Those pictures of Cuba you see – the ones with the colonial buildings and cars straight out of the 50s, those relics of time gone by – are real. American-made cars straight out of the 50s (though now harboring engines from Europe and Japan) troll the streets, mixed in with Soviet-made YCUBA 2016 552ugo-like cars. New cars are few and far between. Cubans really do still work small farms and harvest tobacco by hand. Cows, tethered by a rope, graze by the roadside. It’s these scenes tourists flock to Cuba to find (along with the crystalline sandy beaches and clear blue seas).

But just as Cuba harkens back to days-of-old, so too does it plumbing, road systems and some of its products and supplies. Consider Cuba a 2nd-world country with strong 3rd world influence. Step off the main road in many of the smaller towns of Cuba and you’ll find dirt roads, horse and buggies, roaming dogs and the occasional un-shoed child.

Here’s a primer on navigating the differences in Cuba, including the things they won’t tell you in the guide books.

It’s best to speak Spanish – even if it’s just a little, and especially if you want to explore Cuba “off the beaten path.” Many people in the tourist industry that you’ll encounter – taxi drivers, tour operators, hotel staff – speak at least a little English. But many of them do not. We found that the millennials of Cuba spoke more English than older folks, generally speaking. If you can master even just a few basic “good to know” phrases, you’ll be a leg up – and impress the Cubans you do interact with.

You will grow to miss American bathrooms. You won’t be able to sit down on a toilet unless you’re in your hotel or Casa Particular room. In our two week visit, only a very small percentage of public or restaurant restrooms we encountered had an actual toilet seat. Most of them don’t have things like toilet paper or soap for handwashing afterwards. And the bathrooms outside of the major tourist stops and restaurants are very far away from clean, indeed. We encountered bathroom attendants in some locales who, for a small tip, would give you some paper (no soap). But, toilet paper and hand sanitizer will become your best friends.

Skip the hotels and stay at a Casa Particular. Largely speaking, the hotels in Cuba, at least the ones in Havana and Varadero, suck. They tend to have plumbing problems, noise problems and old furniture. This is true of even the best state-run hotels in Havana: they just don’t match up to what we’re used to in the US or any first-world country.  Perhaps even more importantly, you could miss out on gaining a glimpse into Cuban life. Cuba offers “Casa Particulars,” the Cuban equivalent of a B&B.  These places offer rooms – up to 4 a house – and the hospitality of your host family. Situated in neighborhoods, you’ll usually have access to a sitting area/ courtyard/ kitchen. Breakfast and other meals are usually offered for an additional charge ($5 to $7 is what we encountered). And they are infinitely more reliably comfortable than hotels.

Booking can be a bit tricky: you can use AirBnB, though many Casa Particular owners

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Breakfast at a Casa Particular in Miramar, a neighborhood in Havana

aren’t on that service yet, so you’ll miss the majority of nice spots. A travel agent could help you book, or you could just do Internet searches on your own. Our lodging was all pre-arranged – one through a travel agent, and the other a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone who had found the house on a previous trip. Another option is to book one night in a Casa Particular before you leave, then extend your stay when you arrive (if you can) or find another Casa Particular nearby that you like better or that’s available. One word of caution on this approach though: as tourist numbers go up, it may be hard to find a Casa particular “on the fly”, so act accordingly, depending on your threshold of risk.

Here’s the rub, though: currently you cannot pay for anything in Cuba from the US. You can use a European booking site to find and pay for your Casa (and yes, you will have to pay for the entire visit up front), or use a travel agent who has on-the-ground connections in Cuba with Casa Particulars (ie, they know the owners or have a way to check out the places they book ahead of time). If you DO use AirBnB or similar for booking a Casa (or a hotel, for that matter), it’s “Buyer beware,” says Paul Prewitt, owner of Hot Cuba Travel. He’s been running Cuba trips for the past 15 years, and recounts many times when folks booked online, only to show up and find the accommodations less than what was promised. “The government doesn’t have any regulations on what’s inside (the casa),” he says. “So you might find one that’s bare bones with nothing in it, bad paint, cracks, no hot water.”

Leave your American food expectations at home. Most sit-down dining experiences took two hours, so we usually found ourselves eating out only once a day to leave more time for activities. This is another reason to stay at a Casa – they provide breakfast in the AM (quickly) and there’s often a kitchen you can use or a fridge in the room so you can provide your own meals. There are two type of restaurants in Cuba: state-run and privately—run. The state—run restaurants usually have nice linens, candles, and decent food for a very decent price. Hotels provide buffet dining with unremarkable food. The privately-owned restaurants can be hit or miss: some might not have many menu items, or they might have lackluster food, but mostly it’s the privately owned restaurants that provide the most ambiance and the best, most authentic Cuban food. For some reasons, most places we encountered had a hearty offering of Italian food: Pizza, pasta. Hamburguesas are just that – Ham burgers. Seafood is plentiful on the coasts – and fresh.

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Scene from a market in Santa Marta outside Varadero

But we found the best food by heading to the local markets where the Cubans buy their supplies. A bevvy of fresh pineapples, bananas, garlic, onions, squash and meat greeted us at each one. And they cost pennies on the dollar for what you’ll buy in a restaurant. Navigating the market is best done with a little bit of Spanish though – or at least the ability to point and then be able to hand over money, trusting that the vendor is taking what it costs (and they are – by and large Cubans aren’t into ripping people off). A note on this: if you do head into the local markets, or go to local stores, you’ll be dealing in Cuban PESOS, which are different than Cuban CUCs (Convertible Cuban Pesos). More details on currency are below.

 

A few other handy things to know…

A quick currency primer. Cuba has two different currencies: the Cuban Peso, which is what all Cubans use, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). All tourists receive CUCs when exchanging (and by the way, exchange rates for dollar-to-CUC start at 10%, with resorts and hotels often adding an additional 2 or 3 percentage points) currency, and that’s how prices are listed in tourist areas. But step into the real Cuba, the one where Cubans work, live and play, and you’ll encounter prices listed in Pesos. As of February, it was 24 Pesos to each CUC, and this rate tends to stay pretty stable. By and large, when you see Pesos listed on menus and price sheets, you’ll end up paying less – think non-tourist rates. If you want to convert any CUCs into pesos (for use at the markets, in the local taxis, etc), find a “cadeca.” These are local exchanges and will turn your CUCs into pesos. We exchanged 20 CUCs into pesos used those to pay for six round-trip bus rides (buses only accept pesos) and stock up on fresh food during our trip – and still had a few dollars’ worth leftover.

Take extra toiletries, small soaps, shampoos and various US snacks – energy bars, prepackaged granola etc. These are good leave-behinds at Casa Particulars in lieu of, or in addition to, tips. The travel-size soaps, shampoos and conditioners are hard to get in Cuba, and so Casa Particular owners like to have these little extras that they can leave for future guests. The snacks are just good “nation-building” giveaways.

Bring and always carry lots of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. You’ll just be glad you did……

Have patience. Everything takes a little longer in Cuba – getting food at a grocery store, mailing postcards, and dining.

Be situationally aware at all times, especially with anyone who approaches you on the street. Know that if they offer you a “deal” – on Cuban cigars, rum, touristy items, a place to eat, etc. – they are likely getting a “cut” for bringing you in. You may end up paying more for something that’s not as high-quality as you’re being told it is, for example with Cigars. Or you might end up paying more for a typical drink, for instance, if shown a different, “neat little locals spot.” You shouldn’t ditch the experience just for that, but just know that you might end up paying more than it actually costs.

Negotiate. This is true for any taxi ride, taxi-ride tour of Havana or touristy item you might want to buy. For example, a dozen of the 1950s Chevy model cars line up in Old Town Havana to take tourists on a spin of the highlights of Havana in a two-hour private tour in the car. The cost listed on the laminated brochure one driver threw in our face was $65 CUCs. When we shook our head at that and said it cost too much (“Pero, es mucho dinero!”), he discounted it to $50. More pushback from us eventually had him down to $35 CUCs. A small $10 hand-carved wood box, on push back, went down to $5, and when I told the vendor I only had $3, he picked up a slightly smaller one and handed that to me as an option at that price.

