Thursday, November 20, 2014

The End, Otherwise Known As The Beginning

On a recent trip back to Canada, I was on my way home from wherever I’d been wandering, and I decided to stroll through the Public Gardens off Spring Garden Road. I exited through the old wrought-iron gate that drops you out onto Sackville Street, across from the CBC Radio-Canada building.  I thought a lot about opportunities I had lost in recent years, including the maybe-sorta if-you-lived-here offer from CBC two years ago, following my interview on Weekend Mornings. At the time, I was still married and living in Miami, and I thought if things had been different, that it would have been a tremendous opportunity to work for Canada’s most respected broadcaster.  We all risk losing wonderful opportunities when we hold on too long to what we may already know is not right for us.   

Walking out of the park that day, I felt a pang in my heart, and asked myself why it had taken me too long to see, and so long to get out of that relationship, and what I’d lost by being so haphazard in my decision-making throughout life.

Many circumstances during my most recent trip amounted to a final decision for me; that I would sail my boat home in the Spring.  I’m perhaps famous for deciding on a road to follow, reasons for which I probably possess at least momentarily, but then quickly forget, then end up  following through with, more-less blindfolded.  That hasn’t always worked out so well for me, but I’m no longer sure that I know any other way to live. What other instructions are there to follow, but intuition, right or wrong, telling you this is where you belong, if only for a while?

As I prepare to sail home, it doesn’t feel like anything is about to change. Every day feels like the other, aside from a slightly increasing stress of bringing everything together by my self-imposed deadline.  It’s all very reminiscent of my departure for Cuba seven years ago.  Some days it can feel like you’re going nowhere, and the tedium of mediocre repetitive days leave you with the impression that you’ve accomplished nothing.  But, when I sum up the last 7 years, I’m able to reassure myself that I have packed in some life experience; some of it good, some of it horrific, and others are moments of absolute bliss that I wouldn't trade for any amount of comfort and certainty of an ordinary life. 

But, I know myself, I have all but stalled-out here in Miami.

As a good friend recently helped me see, not everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.  I’ve spent a lot of my heart on people in whom I thought I could see more, only to learn it was never there; it was just a projection of my own hope, for both them, and for myself.   Right now, I feel like it has been a lot of wasted time.  But someday, I am sure, I will see a greater value in my treading water in Miami for as long as I have. There’s a reason, and whatever that reason is, it has led me to a new beginning.

The Miami River will soon be in the rear-view mirror, and along with it, past hopes of what I once thought would have, could have, been a good life.

A good life still awaits… anywhere but here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Timing is of the Essence

While out rowing the other evening on the Miami River, a couple of familiar fisherman, older Spanish gentlemen, sat in their usual perches on a dead-end road, casting their lines and hooks out into the river.  As I got closer, they began to shout and make gestures, trying to point out something in the water. Neither of them spoke English, and their gestures confused me. Each of them stood with an arm extended on front of them, making a snake-like motion. A python? I know they’ve been taking over the Everglades at an alarming rate, and are often found in surrounding canals and rivers. I scanned the opposite side of the river where they were pointing, and saw nothing. I figured they must have meant a dolphin, manatee, or something else common, and so I shrugged my shoulders at them, and with my best attempt at sign language, tried to tell them I didn’t see what they were seeing, and I continued to row.

And then I spotted him. The fishermen had been saying "caimán”.

It was the first time in months that I’d taken my good camera with me along for my evening row, so timing was perfect. I rowed closer, for a better photo and an adrenaline rush. At first, he held his ground, before turning his tail to me and slipping away.  I followed him, until I saw he was slowing down, and as he turned his head to see what I was up to,  I stopped and drifted to get a few photos.  He spotted a Santeria sacrifice, a rotting bloated chicken, and swallowed it in three gulps, his eyes rolling back in his head in supreme satisfaction. I know, gross.

I rowed a little closer as he glided away, until again, he stopped, calculating whether or not I was a threat.  I stopped, took more pictures, and waited for him to lose interest so I could get a little closer.  When he started off again, I rowed towards him, when he suddenly whipped around and made a bee-line for me, with terrifying gusto. Just at that moment, a young boy, who I hadn’t even noticed was there, shouted from the dock behind me, “LADY! YOU’VE GOTTEN TOO CLOSE!!!!”   

The timing of his holler left me with the feeling that everything was about to culminate in an overturned boat, and me in the alligator’s jaws, being rolled to a death-by-drowning not far from my own front doorsteps.

