Without the sea, I’m a total mess.
Eight years ago I made this Caribbean-style dress. It’s forest green with fringe and neon beads. At the time, I was living on a 26 ft. sailboat in Jamaica Bay. The boat didn’t belong to me. I don’t even remember her name. I will call her No Name. No Name’s head /toilet was a bucket and there was barely a galley / kitchen. Her settees and v-berth were covered in indigo blue. She smelled like sea grass and crabs. I wish I could tell you about No Name’s sails, but she never left the slip.
JFK airport was just across the water. Planes were always coming and going. Flying low and loud. I couldn’t help but think of all the faces moving through the clouds.
Back then I was bartending at this joint called Bungalow Bar. The bar was 40-some-odd blocks southwest of the marina. On the same side of the water. It had a little dock that was falling apart. I kept a 13 ft. yellow sunfish tied to the side of No Name and I would sail the sunfish to and fro work. From boat to boat to dock to bar and back again. Her sail looked like the sunset and she was all mine. I called her Queequeg.
I named her after my favorite scene in Moby Dick, the one where Queequeg is unconsciously cuddling Ishmael in bed. That part of the book always illustrated to me the human need for physical touch. Without touch our skin grows hungry. Without touch our immune system weakens. Without touch our heads are depressed. Without touch our hearts are spooky. Without touch we might as well be 6 feet under- dead- with dirt piled high and crows flying over.
At that time, I had touch, but it wasn’t safe. And touch that isn’t safe is worse than no touch at all. He was a captain and he was giant. Next to him I looked nothing but knee-high to a grasshopper. He was insecure. Loved me most when I was down, so he kept me down. And I let him keep me there, because I was insecure too. The damaged part of me drawn to the damaged part of him.
The sea has always been alluring to those who are damaged. Salt is that ancient cure for all our wounds. Inside and out. And water, well what is life without it? It’s essential to our existence.
On nights that I worked, I would set sail at sunset and return home not long before sunrise. The early morning fisherman always cussed me out, because I didn’t have any navigation lights. I was a ghost at the tiller of a tiny ghost ship.
I made the dress on a Sunday. I had worked the night before. I was tired. Tired of a lot of things. Lethargic really. I was with my friend Stefania. In a state of boredom, we bought beads and xxl T-shirts, then went back to No Name. We sat there listening to Alice Coltrane‘s album Transcendence while cutting fringe into the shirts and beading them.
It was then, that I had my first panic attack.
I remember the scissors in my hands. The sunlight bouncing off of them. My fat fingers woven through their orange handle. I remember thinking how imperfect my dress was. I remember thinking how imperfect my life was. I remember thinking how imperfect I had always been. I was thinking. Thinking too much.
The music started rattling my skull. Coltrane’s harp swelled into a harpoon. Each pluck of a string, plucking out my sorrows. My mind started misfiring. I was trapped in a loop of foul thoughts. Catatonic. I could feel everything, yet I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. I was drowning! The weight of everything, holding me under and cackling as I struggled for air. The sound of everything, a deafening cacophony. The smell of everything, putrid. Everything, all of it, life, an unbearable curse. I thought, this is death and I’m the freaking devil!
In hindsight, I panicked because I kept trying to hold onto so many somethings that were never meant to be held onto in the first place. And those somethings were gulping the life-force out of me. Until finally, there I was, at the state of zero.
I think it’s hard to let go. I think the need for control, for perfection, for external validation, is what keeps me grasping for all the wrong somethings and pushes me further out of alignment with all the right somethings.
I hold on so tightly to anything willing to be held, that I ignore all the signs and turn a thousand ways the wrong direction. Until I’m all twisted and the only signs that exist on my path are indecipherable and illegible.
I love sailing because it has taught me to let go of my need for control. I can’t control the wind or the currents or the waves. But I can alter my course, or lower my sails and go slow, or change my position in relation to the seas circumstance, until I feel comfortable and at ease again. The sea has taught me how to love wherever I am and who I am. It has forced me to stay present, to be patient, and to be grateful for each day that I’m alive. It has pushed me to do things that scare the bejesus out of me, and by doing so a strength is gained. Most importantly, it has taught me that for every down there is an up, and that the downs, like a good squall, are fleeting.
Now, I can sit still through the rain and stay ecstatic for the coming sun.
Thank you sea, for the lovely new frequency you have given me. Thank you for all of my life-altering expeditions. Thank you for showing me that letting go and following the flow is the essence of life.
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