LIVING IN AND BEYOND THE WORLD
by L. S. Hope
Truthfully, there are things I miss about living in the world.
If I lived in the world, I would go to natural history museums. I would visit art galleries. I would buy Stilton cheese and real, crisp rye pain de campagne with salted butter. I would drink thick Italian espresso and revel, still and silent, in the delightful anonymous solitude that a bustling city affords. I would do several things I have been meaning to do for a decade or so now; I would probably find a good psychiatrist.
Sometimes I even miss wearing clothes. In my youth I dressed myself decoratively and with such pleasure, from the marvellous piled emporiums of Goodwill and St Vincent de Paul – thick soft scarves and hats and a big blue leather trenchcoat; my tight brown slacks and that wispy white and green blouse that made me look like a tree. I wore miniskirts and checkered stockings and black eyeliner; I dyed my hair ebony. I was pretty in those days, and I liked to show off my long legs.
I miss the second-hand bookstores. There was a treasure cache near Lygon St, an Aladdin’s cave of books that stretched on and on, around narrow corners and into deep grottos, every wall lined to the ceiling. I spent hours, and a good portion of my bartending wages here.
I remember my early youth in the city. I was emancipated and aflame with passion – for ideas, for books, for beautiful things. Although it was almost always overcast, most of my recollections are inexplicably lit by pale, warm shafts of gold as the sun set behind the dark granite bricks of Carlton’s meandering back lanes. I was a social creature in those days – I had passionate affairs and deep, fervent friendships with kindred souls. I felt deeply connected and secure in my role as a human being, and the colourful bustle of the hive around me was pleasantly reassuring.
I am no longer certain, when I recall these poignant gold-hued days, if it is the world that I miss, or simply my own youth.
It was my partner C. who coined the term. Sometimes we look up from a distressing headline or an inane youtube comment upon which our glance has accidentally fallen and say: My god. I’m Glad I Don’t Live In The World. We visit relatives out in the world every year, and ask them what has been happening. A friend thought it was hilarious recently that she had to explain to me what F.OM.O. stood for. Gluten free water? Selfie-sticks? Driverless cars? They chuckle at our surprise, and I laugh, too: I guess I live under a rock.
The truth is almost the opposite, really – we do not live under a rock, but on a sailboat. We bought her not long ago, after several years of living in the remote islands of the Indo Pacific, where we work. We plan to sail between our employment contracts now; we hope to idle about the extended Malay archipelago, mostly, when we are between contracts. We possess no television (although we are admittedly chronically addicted to the internet). Thevast, distantrealm of the world as we refer to it is a term which has sprung up in the private language of our intimacy, as such expressions do amongst all couples. It does not connote any implication that the remote islands of the Indo-Pacific where we live are not a valid portion of the planet. We simply refer to a world in which we no longer belong. The world of modern western culture in general; the world from which our families respectively hail, Canada and Australia; that wide, marvellous and frightening place that C. likes to call the Excited States Of America. It refers to the world of cable television, suburban strip malls and traffic on the freeway. It is also, of course, the world of art galleries, bookstores, espresso coffee and kindred communities. In any case, the world appears to be rolling on without me.
We live, much of the time, in simple solitude on our girl, our beautiful, second hand, paint-peeling tank of a sailboat. She is white, and rather chalky in some places, with a navy blue triangular stripe on her hulls. On a gentle tack, as the sun sets behind her broad canvas sails, the breeze rushes up through her creaking trampoline nets. I love to sprawl on these, my head resting on my folded forearms, watching the water roll and churn beneath me. On hot nights in sheltered anchorages, these nets are the perfect place to watch the stars, as cool air wafts up from the sea below.
Our shower is a garden hose on the back deck; I like to bathe in the open air, watching the sea eagles swoop overhead as I soap myself, listening the tremor of the baitfish flashing across the surface. We neither possess nor require hot running water. The climate in this part of the world precludes the necessity for clothing, and we rarely bother with it when there are no other people around. I like to potter about the deck wearing only my sunhat, flecks of cool water drying on my skin in the breeze. My figure is perhaps not quite so trim and gracile as it once was, when I revelled in adorning it with clothes; my hair is the mousy color I was born with, flecked with grey now and frizzled by the sun. I haven’t worn make-up in years.
Our on board refrigerator is cavernous beyond our wildest dreams; all in all we probably have around two square feet of cold space which fluctuates between frozen solid and a dank, limp-vegetable temperature. We had assumed that we would forgo this luxury, having lived without refrigeration on a previous sailing odysseys, and the ice box the previous owner installed was an unexpected surprise. Regrettably, good European cheese is a rare commodity in this part of the world; in any case it does not keep well in our temperamental marine chiller.
C. revels in the fact that we live so far away from the world – that brightly lit world of SUVs and daytime reality television and wide supermarket aisles lined with myriad superfluous variations of sugary cereal. He grew up on a farm, way out in the woods near the eastern coast of Canada; he spent his childhood romping through pine forests, building forts, and falling out of trees. I share his revulsions for the shopping malls and the traffic, but I cannot share his abhorrence for cities. I had a wonderful time, when I was young and lived in the world.
