Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Voice of a Sailor

Two sentences into the first piece I ever read by Margie Smith I knew I loved her writing. With just a few stories in SAIL, Margie made her case as a woman who kicked over the traces of one life
—a news career in front of the TV cameras—in favor of something that's going to have to define itself, so let's get out there and make something happen.

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, "I learn by going where I have to go."

SAIL readers first met this lady while she was waiting tables and learning to sail in the BVI. Very soon she was off through the Caribbean, writing about the classics regatta at Antigua, crossing the Atlantic, exploring the Med, recrossing the Atlantic and then dashing off to replenish the kitty with a spot of work back home in Philadelphia. Which is where she was diagnosed.

Things are different now. Margie Smith's blog, Cancer is Hilarious, is no romp in the park. But she's the same writer, and yes, she can find the hilarious note in almost anything. Her reflections upon taking off when she did—and sailing a few miles and meeting a few people and having a few laughs—get served up on a seething platter of hope and fear and love of life and dire honesty and wrenching humor that not every one of you, my readers, will want to take the time to emotionally digest. For me, it's been a good investment. I've learned the term, Infusion Room, and as a cancer/chemo civilian I would not otherwise have known that wigs are marketed with names like, "the Raquel Welch."

I'm not going to represent her most personal voice here. It simply is too personal. That belongs to Margie.

But I believe she will forgive me if I excerpt a passage as to why she is glad, so glad, that she went sailing when she did. These are the thoughts of someone who got out there and did something she had dreamed of doing in the thick of life, and she's going to get back out there. Or not. What I've been reading is a life or death struggle, happening live.

I'll shut up now.

This is Margie:

It's exhausting being upbeat. But dwelling on the negative is even more work. People die from cancer, yes. They also die from heart attacks, drunk drivers and freak accidents. When people asked if I was afraid of drowning at sea while sailing across the Atlantic, I told them the odds were greater of dying in a traffic accident on the Schuylkill. To this day, I worry about meeting my demise on that expressway (maybe while driving into Center City for chemo). If nothing else, the Zen-meets-fun philosophy I’ve honed during a couple years of island life and unstructured travel has taught me not to waste precious time fretting about things I can’t change.

In the end, the questions about how you die become a lesson in how to live which, barring suicide, is the only part we have any control over anyway.

Exactly one year ago, I was in Antigua, racing in a classic boat regatta with my friend, Captain Kidd. He had been debating whether to keep sailing on toward the Pacific or do the practical thing and head home to Cape Cod, get a real job and sock away some money. One night, he announced he had decided to sail the Pacific. He said, “If I only had a year to live, that’s what I would do. That seems like a good enough reason to do it now.”

Once I was on a plane with my St. John friend, Fun Kim. We had just spent two weeks in Venice. Prior to that, I had made my first trans-Atlantic crossing, sailed around the Mediterranean with a crew from Malta and traveled solo through central Italy. Fun Kim had been sailing the Aegean and cavorting around Istanbul. Before all that, we were both living and working in the Virgin Islands. We were on our way to Palma de Mallorca to look for yachting jobs.

Security was tight as there had been a bomb scare in London. We decided to fly anyway and, while sitting there waiting for take-off, agreed that if the plane went down, well, we couldn't complain too much about how things turned out. We had done more in the previous few years than many people do in a lifetime. And we had both called our mothers to tell them we loved them.

That plane conversation happened in 2006, a full year before the summer in Spain when we saw the running of the bulls in Pamplona, sailed to the America’s Cup, and discovered the vending machine on a dock in Valencia that dispenses that coldest Heinekens on the planet for only one euro. Clearly there is more life to be lived.

I do, however, like to think I contemplated What If? three years ago when I first quit my city job and moved to paradise in search of more. There were reasons the timing was right—I was healthy, my parents were healthy, I had money in the bank and no major responsibilities—but the final motivator was, What if? What if a year (or three) from now, something happens and I’m no longer in a position to do it?

I thank God every day I did not fail to seize the moment. Having that regret would truly be haunting.