Two weeks ago I was 13 miles out at sea, at the helm of a 37-foot sloop named It’s About Time (I couldn’t agree more). Under fair skies and in the grip of a fresh breeze, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Even the faint swirl of seasickness felt like a rite of passage (they tell me it fades–in the meantime, half a dramamine and an ice cold Coca Cola did the trick). When Philip and I stepped down onto the dock at the end of the day, I’d swear we had a salty cast to our gait—and that not only because we’d been on the water since nine o’clock that morning.
I’d told him when he’d asked: I want to turn 40 on a boat.
Not just any boat, mind you. A white-winged bird; a bateau à voile. A sailboat.
The sea has had our hearts for years and years—for always, really, for I believe we are born with such essential longings—and sailing has been an inevitable, albeit heretofore unattainable answer to that call. I’ve said there were three things I wanted to do before I turned 40: I wanted to write a book, I wanted to become fluent in French, and I wanted to learn to sail. (I also wanted to get my ears pierced, which I did, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) My novel is still in draft stage, but my little Poesy is getting ready to make her appearance in the world. And while the most generous assessment would not stretch to call me fluent, twice this summer Philip and I have sat down for drinks and conversation en français with complete strangers whom we’d overheard speaking French—a charming Québécois couple, and the most delightful party of Parisians who corrected my mistakes with smiles and taught me the method of exchanging proper bisous in parting. (Something tells me I’ll meet those lovely folks again some day.)
As far as sailing goes, last summer we took the plunge and signed up for a basic keelboat certification course. And this summer, we were delighted to discover that the next course we’d require, Coastal Cruising 103, just happened to fall on my birthday weekend. I really could turn 40 on a boat! And not only that—I could step off that boat certified to sail our own vessel in blue water someday. The vessel in question is still a rather dim-edged dream: our dinner conversations these days center around essential ideas like sloop or ketch? and centerboard or fixed keel? And, of course, we’ll require plenty of cockpit and cabin room for an exuberant Aussie pup. Bonnie as yet has no idea what we’re talking about, but I have every reason to think that in the not-too-distant future the words, Let’s go sailing! will have as much effect on that eager heart of hers as the oft-repeated, Let’s go Airstreaming!
As we’re haunting sailing forums and scouring boat listings, I keep encountering a word that grabs my heart, and not only in relation to sailboats: nimble. It’s highest praise for a sailing vessel—no matter how much teak you’ve got in the cabin and whether the winches are self-tailing or not, you want a boat that’s going to respond gracefully to all that the helmsman asks of her. A cutter sitting quietly in its slip at the marina can be a thing of beauty, of course, but that’s not what a sailboat’s made for. It’s made for the open seas and that legendary dance with the wind and the water. It’s made for rakish maneuvers and breathtaking heels that send the white spray cresting up over her decks. A nimble boat with a capable hand at the wheel is like a bird in flight. It’s a poem; it’s a love song in motion. And for those lucky enough to be aboard, it’s pure joy.
I want a nimble sailboat. But more than that, I want to be a nimble sailboat. I’ve shared before the conviction I’ve finally given myself permission to own: namely, that in a world of determined steel trawlers and blindingly fast motorboats, my personality is imaged more accurately in the unapologetic sensitivity of a sailboat. I don’t have to be sophisticated, or brilliant, or even, as Anne Shirley would say, angelically good (thank the good Lord for that—and I mean that with all my heart!). But I do want to be responsive to the winds of His spirit in my sails, keen to the sea changes that He’s brewing in my own heart. Just this past week I caught the tenderest whisper: Don’t resent your own restlessness, child. Lean into it. Look for its gifts. Find the stars.
I can say in all honesty that the prospect of turning 40, while unbelievable in some respects, has been one of excitement tinged with magic. I’ve seen too many people I admire dance into their forties with grace and flair to be anything but enchanted (and a little bit relieved) at the idea of a brand-new decade. And I have it on good authority that one of the best things about getting older is caring less and less what other people think of you–which is really the only place from which to love people, of course. I want to leave self-consciousness at the door of this decade; I don’t want its gleaming halls to be sullied with the muddy footprints of my own insecurities. And I think I’m finally ready to allow myself to be a work in progress, to celebrate the fact that God in His mercy has allowed so many false ideas I’d picked up along the way to be dashed—but with equal mercy He’s kept my ideals intact. Sometimes I feel closer to 17 than halfway to 80, which is nothing short of miracle, considering the harsh realities this world’s only too willing too dish up from sunrise to sunset. But the triumvirate romance of Beauty, Truth and Goodness has my heart as much as it ever did. I can say this with no illusions, for there have been seasons over the past twenty years—hours, days, weeks, months—in which I felt I was clinging to these holy Transcendentals in the dark with my eyes shut fast against things that claimed to be more real, and I know now the holding power to have been nothing less radiant than the prayers of the saints (sometimes praying for me without even knowing why) and the courage put into me by honest souls who had stared down darkness with an inextinguishable Light in their eyes.
It’s that Light alone that makes me dare to dream and keep dreaming. To be sure, my life is quite different in many ways than what I imagined it would look like at this point twenty—even ten—years ago. But I wouldn’t change a thing—I’m breathless with the beauty of what God has done. For while there are dreams that will be with me for life, there are others that have quietly given way to new dreams, vistas I hadn’t dared to imagine were really open to me. I wrote in my journal the day after my birthday: part of being nimble means not getting mired emotionally in things I can’t control. It means flexibility, living light; it means opening my hands, not only to let go, but to receive.
One thing that has been dropped into my hands recently is a dream I’ve cherished for so long I can hardly name the moment it was born—perhaps it was reading Surprised by Joy as a teenager, or the first time I stood at the top of St. Mary the Virgin in my early twenties, gazing out over a pinnacled landscape of dreaming spires. But come October, I commence undergraduate studies in English Literature and Creative Writing through Oxford University. It’s a tremendous opportunity, consisting of a combination of both online and in-Oxford courses over the next few years (so we’ll be making some hops across the Pond! ), and I am dizzy with gratitude (to quote Anne again). Philip teases that I’m as excited over the prospect of a Bod card as I am over my actual place in the course, and there’s some truth to that—after all, access to one of the most famous libraries in the world is staggering in its own right. But I’m very happy and excited, and thankful that I have the chance to follow this dream at this point in my life. (There were a lot of reasons why I didn’t go to college at 18—and a lot of reasons I’m going now. Perhaps I’ll write more about that at some point.)
I can hardly wait for October. In the meantime, I’m working on my novel every day, determined to have that first draft DONE before my classes start. And I’m working away on Poesy (look for an update on that front in the near future). Philip and I are enjoying our animals and reading Harry Potter together (for the first time—can you believe it?). And, of course, looking at sailboats. (I’ll keep you posted on that front, too. Anyone have an early 70’s Formosa or Cheoy Lee in reasonably good shape they’re wanting to let go of for a song? )
My 40th birthday was pure gift from start to finish, a shining thing I’ll treasure among my very finest gems: in the morning we passed our sailing exam; in the afternoon we sped a few miles down the coast to our favorite hotel on our favorite island; and in the evening we danced the night away to the music of one of the best jazz quartets this side of the 1940’s. I can’t think of a lovelier way to twirl into my fifth decade on this broken but beautiful old earth of ours.
Here’s, Hail! To the rest of the road!