What’s not negotiable: Your Casa Particulars and most menu items.

 

 

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Cuba is all the rage these days, thanks to the President’s visit to the island nation yesterday and an increasing list of rule changes that means, essentially, that anyone can go. US airlines are announcing regular direct flights, and at least one cruise ship is putting Cuba on its destination list, even while ferry services are raring to get started running people across the Florida Straits.

So if you – or someone you know – is now dreaming of a Cuba “bucket-list” vacay, read on for some Cuba travel myth busting. Most of what you’re reading out there on the web isn’t exactly accurate.

A typical Cuban car navigates the traffic circle around the Capital (under construction in Feb. 2016)

A typical Cuban car navigates the traffic circle around the Capital (under construction in Feb. 2016)

I know, because my husband and I just spent two weeks in Cuba in February. We sailed over as part of a “people-to-people cultural exchange through sport.” What started out as a one-week visit to two ports of calls (Havana and Varadero) turned into two weeks when foul weather trapped us in Havana’s port for an extra week.

This left plenty of time to explore just a bit and learn the realities about travel and life in Cuba.

It’s time to bust some top-touted Cuba travel myths and tell you a bit about what it’s REALLY like to get around that island nation.

Hint: If you travel to Cuba anytime soon, you will likely also travel under a “people-to-people” cultural exchange. The US government lists 12 official “sanctioned” visit types, including professional research and meetings, educational activities, public performances or clinics, support for the Cuban people, etc. As of regulation changes published by the Gov on March 15, If your travel meets one of these criteria, you can go – as long as YOU say your travel meets one of the criteria. Want to read the restrictions, allowances and facts yourself? Start at the State Department and get ready to navigate a lot of Gov speak for, “you can’t do that, but you CAN and here’s how legally.” The specific list of allowed visit reasons is available in this PDF document.

 

Myth: You need a travel agent who can navigate securing a visa for you.

Fact: Not really. At least, not anymore. As of new regulations hot off the presses on March 15, 2016, if your travel meets one of the criteria, you can book your ticket and go. However, you will still need a Cuban Visa, which will be a card. No passport stamps for US citizens (and for various political reasons, that’s probably a good thing). You can apply for the Visa yourself from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. in person or via mail, but it takes paperwork, time and money. Most people are still using the travel agent who booked the flight and trip, or are using one of the services you can pay to act as your intermediary.

That said, be aware: A good Cuba-specific travel agent will make it easier to get there and get around, and that in and of itself might be worth finding a reputable travel agency. Especially if you don’t speak Spanish.

 

A street-side market stall offers in-season fresh fruit and vegetables

A street-side market stall offers in-season fresh fruit and vegetables

Myth: Cuban stores and restaurants often run out of food and supplies.

Fact: The state-run restaurants won’t run out of most meals on the menu, though we did encounter a few places where one or two menu items weren’t available that day. However, the independently-run restaurants may very well not have many to most of their menu items that day. Ask to see a menu, and ask what isn’t available that day, before you commit. Some items in the grocery stores and markets, like eggs and bread, do run out as the day wears on, or sometimes even first thing in the morning, so plan accordingly. Shop early if you want to buy your own food. When it comes to other goods and supplies, for example, toilet paper, it depends on where you are and what the demand is for the day. And shampoo and personal care goods can be hard to find and locale. Best bet is to take all that you will need.

 

Myth: Take Canadian Currency

This made sense when the Canadian dollar was trading stronger against the dollar. However, in February when we took our trip, it was 0.74 Canadian to $1 US dollar. By the time you paid to exchange US dollars to Canadian, and then paid the fee to exchange the Canadian dollars to CUCs (the Cuban tourist currency), it would cost more to use Canadian dollars. I’ll have a full description of the Currency nuances in a blog post later this week, but meanwhile, here’s the skinny: There’s a 13% straight fee to exchange US Dollars to Cuban CUCs. It’s in the 5 to 7% range for non-US currency. So, the week before you travel, if you want to save on exchange rates, check out the US Dollar to Canadian or Euro rates, and the Cuban exchange rates for those currencies, and run the numbers to see if it really makes sense – or is even worth the hassle.

That said, the Canadian dollars DID come in handy in Varadero, Cuba. We arrived at a marina there as our first port of call, and faced long one-hour long lines at the one hotel where we could exchange money to use in the city (for instance, to even get in a cab and get into the city center of Varadero where we were staying). One person in our party had Canadian dollars, and the cabs waiting outside were willing to take the Canadian dollars to transport us. We were able to take the cabs and exchange our dollars into CUCs at a spot with a shorter line.

 

Myth: Cuba has no Wi-Fi, so leave your devices at home.

But who needs Wi-Fi when there's so much to SEE?

But who needs Wi-Fi when there’s so much to SEE?

We found the larger, higher-end hotels and resorts offered Wi-Fi access. We paid $2 CUCs for an hour of access at a hotel outside Havana, which we used for our Smart Phones. We could use any App and get to any website we wanted, though at times the service was slow. Once it was even out for an hour, but this was during bad weather when even the electric went out. However, when we used the Wi-Fi access on a hotel-provided computer, we couldn’t access outside websites (Cuba restricts citizens’ access to the outside world’s web – instead they can only get to sanctioned internal sites on Cuba’s intra-web).

And, Verizon Wireless also provides cell service through CubaCell now, so you can text and call right from your phone (even without arranging for international access). We fired up our Verizon smart phones upon arrival and could send and receive regular texts (make sure you are sending plain text messages, as iMessages won’t work) and send and receive calls. However, you will pay a pretty penny for this. Calls cost $2.99 a minute, and the minutes are rounded off and include the dialing and ringing time. So even if you dial out and hang up, you’ll pay for one minute. Texts cost 15 cents to send and 5 cents to receive. It adds up quick, but in an emergency it’s a nice luxury.

 

Myth: Your wait staff/ hotel room cleaner/ concierge/ taxi driver doesn’t want Cuban CUCs for tips – they want American dollars. This was a new one circulating Havana, and it is both true and false, depending on the person. The scuttle-butt we heard is that since Cuba announced it would be phasing out the CUC currency in 2013, people are worried that very shortly the CUC will be worth nothing, despite the government’s assurances to the contrary.  Best bet is to ask your service provider (taxi driver, concierge, etc) if they want a tip in US Dollars. One of our taxi drivers, who we used repeatedly over the course of a week, was willing to exchange our dollars for CUCs he had in his possession, but made it clear that he didn’t necessarily prefer dollars over CUCs. Another taxi driver, who we used over five days, waved his hand (as though to wave the dollars away) when we asked. But we saw one bathroom attendant who had a single dollar bill laid out on her tip tray as her suggested favorite currency.

 

A crowded taxi ride makes for a true Cuban experience

A crowded taxi ride makes for a true Cuban experience

There are so many nuances to getting around in Cuba, and things have a habit of changing rather quickly there. With more Americans already pouring in, rest assured that even some of what I’ve outlined here will change in coming months. That’s one good reason to work with a travel agent, even if it’s just to help get you flown (or boated) in to Havana and set you up in a “Casa Particular” – essentially the Cuban version of a B&B – for a night (and more on a later blog on why staying at a Casa Particular is the only way to go, really, when bopping around Cuba). Travel agents who specialize in Cuba visit several times a year, and develop their own information sheets that they update often. Travel books are helpful for getting a general lay of the land, but the restaurants and even hotels and tourist spots mentioned in them might close, or change their hours of operations, etc.

Coming next: Things they won’t tell you in the guide books & A few other handy things to know.

 

IMG_1864My back hurts, I can feel each muscle in my legs and arms. I have paint imbedded into vast portions of my hands, and at least five new bruises. Each night I crawl down three feet into a bunk where all my earthly (with me) possessions surround me, scuttling from clothes to books to towel on my knees, hunched over. For the past three days it’s been an endless stream of cleaning, sanding, painting, moving stuff from one place to another, carrying and hauling, with the occasional break for bullshitting. I’m exhausted, too tired to sleep more than five hours a night, really.

