Last week we put on life vests and climbed aboard your grandfather’s wooden sailboat, the one he built when your father was a little boy, the one they spent summers on for many years in your dad‘s young life on the coast of southern Sweden.
Your grandfather is a master sailor so I knew we were in good hands. But I was also quite afraid because the ocean is our planet’s greatest wilderness — and four years ago on my first and only other sailing experience, we experienced trauma that left me scarred inside.
You were 18 months old and carsick from the curvy drive over the Santa Cruz mountains to the harbor. You clung to me from the minute we climbed on the small sailboat until the minute we climbed off four hours later. You were my emotional safety blanket, as giving you comfort swayed my attention away from the fear that wanted to eat me alive as we drifted further out to sea. The boat’s sails were not working properly, it was windy, and my old college friend was not skilled enough to sail in these conditions. Our radios and phone signals weren’t working for a while. I was terrified.
What made it worse on so many levels was that your father and I had neglected to put life vests on any of us, probably because we felt confident climbing on the boat – but we were both disgusted when we realized what we’d done — no child should be without a life vest out on the ocean. I was humbled and horrified. We finally reached support and a boat came to toe us back to the harbor.
Your father was indescribably amused as he’d had hundreds of successful sailing trips with his father, and now this… Now he sat with a freshly cracked open beer in a boat being towed to shore.
As I healed through this traumatic experience, I used a tool that comes in handy during hard times. I asked myself, How is this perfect?
What came to me was how beautifully you were a willing player getting us safely back to shore. If you had been actively toddlering about the boat, it would have been much more dramatic as I tried to keep you stable on an insufficiently equipped boat without life vests. Being carsick somehow kept you safe at my chest, and kept me comforted as I comforted you.
It’s peculiar, isn’t it, this great and crazy thing called life?
As expected, the sailing trip with your grandfather, your father, you and I was very different. We sailed to an island the first day, you ran around on the big boulders watching them catch fish, fell on a rock and got a fat lip for the first time, asked 100 glorious questions about the ocean, and charmed the three of us to no end.
The next day we sailed to a different island, your father tied the boat to the rocks and we hiked up giant boulders to explore lush green meadows with a wandering herd of sheep, flocks of geese and duck families with newborns waddling, and the old rock wall that used to be the border of Norway and Denmark.
As the rain came in that night and the boat rocked back and forth during our sleep, my fear washed in like a wave again. Wind and rain does not make for enjoyable sailing. But we decided to venture back to the island where your grandfather keeps his boat, and we made it through significant boat rocking, wind, and some big splashes on our faces. You asked about whales, you stayed calm and sat down as your grandfather had asked us to, you made your mama and papa so proud… Not of what you do or don’t do but simply of who you are.
In the great wilderness of the ocean, you exhibited a splendor and beauty of presence, from within your own great inner wilderness.
As we reached the dock, you said, "I want a boat and I want a dog on my boat." My whole soul smiled. Your father has now shared one of his life’s peak experiences with you – sailing with his father on the boat he grew up on.
I may never go sailing again, but you might. Remember, just like your mama, you’ve got the ocean in your hips. Breathe, ask questions, move to the high-side of the boat when the waves feel too big.
I want you to know about these experiences through my words because you may not remember them in a conscious way if I don’t write it down. And I love writing letters; they help me live my fullest life. Writing letters to you is mega double joy.
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Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.