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.
This is the fifth piece from The Motherhood Letters, a monthly column of letters written by Leaning into Light founder Jessica Rios for Mothering Arts.
I’m writing to remind you that we’re mortal. (Go ahead, start laughing about your nutty aunt now, I know I toss you some funny curveballs in life.) 😉
We're mortal. Not your soul, not the Spirit you’re made of, not the love in your heart. That’s all eternal. Our bodies, dear nephew, will die. Yours, mine, everyone’s.
Ridiculous, right? Why would I take time to write you a letter about this, I mean, come on, you’re 19 years old. You are well aware that every body dies. But are you, really?
Let me tell you why I ask. Let me tell you why I’m writing you this letter.
Plain and clear, we live in the west where most people pretend they’re not going to die. Living this way is a lie, and I love to you too much to miss this chance to help you live awake to the fact that your body will die.
Look around. Most people eat like it doesn’t matter what we put into our bodies, as if their bodies will tolerate crap forever. Most people withhold the truth from themselves and others, and they sit around wishing and dreaming without stepping up to the plate to follow their dreams.
Following your own joy will show you this tragedy, because you will have awakened eyes to see how unusual it is for many people to follow their joy, and when you see this it will break your heart.
Let’s admit it. Often times, people seem half dead. Eventually they will lay dying in a hospital or sit dying in a wheelchair, and they’ll wish — they will wish — that they could turn back the clock to when they were your age, and make different choices. They’ll wish they had loved more, worried less, and spent more time with people who love more and worry less.
The bad news is that living in a culture where people pretend we don’t die means you’ll absorb some of this mentality.
The good news is that no one else’s beliefs have power over you. You choose what you believe and how you live your life.
In my life of adventure — with all its challenges and joys — I have found that life is most vivid, vibrant and satisfying when I remember I could die tomorrow. It doesn’t make me depressed; it gives me confidence! It gives me courage to take risks that lead to great learning. To say things that are in my heart without walking on egg shells. To follow my dreams even when I’m afraid. It attracts people to me who are truly interesting and alive.
My handsome, kind and funny nephew, you’re there now, in your young healthy body, facing the bulk of your life. What an exciting time! So much is unknown.
I’m not your mom; I am your aunt. Still, I love you like crazy. I care for you so, so very much. I want you to love this one life you’re living. And I’m here to support you 100% to make it so.
At your age, very few people know what they want to do for the rest of your life. Literally very few. Some people have an idea about what they might enjoy doing, that could earn them money — such as becoming a police officer, nurse or school teacher — but even people who “know” at age 19 might find later on that they were just settling. They didn’t really know.
To really get a sense of what you would deeply enjoy doing for work, it takes time, travel, experience and exposure to the great big world. Please don’t rush it.
Looking outwardly at what careers are available will give you some insights. It is by looking within your own gorgeous heart -- at what brings you most alive -- that you will find what lights you up.
Ever heard this quote?
Don’t ask what the world needs. As what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. — Howard Thurman
Alright. Now that we’ve gotten that out…
Will you play a game with me?
Every day for one week, starting as soon as you finish reading this letter, I want you to ask yourself this question, and answer it honestly. Write the question and answer in your journal. Journaling is powerful stuff! No need to share your answers with anyone, this is for you.
Here's the question.
If I knew I had one year left to live, what would I do today? (Then do it.)
I’ll step up to the plate to give you an example. If I knew I had one year left to live, today I would decide what three songs are my favorite to sing, and I would sing them out loud, today.
Alright, another example. If I knew I had one year left to live, today I would update my Living Will so that all my friends and family hear what I most want to say to them — and where I want my stuff to go, so they don’t have to think about all that when I die.
I know you’ve felt moments of being truly alive in your life. Aren’t they awesome in contrast to those moments when you feel bored or uninspired?
This life is yours, bud. Don’t follow anyone else’s truth. This is your one precious life. Follow your joy, follow your heart, that is where your wisdom lives. And as you tell yourself the truth, the path forward will reveal itself — one small step at a time — one day at a time. You are young, and time will reveal what you want to do in life. Travel. Read. Follow honest media sources. Watch people, watch life, listen for clues to the song your soul wants to sing. That is beauty. And you’re up for it. I’ll always be your ally.
Love and hugs,
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.