I couldn’t be happier.

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The Topsail Schooner Wolf,  sailing to Cuba as part of the Conch Republic Cup

Later today, somewhere between 5 and 6 this evening, I will sail away from Key West, along with 11 other people, aboard the Topsail Schooner Wolf, a two-masted, 74-foot schooner, as part of the inaugural Conch Republic Cup. At last count, some 59 boats and around 400 people are making the run from Key West to Varadero, Cuba. Three days later, we’ll race from Varadero to Havana, Cuba. Three days after that we will race back to Key West.

 

This isn’t the first time for the Key West to Cuba race – but it’s the first LEGAL one, made possible by Obama working to “normalize” relations with Cuba since he announced the changes in December, 2014. The result: a field of boats, large to small, all trekking to Key West to participate in this historic event, which could also easily be one of the largest contingents of US citizens to converge along Cuba’s coast since prohibition.

(Fun fact: During the US’ alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933, the Key West to Cuba trip via boat was a popular method to get to a legal rum source. Havana is only 90 miles off the US’ southernmost island’s point.)

conchrepubliccuplogo1000This race is a goodwill mission- an ambassadorship of sorts, and at the rate the US keeps announcing new allowances in trade and financial regulations, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to see one of the last visions of a Cuba un-touched by the American way.

Making this race even MORE special for me (as if sailing a trip aboard my favorite ship and visiting Cuba wasn’t enough), is that my husband Jay is along for this trip, our Greenhorn crew. I’ve spent nearly four of the past 13 months down here in Key West crewing on Wolf again, and Jay has only been with me for five days of those. I now get to show him the ship I so love. He’s already been pulled into working on hatches, cleaning all sorts of things – the stuff of the lowly deckhand.

In many respects this is our last hurrah. Jay and I are approved foster parents, and we will start taking “placements” (aka, foster kids) into our home when we return. I won’t be able to just head south for a few weeks to go sailing, and there’s no international travel looming on the horizon since you can’t take foster kids abroad. Change is afoot. Good change, a new adventure. I can’t think of any better way of saying goodbye to our kid-less couple hood than jumping aboard a pirate-inspired schooner for a sail and a visit to a place most Americans have never gone.

You can track our progress here.

Meanwhile, wish us fair winds and following seas. Cuba has no real internet access, so we will see you on the flip side, full of sea tales, Cuban travel tips and just a few more high jinx up our sleeves.

My heart was breaking.

My marriage had failed. The relationship suddenly ended, abandoned, when the man I was married to cleared out of my life forever. I had wanted him gone, yet still I was reeling in shock and loss.

In the way that only sudden loss can inspire, I found myself shoving various and often copious amounts of insights, ideas, new projects, sugar, cigarettes, the occasional diet soda and all the wrong kinds of love into the spot that had opened up in my soul.

They call it a rebound for a reason: A split-second, built-in reaction learned through practice. This is true be it basketball, or love. And I had practiced it many times before, throughout my adult life, this stuffing of love into the empty places where other things should be. It was a practiced response.

He was known to me, this rebound: We’d been acquaintances for a few years. He paid attention to me, looked me in the eye. He had kids, beautiful ones.

And he helped me fight off the deep internal sense that I deserved to be abandoned. That I was broken. My mind told me that I WAS good enough: kind (most of the time); Fair, outgoing, adventurous; A keeper. I was surrounded by love to prove this. In the days and months after the abandonment, family, friends, and colleagues had come rushing to my side, into my days and evenings with phone calls, with trips, and with love. Pure love.

It was not enough to plug the hole. Created not by the abandonment itself, but by something much earlier and deep-seated, I rebounded into the easy salve, an attempt to make a scar disappear.

We all know how that works: It doesn’t. He wasn’t right for me, he wasn’t right to me. And yet, I kept him around. It wasn’t healthy, but I couldn’t leave. We were both complicit in trying to weave this bandage.

Without being able to admit it, name it, or see it, I was floundering. I was adrift – in love, in self-worth, in sense of self.

The Wolf, docked at Sailabration, was unmistakable

The Wolf, docked at Sailabration, was unmistakable

Then, in July 2012, the Topsail Schooner Wolf sailed back into my life in the port of Baltimore. I recognized her pulling into her slip from across the harbor – she was unmistakable. Brown hull, brown masts. Pirate flag and Conch Republic Flag – the Key West emblem — flying off the halyards to the stern, the back of the boat.

She was the smallest of the fleet come to the harbor to visit Baltimore as part of the week-long Sailabration, and her slip was tucked away from the main docks. Yet still hundreds flocked to visit her, to sail her. The Wolf is like that: She is a pirate ship, with her salt-spray grey rope for her lines, and the wolf head that forms the ship’s figurehead. This is no sleek racing ship with winches and machinery: It takes manpower to haul and trim her sails. It takes a crew to make her live.

Boarding Wolf again for the first time in decades.

Boarding Wolf again for the first time in decades.

Wolf is the closest-thing you’ll get to a modern-day pirate ship: she saves souls, equitably, firmly, lovingly. As though this is trumpeted through her steel hull, pirate flag and hodge-podge crew, people flock to Wolf, even when she is surrounded by wooden-hulled beauties of teak and oak. She is different, set apart, and she calls to those who recognize in her the need for equal balance of discipline and freedom. This is the seemingly incongruous aspect of a pirate ship: in her seemingly hedonistic spirit, instead there is much to be uncovered about the spirit of being human.

####

I’d been adrift the FIRST time I’d found the Wolf in 1996, sitting dockside in the harbor of Key West.

I’d fled to Key West on the heels of a family secret revealed – one that everyone knew except me. Wrestling with this new information, something I should have seen before, I felt betrayed. Flummoxed. Lost. In the midst of college classes and a full-time job at a TV station, I’d been unable to synthesize it, and I ran from the disbelief and misunderstanding that dogged my heels through an entire spring.

I ran to the edge of the world. Key West is at the end of a chain of islands created by petrified coral and mangrove trees, small blips of land filled in with sand, rock and people’s dreams. It is simultaneously a paradise, and a Sodom, the denizen of artists, writers, vagabonds, thieves – and dreamers. It lives at the edge of the US, and as though the island knows this, she breathes it into the people who call the island home.

Key West “seceded” from the United States in 1982, after government blockades designed to shut down the drug trade stopped its tourist trade as well. Citizens of Key West rebelled, declared the lower keys separate and independent, and the Conch Republic was born. It is in jest, this Conch Republic status – kind of. Maybe. Her role as outcast pirate island is as real to the people of Key West as the daily drudgery of life and work.

The Schooner Wolf is the Conch Republic’s flagship, and when I stepped onto the docks of Key West’s Harbor that summer of ’96, I took one look at her sitting amongst the sleek boats that were there and said, “I want to learn to sail. And I want to learn on her.”

I found Captain Finbar, Wolf’s Captain and Owner, working at the boat one day. He was outfitted in full beard, long blonde-grey hair pulled back into a pony tail. A button-up white shirt. A ball cap with admiral’s wings on it. He was both formidable and approachable. Such is the way of the dichotomy of the pirate ship spirit.

“I’d like to work on the Wolf,” I told him.

“Ah. Have you ever worked on a ship before?” he asked.

Little butterflies entered my stomach. I wanted nothing more than to be on this boat. I willed it to be. “No,” I said. “But I’m a good learner.” A beat. “She’s beautiful,” I told him.

Captain Finbar nodded one time, looked down towards the deck of the boat where he stood, back at me on the land. “Aye. OK, come aboard tonight for our sunset sail. You can learn the ropes, see if you like it.”

I learned her customs, the commands, over a week. By the second week I had learned the ebb and flow of having customers on board to entertain for her evening sunset cruises. Within a month, I had learned the power of a crew, the beauty of a command given, and the heady rush in fulfilling it as part of a whole. We were an all-female crew aboard the Wolf, and what we lacked in muscle power we made up for in team work, communication, solid support. We were all in this together, against the waves, the wind, the sea.

