When I was in high school I was a Girl Scout who competed in weekend-long nautical competitions with my Senior Scout troop.
This event, called “G.A.M” (Gathering of All Mariners), was basically a naval academy equivalent of the Boy Scout Jamboree, but with more choreographed sailor jigs.
Did I mention cool? So so so cool.
As dorky as it sounds, I had a lot of fun in Girl Scouts and a lot of fun at G.A.M.
My friends and I would spend the entire year studying morse-code, memorizing semaphore flags, practicing synchronized swimming routines, and learning how to scrub alcohol references from sea chanties. Finally, we’d gather with other local troops at Newport Dunes, California on a spring weekend to compete in dozens upon dozens of mariner events in hopes of winning the coveted Golden Clipper Award.
The coolness! HOW CAN YOU HANDLE ALL THIS COOLNESS?!
I will be honest with you: my troop never did very well at GAM. We were a small group, made of mostly of inner Orange County urbanites with little sea experience who mostly got trounced by colossal coastal elite troops with more money, meetings, and memberships to yacht clubs. (Think Troop Beverly Hill’s nemesis “The Red Feathers,” but via Laguna Beach.)
But we had fun! We laughed a lot. We struggled through swimming events and mariner quizzes and then ate smores and Frito-pie, falling asleep nestled like berth-bunked sailors in four-person tents under the SoCal sky.
Because I had taken some summer sailing lessons with my dad and brother as a kid (also due to the Girl Scouts--long may they reign!), I was recruited to do the dinghy-boat obstacle course competition.
The objective was simple: launch a small sailing skiff into the calm water of the dunes, navigate it expertly around a series of buoys, and return it safely to shore.
Unfortunately, a thing called “wind” exists. Have you heard of it? It’s great in small quantities for: cooling you down in the summer, dramatically whipping through your hair on a romantic seaside bluff, or bringing you the scent of sweet flowers on the breeze.
In large quantities it is very, very bad for: wildfires started by gender-reveal parties, precariously rotted tree branches, and Girl Scout novice sailing events.
Although for two years I was able to complete this sailing event unscathed (and actually quite well), my last year did not go according to plan.
As I attempted to launch my vessel the wind fought around me angrily. I couldn’t get my dinghy to launch, the sail dipped and danced like a line-caught trout, and my wooden rudder banged back and forth rapidly as if it was emphatically shaking its head while shouting “No! No! No!”
I ended up capsizing the boat. Three times. While still waist-deep in water. In growing rain. As dozens of people watched from the shore.
I think I remember my friend Justina desperately trying to help me right the dinghy and bail out the water inside with metal camping mugs, but also the memory is hazy because I dissociated from my body as the mortification and frustration grew.
In the end, I didn’t complete the course (obvs). I came away soaking wet, dejected, and a good bit humiliated.
Oh, LIFE! What a wily, winding, wonderful, and woefully disappointing thing.
If you know me, you know that this uncomfortable space is something I talk about a lot. What do we do when life doesn’t go according to plan? When our days let us down? How do we continue on in the face of really great loss—grief bigger than an unbuoyed boat, sorrow deeper than a drowning dingy?
For me, I look around at my faltering music career, my 40-year-old life with no partner and no children and no Thanksgiving plans, so many dreams I yearned for and haven’t seen come to fruition, and I sometimes feel bereft.
I wonder whether I could have done something for the outcome to be different.
I berate myself for not trying hard enough, for not believing enough, for not pushing enough, for not “enoughing” in general. Because when you want and you try—when you have all the right abilities and tools, and you build a beautiful boat— it’s really confusing when it flounders or just plain sinks.
How can you NOT ask yourself “What did I do wrong?”
While self-reflection is good, here’s the truth: Sometimes you’ve got all the moving parts and you spend hours learning how to navigate the waters, and the wind just won’t set your ship sail. I don’t know why. Nobody knows why.
So you keep trying, and struggling with the jib, and cursing the gods of air and water, and maybe sometimes you get a sudden gust and rocket forward like a duck skimming across a pond, and then it’s—as they say it—smooth sailing from there.
But maybe sometimes you wrestle with the weather for hours and give up in sweat and frustration and just let yourself sit awhile, waiting for the tides to turn or the skies to change.
Maybe they do. Maybe they never do.
Maybe you spend days and days trying to alight your vessel but you get tired of waiting so you go inside your fishing hut and weave a basket instead. I DON’T KNOW, this metaphor is getting convoluted.
The truth is, sometimes we sink. We don’t get what we wanted, we fail, we lose jobs and love and dreams, and we feel lacking and less-than and lost.
Can the greatest triumph we have, above and beyond what we expected and didn’t do or achieve or receive, be something that ripples quietly onward?
Will the good we plunked like drops in an ocean create waves miles off? Can we struggle with our sails and still hope for that? I think we can.
In the past month, the planet lost two wonderful humans and creators.
Ian Mouser founded My Voice Music, an organization that helped kids process pain through art, and was like a kid at a candy store about his life every time I met him.
Vanessa Janss was an incredibly warm, intelligent, funny, kind, prolific creator and photographer and mom and wife and bad-ass surfer who made everyone around her feel seen, and valuable, and wanted.
Both of these amazing people touched scores of lives, gave so much of themselves to the world around them, and left this planet young—before a time that feels right or fair.
Life is hard, and can be heartbreaking, and disappointing, and devastating, and lonely. But it can be beautiful, too. And all I know is that this is my one life and I don’t want to die mad, or sad, or bitter, a traitor to the hours I have left—however many they may be.
So I’m trying to find joy in what I do have. I’m open to being surprised by success I gave up on. I’m open to finding joy in what remains if that doesn’t happen.
And when a pang of “not-enoughness” comes I’m hoping to be like my friends Nessie and Ian, who filled their days with making beautiful things for the world with steady generosity and purpose that will continue to ripple outward.
That’s all we can do, right? Just show up. Try our best. Share some good with the people around us. Just flow out with what we can, and hope it helps raise the tide for the buoying of others’ heart-boats.
When my body does finally go, here’s what I want: Tell some stories about how I kept trying, even when it was hard. And lay me out to rest at sea so I can finally know that, no matter what, I was able to set my ship sail.
THREE GOOD THINGS
I know I made a lot of jokes about being a dorky Girl Scout, but being uncool is cool man! If you’re uncool, buy yourself a t-shirt and be proud of it.
I still have a few spots left for my NOTEVEMBER project. If you’d like a handmade fortune cookie postcard sent to your abode, send your mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org
Did someone share this missive with you? Sign up to get the ANNIEGRAM for free in your inbox every Friday!