It is not my intention to preach our present lifestyle as superior, or suited to everyone. We use very few resources. We burn diesel when there is no wind to fill the sails but for the most part, our solar panels are more than sufficient for our needs. However, we are also contributing very little, in the long run – to people less fortunate than us, to the various contemporary social and global concerns that our treasured wifi connection remind us are rife, out there in the world. Neither of us are eligible to vote in the countries of our citizenship – we have held residence overseas for so long.
Of course we maintain some connection to the world, along the channels we most value. C., an enthusiastic amateur luthier, hunches eagerly over the instructional online videos of various violin makers and music teachers. I treasure my kindle beyond all other possessions. I carry a spare with me, still in its original box and packaging, wherever we go; in the unthinkable event that my current kindle fails, I know I can retrieve all my books, stored in my online account, in an instant. (It is perfectly true that we marvel and delight in the world that produced this splendid technology).
The close friends that remain to me are those who love to write; penpals might be a more accurate term, although this label scarcely does justice to the multipage tomes we send to each other. My friendships mostly exist through email, these days. I am a confirmed introvert and solitude is a difficult habit to break, the more one becomes accustomed to it. For the duration of our last island property contract, I was warily courteous to a fellow co-worker; I warmed to her, in my slow and undemonstrative fashion, more and more as I got to know her. After twenty four months, when our contract was up, I was quite sure that I liked and admired her very much. Fortunately, she too greatly enjoys the written word, and our friendship has flourished since I left, far deeper and more expressive than it ever was when we lived in the same place. I know more about her, and she knows far more about me, from the online letters we regularly write. Perhaps I ought to have seized upon the chance to get to know her better when we lived in the same place and saw each other every day, but I cannot help observing that I find it so very much easier to relate to people through the written word than to converse in person. Even if I were to return to the world, to become connected with a like-minded community, I will never be the vibrant life of the cocktail party. I have grown accustomed to solitude; I like it.
There are moments when I regret my absence from the world, and moments when I feel guilty at my lack of societal participation. There are a good many things and bookstores and people and cheeses that I love, out there in the world. My short, infrequent visits back there are a great pleasure to me.
But I harbour no fear of missing out. Deep down I know that I have finally found my place, for the time being, out here on the water. I was a reluctant, anxious convert to the sailing life; I remain anxious, much of the time. Sometimes I am downright terrified. I would never, ever have agreed to the purchase and our permanent residence on our sailboat if it had not been for C. It was he who persuaded me to undertake the seven month sailing odyssey, on a friends boat, through the Pacific and into Indonesia. It was the first time I had ever lived aboard a small water craft; it was a journey that decided my fate and ultimately changed my life.
And now, there is simply no question of turning back – it’s too late. Life at sea simply gave me too many wonderful and beautiful things that I know I might never have encountered otherwise.
We saw stark islets, glittering in the sun like gems thrust up from the sea, a thousand miles from any other appreciative human witness. One night as we sailed across the Solomon Sea, a damp-feathered booby circled the boat before perching himself on the solar panel beside my seat in the cockpit. He lifted and shuffled his rubbery feet on the smooth glass; he blinked in companionable exhaustion. The boat lilted and soared on in the darkness, with sails set; he kept his balance, and stayed with me, for hours.
Off the coast of the Louisiades, a lone minke whale lingered with us for a time, lumbering in circles around the boat. I swam with him, or rather I allowed myself to become a spectacle for him; I floundered in the infinite cloudy blue chasm beneath the boat and he orbited me, gliding gracefully.
Once, here at a breezy island anchorage, I woke and looked up through the open hatch. The first sight my eyes drank in was a pair of russet colored sparrows, perched on the rails, framed in a square of pinkish blue pre dawn sky. Their twittering must have woken me.
I am far from the people with whom I have intimate friendships, but I have met people on our sailing travels whom I will never, ever forget.
On a tiny far flung atoll far north of Vanuatu, a tall man thrust his arms out to us, enraptured – Welcome! Welcome! He lined his wife and daughters up on the chicken scratched earth in front of their reed hut and sang us a song. He had written the song himself, he told me, in honour of this rare delight, a visitor. He hoped I didn’t mind, but he did not know how to write music, so he used the tune of a song he already knew. Wel-come to iiiisland home, You are now our family now – his wife and girls, clad in ruffled mother hubbard dresses, chirruped along as the man held the pencilled lyrics on a crumpled piece of exercise paper in front of them. They sang to the tune of God Save The Queen. Later, he led us beyond the hut, around the point, to the thunderous cliff of falling water; thick wafts of mist rose from the falls and the constant spray had blanketed the surrounding cliffs with luxuriant damp green foliage. We bathed in our clothes, soaped and ecstatic, and the sound of our laughter was swallowed in the deafening thunder of the cascade; we pummelled ourselves clean beneath the magnificent torrent.