I’d stopped speaking to my father before I’d moved to Key West, had all buy excommunicated him from my life, a reaction to the family secret. A punishment. I’d called my Mother the week before I moved to Key West for a summer, brushed aside her concerns that I wouldn’t return to school (she was right: I would not return until the following year). I went wild with freedom, but each night stepped aboard the Wolf to controlled discovery.

Finbar at the helm

Finbar at the helm

For all the ways I shoved my father out of my life that summer and fall, I found Captain Finbar. He was a man of few words, but he commanded, still: with solidarity, with loyalty and with trust, we followed his orders implicitly. We knew he had our best interests in the center of his sights. This is the thing that makes a great captain. It could be a wild place, this sea. Finbar did not seek to conquer it, merely to judge the winds and waves and current to get the ship on the best course for sail. I plugged him in to where my father used to be. I never fully knew him, but I knew that he would not let me down – would not let his crew down.

I stayed out of school for the fall semester, licking wounds in the sunsets. In those daily sails I found my strength, I found my team, I found my spirit and I found myself again.

#####

Yet by 2012, I was floundering again. My relationship with my father healed, grown up a few decades, more patient, I was still wrestling with finding men I could trust.

I sailed with the Wolf from Baltimore to Annapolis, spent a few days with her, and I began to heal again. For a few decades I had tried to solve it myself: with alcohol; with rampant biking, running and swimming until I’d blow out my knees and hips; with ever-rising levels of career success. None of them had helped, and I was now left with only this: a  string of lovers who didn’t work out. Relationships had become my salve, however ineffective, and I could not give them up. I picked partners wrong, I ignored signs I shouldn’t have, and when it didn’t work out, I picked again as quickly as possible to prove that I was good enough – that I had worth. Despite being emotionally intelligent, despite knowing that THIS was not the way to find love, I repeated the pattern again and again.

Departing, I would never be the same.

Departing, I would never be the same.

I saw the Wolf off to her next port in her East Coast Voyage of 2012 one early, hot, windless summer day in July 2012. We loaded up ice, prepared her lines, and I stepped onto the dock. Her engine fired up, a deep glug that reverberated over the water, around the dock, and into my solar plexus. As she pulled away, I let loose with a deep, guttural howl. “Aaahwooooooo!” A wolf howl, from deep inside, a resonating reminder to myself, to tje Wolf, that I remembered, now, who I was.

And I began my own journey to heal, in love, in life.

On Oct. 15 2011, my husband left me.

I don’t mean left me as in, we talked about separation, we divided up our things and he departed the house — you know, with agreement. With finality. With closure. With conversation. I mean, he left me as in I returned home one evening to find he had packed up all he could fit into the car, cleared out the bank accounts, and left the keys behind, with nary a word or a note –and never to communicate again via phone, text or email (at least, not until seven months later when he wanted to get the rest of his things).

To be fair, we HAD talked separation. After nearly a year of marriage counseling, and another few previous years of strife and struggle, I had finally come to the realization that the marriage was never going to be truly that  — a marriage, a joint union, each spouse standing for the other, making decisions for the marriage in lieu of the self. The morning he left, we had talked a bit more about the logistics of a separation, what the process might be.

But his actions that day had me feeling just one thing: ABANDONED.

Abandonment was my worst fear, realized.

It was the stuff of all my nightmares as a child, a teen, and even an adult. It’s what I had fought to avoid — in all my relationships, in my jobs, in my every day.  By 4 am the next morning I was exhausted, unable to sleep and devoid of any feeling except a deep pit in my stomach that was unquenchable with the very blackness of its depth. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even think.

I was an empty vessel lying in bed that night and morning. I didn’t know until then how much of my soul had gone into keeping the very thing I feared the most — abandonment — at bay.

When I called my Mom the morning after that sleepless night, all the feelings I’d been holding back, the ones locked behind the empty vessel I had become over the past three years, came flooding out in one single clarified moment. For the first time in many, many years, I sobbed, and I did it from the depths of my fear. All the loneliness, pointless wishing and hiding from myself I’d been doing came crashing in at once and came out of me in a  low empty, nearly voiceless cry turning into a deep racking sob that lasted for wordless, endless moments.

It’s amazing what can happen when there’s nothing left to lose. For the first time in my life, I asked my Mon to come and rescue me: to come and stay with me the next week as I navigated not just sudden aloneness, but with the sudden grappling of the knowledge I’d been trying to avoid for so long, maybe since just after I’d gotten married. Not only was I abandoned NOW, I’d been abandoned, really, from the very beginning. Maybe before I’d even fathomed the idea of marriage at all.

She came to rescue me, to stay with me, just to BE with me. And my restart started, again.

*******************

Abandoned, or at rest, a boat unsailed will start to rot.

Each year, hundreds of ships are abandoned at docks and on sea. Depending on how you define abandonment, the actual number could be MUCH higher. After all, while we often talk about ships as though they embody a human — usually a she, as in, “She sails straight,” or “She is a great, beautiful boat,” or “She has her quirks but she never lets me down in weather,” — sailors and shipmen alike tend to refer to how much “soul” a boat has. Some storied ships carry their own spirit, regardless of owner, but these are few and far between. I would argue that most ships only have as much soul as its captain and crew are willing to put into it.

Abandoned, or at rest, a boat unsailed will start to rot.

Abandoned, or at rest, a boat unsailed will start to rot.

Amazingly, even though many of these abandoned ships sit at docks or anchor for years, no one steps in to claim them as their own. There is an unwritten rule that, even if a ship’s owner has not taken care of a ship in years, has not visited her or paid for her dockage or done anything to upkeep the ship, She belongs to someone else.

Plenty of laws exist on the books in each local, state and international jurisdiction that make it clear that even if it’s abandoned, it still belongs to someone. Marinas have to go through piles of paperwork to get an abandoned boat declared as such before they can legally be allowed to remove it. The US Coast Guard and state natural resource departments can’t even begin to clean up the waste of an unclaimed boat until they get a legal declaration — a process that again takes much time and paperwork. Even if they do, there remains the ultimate question of who will pay for the removal of not just the boat but the fuel and oil it leeches into the water as it decays. Because ultimately, these abandoned ships eventually succumb to the water in which they languish.

A boat without water flowing by its hulls will eventually begin to rot, from the outside in. Wooden boats’ planks begin to shrink, change shape and leak water until the boards open to let more water in while the batteries die and the pumps stop emptying the ship of the inevitable water that makes its way through (because, as any seasoned sailor will tell you, all wooden boats leak, all the time). Metal hulls start to rust and welded seams eventually fail. Fiberglass hulls, too, develop weaknesses when left to the wiles of winds, waves and rain.

To prosper and survive, ships need sailed. As though there is a deep-seated recognition that an abandoned ship is soulless and without much merit, the REAL pirates of today — the ones that patrol Africa’s coast and the China seas and even parts of the Caribbean — will not touch an abandoned boat. They target vessels already under steam, with a crew, a commodity underway. These pirates know a boat abandoned is merely an empty vessel, and they want a vessel full of possibility they can steal.

***********************

In the months after my spouse abandoned me, an amazing and unexpected thing happened: I found faith. In the vastness of love foundered on dreams unrealized, I developed a deep, abiding belief in love. I found a lasting sense of peace. And I discovered I had never been abandoned at all.  In this abandonment, I found freedom to take the abandoned vessel I thought I had become, shore it up with some new boards, a bit of pitch tar and faith in a right wind and TRUST it fully again. I learned to trust myself again, and I learned to trust the sense that came from deep within that there was something else driving this ship, something that I could trust.

Photo, Pam Steude. Sometimes dark times, are really openings to more

Photo, Pam Steude. Sometimes dark times, are really openings to more

We all have this opportunity, all the time, in the small and big losses of life.

Losing a job, an important relationship, a loved one, a dream: In our human attempts to overcome the inevitability of life, the ebb and flow of dreams developed, followed and derailed, we try to keep those events that cause those feelings at bay because, ultimately, we like to think that we can control what happens to us.

