I’m reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, alongside Joan Anderson’s A Year by the Sea, after recently finishing Ann Patchett’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist novel The Dutch House.
What a twisted reading experience if there ever was one, but then again, it’s the beginning of my new life, half of me is enmeshed with retirement remorse, the other half is dare I say buoyant.
Water, treachery, and self-reflection seem to be concurrent themes running through each of the novels, and as I am a believer in serendipitous encounters, these stories have either been a fortuitous occurrence, or the worst coincidence of all time.
Regardless, I’m grateful, restless, hopeful, and a little bitchy if you must know.
After spending some time at sea myself (Fancy Like Us) I’m feeling the tidal pull for some isolation and reflective time which seems as rare as hooking a fish for the old man and the sea.
If it were up to me I would do as Hemingway describes, “his choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries of the world.” My thoughts exactly.
Instead, I settle myself by the fire in the new sitting room, my loyal dog lounging on the adjacent couch, and I bend my head to my work.
Joan Anderson says in The Year By The Sea the task of the unfinished woman is to acknowledge her life as a work in progress, allowing each passage, evolution, experience to offer wisdom for her soul.
Although I realize it is alarmingly obvious to others that I am an unfinished woman, comprehending this myself was a monumental task, and a new source of fear if I were to be totally honest, as if I forgot to floss. There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself writes Ann Patchett from The Dutch House.
That’s where I am, it’s like she is inside my head, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one juggling these thoughts, or her book would not have been such a phenomenal success.
The intersection of these three stories, all agonizing battles involving wildly different nemesis’, from a giant marlin, to an opulent mansion, and a challenging marriage, but all of these scenarios drag you towards the pleasures of sabbatical, a period of time granted to fellow sojourners to bask in activities that refresh, enliven, revitalize our weary souls. Sometimes a shower just won’t do.
I admit I’m feeling a little like Job, covered in psoriasis, assailed by doubt, confused about my current purpose in life, and we don’t have forever, because I read in chapter 14 (not that I’m obsessed or anything) that God has decided the length of our lives and we are not given a minute longer. Seems harsh.
Joan Anderson decides to spend a year at her beach house, away from her marriage, and other influences to work on her own issues. Everyone knows there is no love without respect, especially if you are married, and she decides not to follow her husband to his new job, but invest in her own future. She says something pivotal about vocations, “learning that what’s important is not so much what I do to make a living as who I become in the process.” This is as consequential as Spanx and just as confining.
Its why our veterans suffer with PTSS, when you spend your day scanning for danger in a war zone you’ll do the same in your civilian life. This applies to those of us who spend our time trying to screw the competition, acting aggressive and manipulative, that too follows you into your relationships as if a devoted dog only he’s been abused. I can’t think of many occupations that don’t demand the worst of us to be successful but imagine if we considered our vocations as formational how our relationships might benefit? Just a thought from a recent retiree who misses bossing people around. But I digress…
We tend to think of sabbatical in academic terms, as a school year free from teaching duties that can be devoted to research, travel, and writing. This is why I retired. Right? So I could have a perpetual sabbatical to pursue my passions, and I’m finding that has more to do with outlying influences, than blogging, or stalking the grandkids.
It’s not going as expected, nothing ever does and I believe that’s what makes life so interesting, maybe a little frustrating, because every waking moment (and some sleeping) is infused with unforeseeable circumstances, occasional calamity, but also fortuitous opportunities.
I’m just not prepared to deal with all of them at the same time.
Traditionally, sabbaticals are not just for scholars, it’s actually related to Sabbath, which was God’s day of rest, or the seventh day in creation. We can trace the origins of both sabbatical and Sabbath (if you’re into etymology) to the Greek word sabbaton, meaning rest.
We wrestle with the concept of rest in our culture as if our self worth is defined by how busy we are and how sleep deprived we happen to be. It’s crazy. Let me
defend define rest, it means to cease work or movement in order to relax, refresh oneself, or recover our strength. It’s about guiltless siestas, vegging out, Netflix and chill sort of thing.