In the Solomon Islands, a handsome man with a sparse beard and broad muscular shoulders approached us in a tiny dugout canoe. He lingered at the bow, without speaking a word. A small boy sucking his finger, naked and wide eyed clung to his muscular knee. Hello. Hello. The man did not want anything from us, he explained gently, and he had nothing to trade; he had merely seen us and brought his young son out for a closer look. He hoisted the boy onto his knee affectionately. The boy brushed his fingers along the side of the smooth fiberlgass. The man politely ignored us now, and they lingered, silent and fascinated around our floating home, as though beholding an alien craft from another planet.
In Papua New Guinea, a wild man hollered down the open hatches as we lay slumbering at anchor early one morning – Ahoy! This wiry gray-haired eccentric Australian had lived out in the remote stretches of the Papuan coast for years; visitors were a rare treat. He took us officiously under his wing; this was the bus to take, and this the best place for canned provisions; we must check in with the harbourmaster by going here and then taking another bus – no matter, he would take us himself. We returned to his tug boat Barbarian and he took us scuba diving in the adjacent bay littered with war wrecks. We spent days, ecstatic and entranced, exploring the sunken remnants – overturned fighter airplanes and cavernous troop carriers, still and covered in silt. From the crevices of these rusting monuments skittish cardinal-fish regarded us with alarm and moray eels twisted indifferently along their way. The holds of the wrecks were riddled with ammunition shells and bottles and, here and there, human bones.
It was only by living on a sail boat, far away from the world that I learned to truly appreciate scarcity. After weeks of rice and canned food and the slapdash meals of long passages, the sight of fresh vegetables in a village market gripped me with a delight I had never felt before, for food of any sort. Red, plump tomatoes piled in pyramids of five on a lime-green plastic soup plate; stacks of purple ubi potatoes in palm thatch woven baskets; a tray of green mangoes with the sacrificial sample baring its luscious orange flesh atop the pile; the ruffled bouquet of dark green spinach leaves – all of it gloriously fresh. After weeks since our last provisioning, I would fairly swoon upon such treasures.
Living on a sail boat has afforded me the chance to scuba dive some of the most
spectacular and untouched reefs on the planet, thousands of miles from anywhere; it has taken me to thick-vined jungle islands where I tripped and fumbled my way, binoculars thrust up at my face, in pursuit of some of the rarest and most beautiful birds in the world. It has introduced me to another world of stark, unforgiving natural beauty. It has introduced me to remote communities of island souls whose society cannot match the frenetic pace at which the world of my colloquial expression seems to be constantly accelerating, but who emanate an otherworldly charm and eccentricity born from their very isolation which I love, deeply. Such souls have shown me incomparable kindness and conveyed to me a sense of welcome which is scarcely translatable to the world from which I hailed.
Everywhere I turn, I behold the constant, endless line of the horizon, a vast plain of blue unmarred by human presence. It reminds me of all that I possess within myself; of the fact that I am capable of things that terrify me. Sailing at night, which still holds for a novice like myself a good deal of attendant terrors, reminds me of the words of the thirteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart that I read long ago, in a musty meandering bookstore:
What is this darkness?
What is its name?
Call it: an aptitude for sensitivity.
Call it: a rich sensitivity that will make you whole.
Call it: your potential for vulnerability.
I am vulnerable outside the protective hive of the world from which I hail in a manner that I’m not entirely sure C. is, or understands. I am vulnerable out here to the elements, to the wind and the waves. More than one occasion has found me hugging my knees to my chest and crying in the cockpit, an absurd childish tantrum of irrational fright, as the wind whistles through the boom, the waves crash on the hulls and the mast creaks. C., exuberant and delighted at the sporty sail turns to regard me and frowns, dumbstruck and baffled. Sometimes, in my furious terror, I feel the compulsion to slap his joyful, clueless, fearless face hard, or perhaps shake him by the shoulders; I’m scared, you idiot. But he just shrugs and chuckles, with affectionate exasperation. He makes me to the helm and internally I shake myself, hard. It turns out I can, in fact, do it.
Living far from the world has allowed me to discover what lies within me, bare and unfettered by the old refuges I sought – the noisy, thoughtless, well-meaning affirmations that my hyper-absorbent ego craved, the raucous solicitation to participate in a prescribed fashion that was well within the boundaries of my own comfort. It has allowed me to realise what I am capable of. It has been one of the most important and valuable lessons of my life.
It is not out of the question that I might return to the world, someday – I should not be sorry to find myself there. I will wrap myself in colourful shawls and idle through the corridors of high ceilinged galleries; I will languish amongst musty stacks of yellowing paper in the second-hand bookstores. But for now, I could not possibly feel that I am missing out. For the time being I remain enraptured, painfully stretched, overwhelmed and delighted by this wide sky and the empty horizon. I am quite sure the world can wait.
About the Author:
L.S. Hope lives and works on tropical islands in the remotest reaches of Asia Pacific, managing resorts. Her work allows her access to some of the most beautiful scenes of natural spectacle and some of the most eccentric, colourful characters one could ever hope to encounter in a lifetime. She is an ardent scuba diver, an appalling housekeeper, and – at the time of writing – still a rather middling sailor. L. S. Hope has published articles in Better Mental Health magazine, and photography in DiveLog Magazine.