We gather inspirational sayings to arm ourselves against that nagging voice that tells us in the quiet moments on dark nights that we are not good enough, not important enough or not doing enough. These work, for a time, until that next quiet moment returns. These losses force us to look directly at the one thing we fight against as humans:  that We Can Not, try as we might, BE God.

We do not consider, maybe we cannot consider, that in the clearing that loss creates, we are not DEVOID as much as we are an empty vessel ready to be filled. Perhaps then, the ultimate question is what we will fill our vessels with, what soul cry we will answer when we are finally empty enough to choose freely.

And so maybe boats – and people- ultimately become a product of their story and founding principles no matter where they sit or sail.

Left with nothing to lose, our vessels ask us what soul cry we will pick up. Our fate is not sealed: we are not an empty ship abandoned and now devoid of soul without its captain and crew to give it story and heart. Our vessel was never empty to begin with. And instead of fearing the space that these great losses can bring, we can instead remember that our soul infuses within us a continuing story.  Abandonment is a chance for us to ask, instead of what the world will bring to us, what WE will bring to the world.

I choose faith, love, hope and peace.Hope

True story: I was a pirate.

I didn’t dress up in some fancy costume: I didn’t throw out “Argh” and “matey!” and other pirate words. I never forced someone to walk the gang plank, nor did I bury any treasure.

I did, however, drink my share of rum: my clothes were ripped, torn, slightly dirty; showers were NOT daily, and I was probably slightly smelly. I wore an eye patch and a sword (it was plastic); and I had a pirate name (which, due to its nature, shall remain unnamed).

I was a pirate. Summer, 1996

I was a pirate. Summer, 1996

It was summer of 1996 and I was 21, taking a summer and semester off of school, escaping from a full college schedule and a job at a local TV station as the morning show producer. I was running, from some vague feeling of restlessness. Within a week of my arrival in Key West, I had managed to talk my way aboard The Topsail Schooner Wolf, a 74-foot, top sail, gaff-rigged schooner that ran tourists out for sunset sails off the shore of the keys. I was one of five of an all-woman crew aboard the ship, and we spent our evenings ushering tourists into the green, sea-foam waters becalmed by the oppressive windless summers that mark the summer months in the keys. We’d motor around for two hours, encouraging our guests to raise the sails and serving them cheap beer and wine. On the weekends, we’d dress up in rag-tag costumes sourced from the local Goodwill store, and we’d spin tales of knife-wielding passengers (true story), violent squalls and yearly water and food fights at sea against the US Coast Guard (also a true story).

At the end of my six months there, I’d learned to sail and I learned that adventure lay wherever you put it. I learned that just because it looked and felt like paradise, that didn’t make it so: that the possibility of adventure lay wherever you were willing to put it.

With time, I stopped mentioning the pirate part of my time aboard The Wolf. And with another decade, I’d nearly stopped mentioning my time in Key West at all, unless I was relating my story about getting the Bends (decompression sickness) while diving off the Bahamas to a fellow diver or sharing some insight on Key West. But for me the chapter had closed, and I had moved on with my typical East-Coast lifestyle.

And then, in 2012, the Wolf came back into my life.

***********

2012

Cowboy is all frenetic energy, ideas and stories. He is Thai-Vietnamese-American. Or Thai-Hawaiian. Or Vietnamese-Canadian-American. It’s hard to get a straight answer. He has been married, maybe a few times, has a few kids, loves Virginia Tech and Pho soup. He has run a business, is an expert cameraman and has been homeless. He is, technically, homeless now, save for a small bunk on the Wolf crammed full of him. He believes in angels and luck. His real name is Cao Boi, and no he does not have another last name. He is always talking, thinking, moving to the next thought, and talking. And he is gladly at the beck and call of Captain Finbar and the rest of the crew as cook, mate, galley wench, hop-to, instigator and mediator, and pirate on the Wolf. I know all of this in our five-minute walk to the local 7-Eleven where we are getting ice.

We troll back to the dock, lugging a cart of ice behind us together. Cowboy woke up 20 minutes ago: I woke up two hours ago and I cannot match his energy. I am merely trying to capture a bit of it. I imagine a lot of us around Cowboy are doing the same.  “So, Laura, tell me about yourself,” Cowboy says. “What’s your story?”

I have to think about that one, pause in its telling. “Well. I was married. Technically I still am, I guess.” In Maryland, you have to be separated for a year before you can even file the paperwork for a divorce. “It was a rough marriage, and even rougher separation. But it is getting better,” I tell him. I am only slightly uncomfortable with the telling: This is the first time I’ve really been able to succinctly sum up my current life, the first time I have told a stranger my story. It feels surreal, but it makes it final and real.

“I sailed on the Wolf for six months when I ran away to Key West from school and work. You know, for a break. I found the Wolf the first day I was in Key West and I said, ‘I want to learn to sail, and I want to sail on her,’” I tell him.

“Yes, The Wolf will do that,” Cowboy says. He squints at me from the side of his eyes. “I have been on and off the Wolf for six years. I have owned a camera shop, and done many things. I’ve been married — and divorced — too, and I have a son. But I always end up back with her. My family doesn’t understand it.”

But I do. I haven’t been on The Wolf since I visited Key West in 1997. But I still have dreams about sailing her.  For the past 15 years I have woken up in the middle of the night with glimmers of a dream where I was handling The Wolf’s lines again, making fast the jib sheet after a tack, battling epic forces of nature amid howling wind. There’s not a single boat I sail that doesn’t take me straight back to the decks of the Wolf. I have no other sea stories than those I gathered while I sailed her, but I don’t need more: She gave me plenty in those six months. “She is in my soul, Cowboy, and that was after a short time. I can’t imagine what happens if you’ve sailed on her for even longer.”

The Wolf  drifted on the Chesapeake that day

We sail her that day from Baltimore to Annapolis, where we exchange the “Conch Republic ” flag with the “Maritime Republic of Eastport” in a ceremony full of the nature of two pieces of the US that have jokingly seceded from their homelands — Key West from the United States, and Eastport from Annapolis. I spend three days with the Wolf and her crew, Captain Finbar and his pirate wife Julie, and at the end of it return back to my single family home in the burbs of Baltimore, while the crew journeys on their coastal tour of the US.

Later, after I see her and her crew off the docks of Annapolis, I am talking to my friend Karen. She knew I sailed on a “pirate ship” in Key West, saw the photo of the Wolf hanging on the wall in my office. She’d heard the stories, knew my journey there and back. But she hadn’t seen me on The Wolf, hadn’t realized the depth of her reach into my being. “The Wolf came in and saved you when you lived in Key West,” she says. “And she’s come back to save you again.” Until she said it so succinctly, I hadn’t realized that’s exactly what my time aboard her was doing this time, too.

************

We love pirates: something about the romanticism of the freedom that comes from being a pirate, the imagined carefree attitude to do what you want, when you want, beckons our internal sense of adventure. The rag-a-tag nature of pirates, the devil-may-care approach to life seems to answer the internal siren call of living life for life’s sake. It calls to us in the midst of how we really live it — get up, fight traffic, go to work, go home, do some errands, take care of all the stuff around the house and in our life. The life of a pirate, with few earthly possessions and calling a 6-by-4 foot berth and wherever it may be in port, “home” renews in us the right sense that there is, indeed, a life out there most of us are just not living — at least not the way we want.

Want to know what Happy looks like? Hang with Cao for a little while

Want to know what Happy looks like? Hang with Cao for a little while

In all the studies of what makes people happy – truly happy, fulfilled, experiencing life in a positive manner no matter age or life circumstances — “stuff” does not make the list.  Instead, new indications are that overall balance and harmony with the environment and with the individual’s sense of place in the world creates more happiness than any single indicator of wealth or power. Just ask the Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himilayas, which measure GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) instead of GDP. New measures social scientists are using point to factors like access to health care, free time with family, natural resource conservation, a sense of giving back and other “soft measures” as being more indicative with overall happiness.  (Want to read more? I recommend, “A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom“). The documentary Happy sums it up succinctly: spend an hour and watch it to walk away feeling….. well, Happy.

