Art imitates life imitates art, at least in this life
If you are a regular reader — for which I am grateful -- you likely know that I like to link and tag other writers. In this case,
John DeVore, whose commentary on movies often strikes a responsive chord for me. This past week he wrote this piece about one of my favorite movies of all time (yes yes yes I know, the titular quote is from Braveheart, get over it).
I adore this movie, having watched it so many times I can quote most of the dialogue. However, the prompt for me this time was to watch the film differently. M&C speaks to me as a military person, a leadership trainer, and as someone who has also explored the Galapagos.
Every so often when I watch a favorite film it can act as a reminder of how my life has changed. This was one of those times.
The movie is on now in the background. The realization came as something of a surprise, if you will pardon the unintended pun on the ship’s movie name.
At one point in the movie, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, as played by Russell Crowe, stands at the top of his mast with one of his men. Above the entire ship, swaying as the mast sways, the wind in his hair. This isn’t Jack on the Titanic, standing safely at the bow, his arms outstretched and shouting that he is King of the World.
Aubrey also perches on the bowsprit at one point, but this is different. That’s tame by comparison.
This is at the very top of the main mast. That is one very long way up, ranging anywhere from 179 to 198 feet. In heavy seas, when the sails had to be secured against howling winds, climbing that high up was dangerous as hell. You’re tossed in all directions by the waves, the banshee wind is trying very hard to rip you off, and all that time you’re busy trying to bring in full, wet canvas sails, pushed by hurricane force winds and trying very, very hard to take you with them into the deep. Masts back then were wood, and could break. Did break. And in breaking, killed or maimed the sailors.
That scene is also in Master & Commander, as Lucky Jack chases the French ship Acheron around the dangerous Cape Horn, famous as the sailors’ graveyard.
While I’ve never done any serious sailing, I did have something of a similar experience. Okay okay, not through the Drake Passage. And, kindly, not during a storm. But still, my own kind of adventure.
In 2018 I was in Indonesia, taking a nine-day trip on a traditional palari ship. The ship had been kitted out for tourists, and I was along as a writer. I slept on the deck at night, dozing under the Southern Cross, and waking up at about 3 am, which is my habit.
At that time of the morning, the ship, which was also powered, would be motoring very quietly among the thousands of islands, on its way to our next stop. Everyone but the captain would be sleeping. He would likely be having coffee in the kitchen, as the craft was computerized.
One beautiful night I woke up at about 2 am. The main mast was a few feet away. We had strict instructions to stay off it. The sails were packed away for the night, the coast was clear.
I. Just. Hadda. You know?
What the hey, right? We were too far from the shore for anyone to see, the captain was having his caffeine. Maybe napping.
I stripped all my clothing off and shimmied up the mains’l, hanging tightly to the ladder as the gentle swells rocked me back and forth.
I weigh about 125 or so, which for a ship this size isn’t much. At the crow’s nest I locked in my legs and toes, and leaned out into the breezes, reveling in how the touch of the moving air caressed my breasts, my belly, like the most gentle of lovers.
Below me the sweet swells of the Java Sea rocked the ship. We moved almost soundlessly, the waves licking the hull as we slid towards yet another beach in the distance. It would be hours before sunrise.
I was 65, naked as a jaybird, hanging my altogether out into the warm Indonesian night, my long hair loose and flying, the Southern Cross and the Milky Way my sole companions, but for a few curious gulls.
I guess that would make me one of the gulls.
I stayed that way until my legs cramped, the pre-dawn winds picking up just enough to get chilly, even in that part of the world. Sated with the adventure, I crawled back under my blanket. Giggling.
I would do that several more times before we put in at the end of the trip.
Never told anyone until now, but for my dearest friends. Who of course know me well enough to not be at all surprised. Kindly note, I am no sailor, and this was the first time I set foot on a sailing ship like this. That’s half the fun.
So when I see Lucky Jack perched precariously at the top of a nearly two-hundred foot mast of the Surprise, I giggle again.
As I watched Master & Commander today, three years later, I was reminded of those nights swaying at the top of the mast. It would be hard to describe the sense of freedom, being utterly at ease that high up above a moving ship, not a stitch on. Had the crew found me, what are they gonna do, right?
Crazy old woman.
Damned right, crazy old woman.
Here’s the piece, and there are several parts to this.
I believe in pushing your boundaries, whatever they may be. But I also believe in training for it. As an athlete, I work hard on my upper body strength, agility and endurance. I take chances but I do not take chances which are clearly beyond my capacity. That is the very definition of stupid.
The other piece of this is if others are involved. It’s one thing to take chances with your own body, life and future. It’s another to endanger others. Perhaps this is the military veteran in me, but the awareness of “other” is critical. I am happy to do some damned fool thing as long as I am the only one to pay the price if it goes awry.
As today is Mother’s Day, I tip my hat to my mother, whose ashes joined our collective Mother a few years back. At her request, I sprinkled them onto a lovely lake which decorates the highest paved road in America, up Mt. Evans, Colorado.
During the final years of her long life, which ended the night she went to bed laughing at having read dirty limericks over the phone to her then-boyfriend, she would accuse me of having a “death wish” when I learned to skydive. When I traveled to Africa. You get it.
Yet, she ached to have done the same thing. As she aged, and macular degeneration took her eyesight so that the idea of walking across a room became threatening, she began to interpret the world as an increasing threat. Perfectly understandable.