Jubilee is associated with the concept of Sabbath but occurs every fifty years as if a solar eclipse, super moon, or mid-life crisis. Jubilee was created to alleviate the danger of people becoming trapped by enormous debt (both fiscal and emotional), debts they have no ability to indemnify. A Jubilee is a year of remission of not only monetary debt, but emotional debt, sins, and also the punishment due to sin. A spiritual emancipation if you will.
Let me clarify, if you are fifty years or older you are forgiven, you are freed from all debt. No one is your keeper, no one has the authority to define you by the past, to declare you unclean, to judge you according to their standards and beliefs, because God knows living under the scrutiny and judgement of others is absolute hell. He sent Jesus to rectify that dismal situation and we killed him. Our priorities are ruthlessly clear. But we are not an erroneous creation. We are declared good by God herself, called to love, and before you say it, “what about judgement?” I would suggest we pull the log out of our own eye before pointing fingers at the incy, wincy splinter in our neighbor’s peepers. It says so in the book tucked in the bedside drawer of your hotel room.
It is indeed rare that we take the time to process our feelings, they roll in and out like the tides, and seem to be at the mercy of the moon’s gravitational pull. The thing is we’re focused on our survival, which can leave us with a ton of emotional debt, and like Visa, the interest is compounded.
The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences writes Deng Ming-Dao.
Spending time alone, in solitude, allows me to actually hear my own thoughts which are usually drowned out by the noise and chatter of my busy lives. I wonder sometimes if we fear our own thoughts more than the maunder that surrounds us?
I realize I’m rambling on and on as I traipse across these radically different yet similar novels, but it’s like quicksand, I’m being sucked in.
Women are especially susceptible to this sort of latent confusion in life, because we’re taught to be polite, not to express anger so we don’t appear bitchy, to put the needs of our families before our own, discouraged from expressing pride or confidence (God forbid we trigger someone’s insecurity with our own confidence), but most damaging of all is we fail to visualize our own future until we’re standing in the kitchen with no dishes to wash, no lunches to prepare, no lives to chauffeur around but our own.
What the hell?
“We overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” Ann Patchett
The thing is no one owes me anything. I must do the work myself if I hope to get to a place where I’ve authentically identified my current purpose, goals, passions, and for once in my life without the consent, approval or influence of others.
Here’s a simple example. Let’s say I try fishing and don’t like it. Well, now I know something new about myself. I don’t need to go around carrying a bucket of worms for the rest of my life. It does not have to alter my worldview. I don’t need to resent the old man and the sea. But this is what we do, we allow negative emotions to stick with us longer than they need to. At times we can get angry and it has nothing to do with what pissed us off in the first place. It has to do with the underlying emotion that was awakened by what annoyed us because we’re still living in the past. And I think we can do better.
I realize we live in a repressive culture. One where we’re not allowed to express a different point of view or divergent opinion without getting labeled as some horrible piece of human rubbish. Christian Cintron says our culture encourages us to stay in both financial and emotional debt. Coincidence? I didn’t think so either.
We must shift this paradigm from handling our emotions in the short term to investing the time it takes to do the hard work. This can be wildly difficult, like engaging in a courageous conversation, sharing something vulnerable, actively listening to each other, talking about our feelings, being kind to one another, or giving someone the benefit of the doubt. All shockingly rare in modern society because we don’t allow ourselves time to retreat, rest, reflect, and heal.
The thing is emotional debt is not only aligned with our physical health, but our joy, and ability to love unconditionally.
“I steady my nerves, knowing the moment of high tide is just that, a brief time that will always reverse itself and diminish,” writes Joan Anderson.
We might not all have a beach house on the Cape, a fishing boat anchored in the Caribbean, or a mansion in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but we can give ourselves a break once in a while, take a drive to the coast, splash around in the surf, our future selves will thank us. As Ann Patchett says you can hold a beach ball underwater, but the second you stop, it’s going to shoot straight back up.
That’s who we are, we’re not meant to be held down, we’re created to be buoyant. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me and I’m feeling good…
I’m Living in the Gap, taking a tenable sabbatical, what would you do and where would you go?
“And, having surrendered to a simpler life, I am finding excitement in little things that others might think dull.”
― Joan Anderson
“You must always retain some part of yourself which is nobody’s business. The minute you let others in on your secrets, you’ve given away some of your strength.”
― Ann Patchett
But, then, nothing is easy.”
― Ernest Hemingway,