So  maybe it’s not the swash buckling tales of pirates that have us so enraptured, as much as it is a sense that pirates, surely, must have had free time to explore and do the things that filled their soul.

After The Wolf left that summer in 2012, I embarked on my own land-loving adventure to rediscover what happiness really means — to re-capture those pieces of myself and my lifestyle back in my pirate days that had made me feel so at peace with the world and the ocean. I don’t know if I am there yet. But today I can say that almost every day, I live just a little piece of the Pirate’s Life.

I was sick for three months.

Ok, so maybe it was more like 2.75. But whatever. I’m a writer. Sometimes writers fudge and expand the details to enhance the story.

At any rate, at the exact time that I had FINALLY been given some time to do that THING that has most called to me for almost my entire life is the time when sickness fell and wiped me out. For, like, that last three months.

For years I’d been a busy, professional and rather successful career woman. I had the titles, the salary, the friends (but not the car… a part of me has always eschewed totally following the cliché). But last year, something snapped. A bit of frustration, plus a workaholic schedule, plus the growing realization that my life was perfectly poised to go DO this thing – for once – naturally made me want to shake it all up.
Full confession: I am approaching the official mid-life mark, and now that it’s nearly here and I’ve made the jump, I can no longer deny that perhaps the big 4-0 had more to do with this new life than I’d previously wanted to admit.

I am, admittedly in this telling, glossing over all the gory details: suffice it to say, on Dec. 1, I quit the job and headed out to follow my dream = to write that book I’ve wanted to do for years.

I’d developed an agreement with myself that I could have six gloriously free months to research and write the book. I’d do a two-week trip to Key West in December for all the research to be done. By January, I’d have it outlined. By February I’d be done with Chapter 2. By May my first draft would be done.

Given that planning it out in my professional career before had usually, mostly, WORKED, I had no reason to think this would go any differently.

Dude, Dudette. DogGod... whatever works for your "higher power"

Dude, Dudette. DogGod… whatever works for your “higher power”

But the dude (or dudette or DogGod or Pluto- whatever you need you believe. Just make sure you read What Questions a Dog would Ask God) upstairs has one heck of a sense of humor. As so often happens when things are set up PERFECTLY, the plan hit the bottom of the ravine all too quickly. My dream of spending day after day writing, editing, researching – thoroughly embedded in the work of my story — slowly slipped away as, week after week, I either caught an infection or had some new symptom develop that essentially wiped out my ability to do much of anything useful.

It started in the middle of Paradise on my maiden voyage, just two weeks into this grand new life. I was struck: a bacterial infection that sent my insides scrambling and left me with a prescription for two heavy-duty antibiotics. I avoided the hospital this time, but not without suffering through a few weeks of side effects. Then, at the tail end of that debacle came the flu. Happy New Year. Followed by a cold. Then another. Then a virus that refused to go away. Then another cold. Ad nauseam, for two months. As if that wasn’t enough, in January my hands pretty much stopped working, and I couldn’t actually perform the function of writing for any longer than 10 minutes.

I was a pirate in paradise when it all went down...

I was a pirate in paradise when it all went down…

For a newly-minted, newly-proclaimed writer, this loss of use of hands was the cruelest. It sent me howling into my journal (a new daily practice I mostly do, seeming only apropos that if I’m to be a writer I should write something each day, even if it’s only dribbling thoughts). I read back through those entries the other day and admit, here, fully – It was entirely whining. Like with a capital W. In retrospect, some WINE might have helped that situation- but I don’t do that anymore (another story).

It didn’t help that each time I’d have a day or two of feeling better, of being nearly normal, and then I’d feel some signal of the start of yet another virus. My Whining reached fevered pitch, along with my visits to various doctors and specialists. I may have even shook  my fists in the air at God- which at the least did make me, and the hubster, laugh.

 While I am back to pre-December production, energy level and doing-ness, it turns out there are in fact reasons this has all been happening – an immune dysfunction that doctors usually treat only when the patient is symptomatic and/or under duress. And I am fast hurtling towards a Fibromyalgia diagnosis, which is where they put you when you have all these THINGS, but no known underlying already-defined disease. Never mind that I don’t have either one of the main hallmark of the disorder (all-over pain). Truth is, this isn’t the first time: Like many in my situation, I started having bouts of this after a 3-month virus in 2008, and in the past few years it has gotten worse. Last year I spent most of my time going to work and when I wasn’t doing that, sleeping. The on-and-off elevated pulse, the fingers and toes losing circulation, the extreme fatigue, and tingling hands were, my doctor told me, all due to stress. Blood tests backed this up. OK, so great, simple solution: quit said stressful job. So when it got WORSE at the beginning of this year, rather than better…. well hopefully you can empathize with why I was so flummoxed. Beside myself. OK: Angry. I was very angry and pitiful.

But like all things, it eventually wound down, the sickness and the Whining.

Because in the midst this storm that was sleeping, eating, feeling awful, battling medicinal side effects, not being able to comprehend the words I was reading let alone make NEW thoughts out of them, I remembered one very important thing: I was a pirate once.

topsail schooner wolf

Schooner Wolf

Albeit, I was a nice pirate, the kind that you run into on sailboats in very nice touristy places—but still, even there the pirate spirit exists. You take the girl off the ship, but you can’t take the pirate out of the girl. You can’t take away the rebellion, you can’t remove the desire to freedom, and you can’t get away from the pirate’s indomitable spirit to PROSPER against even the mightiest of uncontrollable forces. In fact, it is those very howling forces of fate that call a pirate to most BE. It is this spirit, after all, that attracts so many people to the idea of pirates – this the reason the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has done so well, that pirate festivals around the US have flourished (and been established even inland, like Kansas).

Yes, somewhere around about late January I got angry, full of fight. Somewhere around mid-February, I gave up. Perhaps not UP as much as IN: to the irrefutable truth that life so often seems to want to teach us: that despite the best-laid plans, you cannot control the actual outcome of the situation. My pirate self started, essentially, to howl into the wind. And now that the storm has abated (today marks one week entirely symptom free, two weeks since I could function normally again), I am beginning to do what so many REAL pirates before me have done when faced with a journey thwarted, a ship sunk: to begin again.

This marks the launch of a serial blog, one that will pull on bits and pieces from the book I am working on, will explore what makes a pirate, why we love pirates, and what it all has to do with business – and life. I know three people who will read it. And I’m happy with that. It’s practice, and it will remind me that I am a pirate at heart, as so many of us really, truly are. It all comes from my time aboard the Schooner Wolf, Key West’s official pirate flagship –often stories that don’t fit in the official book. The one time that knife-wielding customer boarded the evening sunset sail, for instance. Stories abound on a pirate ship. And I am just beginning to capture them.

I am a recovering creative.

Truth be told, I am a recovering a lot of things. But that’s another blog. Ok, maybe a book since, after all, I’m getting up there in age.

I don’t mean recovering creative as in, “used to be and now seeking to not be.” I mean recovering as in, “becoming again.”

Just Say No(In case you think I am making up this creative recovery thing, I am not: it has a whole movement, a 12-step recovery process all its own, A.R.T.S Anonymous. As if artists really need help being any more anonymous: if you ask me, we need more light shined on how much work we are actually producing each day. It’s surprisingly easy to do work, without actually working on what you are supposed to be working on — this blog post being the perfect example.)

Each day I used to don the professional gear, commute 20 to 30 minutes, sit at my desk and begin the work of beginning to work. Each day was different, but the setting, the task, the GOAL, was the same: do lots of stuff to accomplish overall organizational goals, win friends, influence others and look smart while doing it!

And let me tell you, when it was working, it was HEADY stuff. When I was ON, the power was mine to wield, to make marvelous things happen for people, to make a DIFFERENCE. And I was good at my jobs – Good at getting money for the organizations I worked for; good at producing papers, newsletters, words that made people act; good at connecting people and making things happen.

But after 20 years, I was starting to run dry. The stress of not working on the words, the stories, the ideas in my head, was starting to show.

