the sun finally peeked through.
The storm will end, it always does.
4. I am richer with less.
I remember a conversation I had with my father when I was about seven years old. One day he said to me, “People may ask you if you are rich. You say yes, because you are happy and you are loved. Things don’t make you rich, money doesn’t make you rich, your experiences do, the people in your life do.”
We lived as minimalists/survivalists. We filtered our water from the sea. We caught our food and picked from the trees or the plants. We showered once a week with fresh water and swam in the ocean the other days to bathe. I never wanted for anything during this time because I had everything I needed, which was very little.
What we didn’t have, we were always provided for, whether that was by the sea, the natives on the islands or the other sailors we met in port.
I’d never been happier in my life even to this day, looking back—that was the pinnacle. I would do it again in a heartbeat because I know the freedom it gave me.
Without the distractions of materialism, I was able to discover richness in the present moment—the tapping of dew dripping from the railings onto my hatch at dawn. The clinking of the wires against the mast during the gentle afternoon breeze. The delicacy of the warm buttery baguette I bought at the patisserie in morning in Papeete, Tahiti or in the dolphins I talked to as I lay face down on the bow nets of our catamaran during our passages.
When we returned from our trip, I tried to assimilate back to the way it was, but I felt uncomfortable and confused. Our beautiful home felt ostentatious, I was embarrassed by it. My room felt big and cold, compared to my cozy berth on board.
The conversations amongst my peers made no sense, I felt like I spoke a different language. I couldn’t connect because I had spent a year unprotected by the shield of innocence and ignorance.
I felt wasteful using our resources and foolish for living such a materialistically abundant life. I couldn’t hide behind the shield anymore; I knew too much.
“Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.” I never felt this way at sea, but on land, I was parched. Surrounded by an ocean of abundance again, but none of it could quench my thirst.
Upon returning, it was then I understood my father’s sentiment from three years earlier. I realized what hydrates my spirit is not more, it’s less. Simplicity is wealth. With less, we know more, feel more, see more, we become more.
5. Home is where the heart is.
I saw this great quote the other day, “I knew I loved you when ‘home’ went from a place to a person.”
Over the years, people have asked what it was like being displaced from my ‘home’ to go on this trip.
I’ve never understood the question. My family was my home; not our house back in Arizona, not the boat, they were. I felt safe, secure and loved. I didn’t feel like I was on a trip. I felt like I was living life and home was right there beside me in the shape of my mother, my father, my brother and within myself.
In our culture, we focus so much time and energy on the structure in which we live. Is it big enough? Fancy enough? Home is not a place, it’s a feeling. Home is portable because your heart always travels with you no matter where you go.
I wrote this to encourage parents to plan an adventure with your children. It is the greatest contribution you can make to their lives.
Your adventure doesn’t have to be as extreme as my experience, just do something that ignites your children to see and interact with the world in a different way.
Adventure awakens us to reality and connects us with our surroundings, demanding our full presence. There is no substitute for experiencing life first hand. It leaves an impression, an understanding that can never be fully comprehended when learned through another.
A couple of years ago, I took my eldest daughter with me for three weeks to Indonesia where I led a yoga retreat. Before we left, I met with her teacher to talk with her about the trip and collect her assignments.
She didn’t have anything for me but her blessing, “There is nothing I can teach her in here that will every compare to valuable lessons she will learn out there. Take her. Go. Just make sure she writes about it.”
In those three weeks away, my daughter transformed, she grew up, she walked out from behind the shield. She became aware of the world and her place in it.
I witnessed her awakening.
That experience lives in her now. She is hungry for more and I’m going to feed her because that’s my job as her mother, to show her the world, to set her free, just as my parents did for me.
“And if the wind is right you can sail away and find serenity
Oh, the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see, believe me.
Sailing takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be.
Just a dream and the wind to carry me and soon I will be free. “
~ Christopher Cross, Sailing