Yet so many of us with perfect sight, relative youth and largely healthy bodies are far more fearful than my mother ever was.
Here is how I see this. You and I are alive, at least you are if you’re reading this. I am because I am writing it. How you live, the various ways you choose to fill your time, the chances you’re willing to risk to expand your boundaries are very much up to you.
This past year under quarantine, like many, I had to forfeit, for the time being, what I most loved: adventure travel. That is my thing. It is most definitely NOT everyone’s thing, or else those places I head to would be overrun. I do not in any way, shape or form expect you, Dear Reader, to do what I do or be driven by whatever drives me.
More so, this is an invitation.
So very many of us have had to face off with our aging faces, our sequestered selves, and ask some hard damned questions. What kind of life have I lived? What kind of life is even going to be available after this initial pass of the pandemic passes over? Pandemics will be with us from now on, guaranteed.
I have read umpteen articles that focus on weight gain, wrinkles that populated overnight, stress fractures in our hearts.
I have not read much about how this past year under quarantine might have taught us about life. Being in it fully. Appreciating the time we are given, as opposed to gauging our value based on what’s bulging over our belt buckles or the additional lines and grey hairs we now sport.
Not a single bit of that has anything to do with the quality of our time, such as it is. Such as we can make it, given the resources we have and the options we can create.
Most aging women- or women in general- I know wouldn’t be so foolish as to shimmy up a mains’l naked at 2 am, and hang her boobies out on the breeze.
I’d be far more disappointed if I hadn’t.
To that, my favorite YouTube of all time:
I simply adore this video, for it speaks to the powerful beating heart of my forever message to Dear Reader:
Dear god, LIVE while you still can. LIVE in the fullest possible way while you have the time.
My exhortations about health have far less to do with having badass biceps and everything to do with having options as you and I age. At some point, as we get older, we realize that wasting all that time and money on our weight, our looks, our skincare, whatever the hell was ultimately meaningless.
What isn’t meaningless is how much untrammeled joy you and I are willing to cram into the tiny, truncated spark that is a human life.
As for those folks who fire ugly spitballs to me about how lucky I am:
I am NOT rich. The only way I’ve been able to cobble together these trips is because I have skills the operator wants to use. Otherwise I’d be dreaming about adventure from my couch.
But I found a way.
It is remarkable how you and I can carve a way forward when something means enough to us.
The shape I am in is NOT a lucky happenstance. I’ve been obese, I’ve been so anorexic I nearly died, I have had horrific accidents and some health issues. I am a hemophiliac, I have Reynaud’s, and any number of issues that many of my friends have flatly stated would have prevented them from doing half of what I do.
To that: people with Reynaud’s don’t do well in the cold. I have climbed two huge mountains in Africa and I also did the Everest Base Camp climb, which was topped off with a three-day blizzard.
As a bleeder, I could die from internal bleeding from an accident. I’ve been thrown from a horse at speed, smashed up in Class V rapids, and done an ass-over-teakettle down concrete steps.
I go anyway. I do the sports anyway. I take the chances anyway.
I could choose to let limitations put me in jail. Or I can do the due diligence, take the proper precautions,
and bloody well go do it anyway.
That’s not lucky. That’s just focused, determined and deciding to be fully in life on my own terms,which is what I most passionately want for us all.
“Lucky” Jack gets hurt, he gets a sword in the belly, nearly loses his best friend to a gunshot wound, damned near loses his ship to the enemy on two occasions, and suffers the loss of many men. Yet, his exemplary seamanship, his wiles, his dedication to his crew, friends and country win out. It’s hard work, dedication, determination, and loyalty. He takes chances, because he banks on his instincts. He also turns back when he knows he must.
Jack Aubrey, the hero of Patrick O’Brian’s series, is flawed, funny, smart, dedicated. But he makes his luck just as he makes his life, which is one reason why his crew loves him.
If you and I want to be lucky enough to live a full life, we might take this past year as deep motivation to redefine how we choose to spend our time. What I have and the life I lead were not given me. I carved them out of what was available. No trust fund, no rich hubby, no nothing. That is why I am fond of saying “do the work.”
The work to be healthy, vibrant and strong. The work to have skills that will serve you and others. The work to engage fully, take risks, pay the prices and not bitch and moan about what you and I are “owed.”
You and I were given the single most unbelievable gift from the person we honor today: our mothers gave us life.
And while I absolutely acknowledge that color, culture, caste and a great many other factors play a part in this, this article isn’t about that. It’s about choosing to live as full a life as we can, on the best terms we can negotiate, in the limited time we have.
The best gift you and I can give our mothers, living or passed, is to live to the fullest. So far, 3.28 million people have had their lives cut short by Covid, to say nothing of all other causes. Another day isn’t guaranteed. Being rich doesn’t keep us alive. We just die in a nicer room with more expensive help hovering around us.
What is indeed guaranteed is that you can, should you choose, learn to be grateful, and learn to fill the time we have with what fills us and those around us with joy. You can watch movies about others who have interesting lives or you can find a way to put the remote down and go live your version of an interesting life. To that, then:
I’m plotting a return to Africa. Albania is on the list. So is Bulgaria. There are forests to trek, mountains to climb, kayaks to paddle, horses to ride.
And tall masts to climb, from which to wave my aging boobs in the breezes.