More importantly, I was starting to believe the headiness all that power of creation in the workplace created. I was starting to buy in. I started to want the fancy Brooks Brothers suits; the nicer, new car; the Washington DC parties and high-end connections and the power of knowing the people running the Ultimate Power City. In short, I started to think it was real.

Thankfully, a few things happened that leveled out my progress down the Great Corporate Power Road:

  1. My first husband left me, suddenly and without word or communicationIPhone Laura 2015 239 thereafter, after clearing out all his clothes and our joint bank account;
  2. Bereft and broken, I started exploring the whys and hows of the world, and of me;
  3. When I slipped up and let my EGO pick a power-filled job again, I ended up In a position that made me realize, quickly, that no amount of work would actually mean I could achieve the very thing I was supposed to in said job.

Ultimately, it was the crushing of my EGO — the painful tearing away of expectations, assumptions and successes — that got me out of that mess.

And so here I sit today: STRESS-less and Corporate-America-Shine-and-Dine-Big-JOB-less. Entirely for the better.

Except.

Each day I write and work on my active creative recovery for an hour, sometimes up to three. I am supposed to “play” several times during the week – and do lots of reading, not necessarily related to the book I am working on. I am supposed to work at creative things that don’t necessarily produce anything, and aren’t meant to. After I write, I head to the desk to tackle my actual creative work: Research, writing, planning. Usually for all of four hours, which is about what I have left after all that. I have yet to produce any new words for my book, and I’m only 10% done with my research. I alternate between feelings of despair, hopelessness and loneliness, and ever-soaring elation, freedom and the feeling that I have finally landed IN myself. Which, it turns out, is exactly what folks tend to feel in addiction recovery programs.

Addiction, at its core, is all about when individuals start thinking/believing and/or trying to BE God. For many of us, that’s exactly what work becomes. When you’re working, hard, every day, and making things happen, and bringing in more money each year, and hearing great things about yourself from all loads of people – well, it becomes easy to believe all that. And, you start to want to hear it more often. Until just one is no longer enough.

Our culture is set up to support accomplishment, great productions – money and things included. I’m starting to think that, in fact, our nation’s founders had tendencies towards bi-polar disorder that made them want to strike off across the ocean to unknown land to begin with – let alone settle remote outposts surrounded by woods and wilds. That certainly explains the Salem Witch Trials  to me a whole heck of a lot better than religious zealotry. Ok, so maybe it’s an equally-weighted thing.

Either way, as with anything that feels good when you first do it, but then gets more guilt-laden than celebratory, where the repercussions start outweighing the benefits, and where one is just not enough (job, shift, one more hour or one more digit increase to the salary), eventually, if work is your addiction, you hit the proverbial bottom.

Increasingly, we Americans are hitting that bottom – even as countless stories, research projects and pundits caution us that happiness does not lie in great works, money, things or more hours working. You analytical types can see the proof by reading Stanford University’s “The Relationship Between Hours Worked and Productivity,” or by watching the Ted Talk Video, “Flow: the Secret of Happiness.”  Or read up on the work of social scientists who discovered a few years ago that people who make $75k or more may feel better in general about life, but not in day-to-day, overall emotional well-being – and that, in fact, that daily happiness ratio decreases the more a person makes above that mark.

It’s just not hard to find the studies and scholarly articles that prove we Americans are working more, achieving less and being more miserable doing it.

The challenge is, of course, recovering in a society that is largely addicted to the power of work – something that ultimately is more related to culture, which would take far more than a nationwide 12-step recovery program to address.

But if any of you creative, workaholic types out there feel like tackling that fix-it, have at it.

IPhone Laura 2015 199In the meantime, the best answer might be for us each, individually, to embark upon our own recovery – creative, spiritual, family or otherwise. At the end, it’s all about uncovering what it is that throws us off balance, tracking it down, excising it and then working on re-centering.

Maybe that’s the closest we really need to a New Year’s resolution.

 

Anonymity isn’t possible on Key West. It’s too small an island (2 by 4 miles for anyone tracking), the houses are too close, the people too known. Like the Midwest small town of the idolized 50s, everyone knows someone who knows you, and word travels fast.

KW Rush Hour

Morning Rush Hour, Key West Style

So there’s no road rage, no honking. People walk around with their heads up, rather than staring at the magical devices in their hands – unless it’s the tourists, using their map application to get three blocks up the road or posting their bragging-rights pictures from vacation. People leave their doors unlocked. When they are not home. For large stretches of time. And nothing disappears from them. About the only things that get stolen are bikes that aren’t locked up – more a crime of opportunity than of real piracy. Looting — itinerant, transient, homeless style.

Rush hour is non-existent – at least in the morning. Cars stack up all of 8 deep before the light changes, and everyone gets through. I have been too long in the city and as I walk past the workmen speaking Spanish and picking up their morning conleche (espresso style coffee with steamed milk and sugar so heavy it makes your mouth pucker), this strikes me as magical: a morning commute of ease. As the day wears on, traffic picks up, until by 3 pm it’s a steady stream of cars on all the major roads. But still, everyone makes the light.

KW Voodoo

Christmas & Voodoo

The sun shines down a majority of the days, turning the waters that surround the island alternating shades of aquamarine and pearled blue, depending on whether it’s a sand bottom or a grass bed underneath. Aside from the summer days when the ocean breeze fails to blow, it’s pretty much always warm. And even the cold days aren’t really all that cold – though they would be more tolerable if any of the houses had heaters. They don’t, aside from the odd, shared space heater.

It is a paradise. And yet, insanity clings to the edges of this island, where chickens have some of the best ocean views, and no one expects eggs from them. Christmas lights decorating the small shacks in Bahama Village (a villa within Key West’s Old Towne that was historically the gathering place of immigrant Bahamians) include Voodoo dolls – and they are not fake. Cuban migrants stillKW Refuges land on the shores of the island, unbidden but welcomed as brethren from the edge of the world.

Insanity. The inverse of sane, “of an undertaking or manner that is reasonable; sensible.” This makes the spirit of Key West not exactly reasonable. It also makes it – the part that’s not drunk or high — special.

Insanity. The tourists who flock in droves here, year-round now (there used to be a lull in the summer and in November to Christmas, but no more), pick up the hint of it and easily settle into the eddies that life at the edge brings. They turn it into a reason to drink, to party, 24-7 – except for the cruise ship visitors who use it as a reason to cram as much US paradise activities into their 5-hour shore call as only an American can.

KW Chickens

Prime chicken real estate

Except they are missing the true heart of the island that lives at the edge of the continental US. Embroiled in beer along Duval Street, liquor at Sunset Pier or revelry at Mallory Square (where hundreds gather each evening to watch the sun set into the water), they miss that they are in one of the few towns where you can still leave your doors unlocked, rush hour means an extra five minute commute and chickens have the prime real estate.

Maybe that’s what makes it paradise, more even that the sun, the water and the temp.

And about those chickens: What started out as a small flock providing eggs to a very good breakfast restaurant in Bahama Village (Blue Heaven, a definitive must) suddenly took root and multiplied, rapidly, in the early 2000s. No one seems to know why: Perhaps they just finally adapted to life on a hard-scrabble island with few worms but plenty of half-dead Sea creatures washed up in flotsam and seaweed – and garbage scraps.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go on a chicken egg hunt. I’m on a budget.

On Oct. 15,  2011, my husband left me.

I don’t mean left me as in, we talked about separation, we divided up our things and he departed the  house one day at an arranged time — you know, with agreement. With finality. With closure. With conversation. I mean, he left me as in I returned home one evening to find he had packed up all he could fit into the car, cleared out the bank accounts, and left the keys behind, with nary a word or a note –and never to communicate again via phone, text or email (at least, not until seven months later when he wanted to get the rest of his things).

To be fair, we HAD talked separation. After nearly a year of marriage counseling, and another few previous years of strife and struggle, I had finally come to the realization that the marriage was never going to be truly that  — a marriage, a joint union, each spouse standing for the other, making decisions for the marriage in lieu of the self. It had been my decision to separate to move towards divorce. And the morning he left, we had talked a bit more about the logistics of a separation, what the process might be.

But his actions that day had me feeling just one thing: ABANDONED.

Abandonment was my worst fear, realized.

It was the stuff of all my nightmares as a child, a teen, and even an adult. It’s what I had fought to avoid — in all my relationships, in my jobs, in my every day.  By 4 am the next morning I was exhausted, anxious, unable to sleep and devoid of any feeling except a deep pit in my stomach that was unquenchable with the very blackness of its depth. So much so that I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even think.

I was an empty vessel lying in bed that night and morning: As though until I had to quit fighting, hard, every second of every day and even in my sleep for the shell of a marriage I had found myself in, I didn’t even know how hard I’d been fighting. I didn’t know then how much of my soul had gone into keeping the very thing I feared the most — abandonment — at bay.

When I called my Mom the morning after that sleepless night, all the feelings I’d been holding back, the ones locked behind the empty vessel I had become over the past three years, came flooding out in one single clarified moment. For the first time in many, many years, I sobbed, and I did it from the depths of my fear. All the loneliness, pointless wishing and hiding from myself I’d been doing came crashing in at once and came out of me in a  low empty, nearly voiceless cry turning into a deep racking sob that lasted for wordless, endless moments.

It’s amazing what can happen when there’s nothing left to lose. For the first time in my life, I asked her to come and rescue me: to come and stay with me the next week as I navigated not just sudden aloneness, but with the sudden grappling of the knowledge I’d been trying to avoid for so long, maybe since just after I’d gotten married. Not only was I abandoned NOW, I’d been abandoned, really, from the very beginning. Maybe before I’d even fathomed the idea of marriage at all.

She came to rescue me, to stay with me, just to BE with me. And my restart started, again.

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Abandoned, or at rest, a boat unsailed will start to rot.

Abandoned, or at rest, a boat unsailed will start to rot.

Each year, hundreds of ships are abandoned at docks and on sea. Depending on how you define abandonment, the actual number could be MUCH higher. After all, while we often talk about ships as though they embody a human — usually a she, as in, “She sails straight,” or “She is a great, beautiful boat,” or “She has her quirks but she never lets me down in weather,” — sailors and shipmen alike tend to refer to how much “soul” a boat has. Some storied ships carry their own spirit, regardless of owner, but these are few and far between. And, I would argue that most ships only have as much soul as its captain and crew are willing to put into it.

Amazingly, despite the ships that sit abandoned at docks, no one comes to claim them as their own. There is an unwritten rule that, even if a ship’s owner has not taken care of a ship in years, has not visited her or paid for her dockage or done anything to upkeep the ship, She belongs to someone else. And plenty of laws exist on the books in each local, state and international jurisdiction that make it clear that even if it’s abandoned, it still belongs to someone. Marinas have to go through piles of paperwork to get an abandoned boat declared as such before they can legally be allowed to remove it. The US Coast Guard and state natural resource departments can’t even begin to clean up the waste of an unclaimed boat until they get a legal declaration — a process that again takes much time and paperwork. And even if they do, there remains the ultimate question of who will pay for the removal of not just the boat but the fuel and oil it leeches into the water  as it decays. Because ultimately, these abandoned ships eventually succumb to the water in which they languish. A boat without water flowing by its hulls will eventually begin to rot, from the outside in. Wooden boats’ planks begin to shrink, change shape and leak water until the boards open to let more water in while the batteries die and the pumps stop emptying the ship of the inevitable water that makes its way through (because, as any seasoned sailor will tell you, all wooden boats leak, all the time). Metal hulls start to rust and welded seams eventually fail. Fiberglass hulls, too, develop weaknesses when left to the wiles of winds, waves and rain. To prosper and survive, ships need sailed. As though there is a deep-seated recognition that an abandoned ship is soulless and without much merit, the REAL pirates of today — the ones that patrol Africa’s eastern coast’s and the China seas — will not touch an abandoned boat. They target vessels already under steam, with a crew, a commodity underway. These pirates know a boat abandoned is merely an empty vessel, and they want a vessel full of possibility they can steal.

A boat that sits too long, too often, that’s faced a checkered past, a bad reputation, often meets if not an abandoned, untimely end, then a sad fading into semi-obscurity. Look no further than the tale of the Schooner America, a replica of the boat for which the landmark sailboat match the world tunes into today was named (This year’s match was out of San Francisco August 21 to 26 and October 2 to 7). Built by a wealthy Virginian restaurateur to be both a money-making venture and a goodwill ambassador for the US,  Mr. Ray Giovanni’s dream never quite materialized. The boat has alternated in its 20-year history between being celebrated, reviled, abandoned, recovered and re-celebrated before fading once again into the background at some dock in a port town (the full story of the Schooner America is coming soon, in a post entitled “Checkered Pasts and High Seas: The Life of the Schooner America”). Just three years after the Schooner America was built to great fanfare, celebration and media coverage, she languished at a Ft. Lauderdale marina, unwanted at the original asking price. In those short 36 months, the ship had developed enough of a reputation that few were willing to tackle a young boat with a checkered past. Its various owners in its life — three to date — have proclaimed in various ways that THIS time she was to prosper fully. Greg Muzzy,  owner of Liberty Fleet which bought the Schooner America in 1999 — only to have her run aground just a year later as she sailed on her maiden voyage out of Boston — told me in 2000: “The boat’s had a checkered life and created some bad reputations here and there. Our job is to try and fix some of those reputation problems and turn it into the best it can be.” And yet, just a few years later, Liberty Fleet put the Schooner America up on the auction block again.

A vessel facing criticism, abandonment, trials and innuendos, can hardly seem to escape that fate. The Schooner America is not the only ship to sail this tale.

And here lies the very real distinction between a vessel abandoned, and a person abandoned.

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In the months after my spouse abandoned me, an amazing and unexpected thing happened: I found faith. In the vastness of love foundered on dreams unrealized, I developed a deep, abiding belief in love. I found a lasting sense of peace. And I discovered I had never been abandoned at all.  In this abandonment, I found freedom to take the abandoned vessel I thought I had become, shore it up with some new boards, a bit of pitch tar and faith in a right wind and TRUST it fully again. I learned to trust myself again, and I learned to trust the sense that came from deep within that there was something else driving this ship, something that I could trust.

Photo, Pam Steude. Sometimes dark times, are really openings to more

Photo, Pam Steude. Sometimes dark times, are really openings to more

We all have this opportunity, all the time, in the small and big losses of life.

Losing a job, an important relationship, a child, a dream: In our human attempts to overcome the inevitability of life, the ebb and flow of dreams developed, followed and derailed, we try to keep those events that cause those feelings at bay because, ultimately, we like to think that we can control what happens to us. Or, at the least, affect the outcome when they do happen- the fear, loneliness and hopelessness that can follow in the wake of our most shocking life changes.

We gather inspirational sayings to arm ourselves against that nagging voice that tells us in the quiet moments on dark nights that we are not good enough, not important enough or not doing enough. These work, for a time, until that next quiet moment returns. These losses force us to look directly at the one thing we fight against as humans:  that We Can Not, try as we might, BE God.

We do not consider, maybe we cannot consider, that in that wake, the clearing that loss creates, we are not DEVOID as much as we are an empty vessel ready to be filled. Perhaps then, the ultimate question is what will we fill our vessels with, what soul cry will we answer when we are finally empty enough to choose freely.

And so maybe boats – and people- ultimately become a product of their story and founding principles no matter where they sit or sail. The America might have been so embattled precisely because Mr. Ray founded her on two dual and competing purposes. You cannot produce a revenue to feed the company that runs you AND be a “goodwill” ambassador – which implies that it operates solely for the good of the people.

Left with nothing to lose, our vessels ask us what soul cry we will pick up. Our fate is not sealed: we are not an empty ship abandoned and now devoid of soul without its captain and crew to give it story and heart. Our vessel was never empty to begin with. And instead of fearing the space that these great losses can bring, we can instead remember that our soul infuses within us a continuing story.  Abandonment is a chance for us to ask, instead of what the world will bring to us, what WE will bring to the world.

I choose faith, love, hope and peace.

Hope