As I sat there trying to decide whether it would be smarter to go with the flow, so to speak, and hope the river’s current would take me away from him, or stick my oar back in the water (giving him something to grab onto) to steer away, the current pulled me toward him, and I felt him brush along the edge of the dinghy, before he retreated below the surface.  Then, all became silent. I sat, frozen, knees slightly buckling, waiting for something to happen, waiting for him to surface. I looked at the little boy watching from the dock. His eyes were fixated on the water around me.

“Do you see him?” I asked.

“Nope, he’s hiding now. That was stupid to get so close to him, Lady.” 


But some of life’s greatest moments are simply the result of being in the right place, at the right time.

Of all the contributing factors that bring us to such moments, whether with nature, or our personal relationships, or a personal achievement, I have come to believe that no combination of positive factors can overcome the effects of bad timing. You can be an amateur photographer, and catch a great shot as a result of good timing. Conversely, bad timing can turn otherwise perfectly good efforts and intentions into something forever unattainable.

Of all the little things that can effectually change the course of a life, being in the right place at the right time is sometimes just a result of being in the mood to get out of your pajamas on a given morning. Life is fickle.

After three weeks in Halifax reconnecting with family and old friends, sailing the RNSYS Wednesday night race, taking in Jazzfest on the waterfront, attempting to surf with my brother and his family at Martinique, my now-traditional wine and lunch with Peter at the Royal Artillery, my first swing dance lesson (!), hiking and getting left behind for the coyotes (thanks, Ian), proudly completing a 50 km bike ride to Lawrencetown with Cheryl, camping on the South Shore, being home for Canada Day for the first time in years, randomly bumping into old friends at the Farmers Market (nice to see you, Michael), listening to the bartender tell creepy ghost stories of the little girl who haunts Henry House, a Bluenose II crew reunion (along with other fine young sailors) at The Old Triangle and finishing out the night in true Scotian-sailor style at the Middle Deck… and sushi, sushi, and more sushi, watching Ross dance during a Gypsophilia performance (holy cow you have to see that guy dance!) and an unforgettable evening on the pier by the HMCS Sackville with the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, I have predictably come back to Miami suffering from a touch of post-time-of-my-life depression. I feel like I did more living in the last 3 weeks than I’d done in my 3 years of marriage. I desperately want to relive every single moment of those three weeks, and make some of those moments last a little longer, or never end at all. 

When Halifax sends me notification that it has canceled winter, I’ll gladly get my little ship ready for a voyage north, and put out a call for crew. Until then, I’ll take Miami as it is. Yes, even its summer.

While on one hand I have sometimes felt like life is infinite and everything that happens will somehow have an opportunity to come around again, in reality, each precious moment is singular, and should be treasured. I’m learning to avoid putting off experiences, assuming I can have that experience again later when I feel ready, when in reality, that moment may only have a single shot at existence. Yes, in other words, I’m learning to live in the moment.

Timing may not be right, but it may be the only time you’ll have.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

If Not Now, Then When?

I arrived to park under the 27th Avenue drawbridge, as an old man, holding a bouquet of flowers he appeared to have picked from the curbside, wandered under the bridge, looking lost, with sparkling blue eyes that I haven’t seen in a Spanish man since I’d sailed to Cuba.  I parked my car, then walked over and asked if I could help him with anything.
He turned around and sat down on the stack of 6” x 6” ‘s that sat beside the bridge’s spare drums of hydraulic fluid. He looked confused as his eyes wandered from the ground, then to the steps, then to the underside of the bridge. He was wearing a name-tag, with his name, Pedro, and the name of the medical facility I thought he might have wandered from.

“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked him.

“17th Street. It’s where I live. I’m going home.”

He spoke broken English, which was further exacerbated by the fact he had no teeth.

I asked if I could help him home.

“No, no, thank you. I will be fine.”

Then he extended his hands, full of the local flowers that I should know by now, but I don’t. I honestly didn’t know what to do at first. After helping care for my grandmother with Alzheimer’s for five years, my first thought was that he’d picked those flowers for his wife, whom he’d probably lost years ago.  On first instinct, I didn’t want to take them, but I didn’t know what to say. 

I hesitated a little too long, and so he dropped them on the ground.

I quickly gathered them up, and said, “Thank-you, they’re beautiful… can I call someone for you?”

He sighed, and said no. He knew where he was going. 

He started walking towards the gate, and I said, “I’ll walk you home, it’s not far,” and again he said no, he was just fine. Before turning to walk up the grassy ledge that lines the east side of 27th Avenue Bridge, he turned around and said, with confidence, “I’m going home”.


It will be one year next week that I withdrew from a relationship that was doing neither one of us any favours.  I remember, initially, one of my fears of leaving was the feeling of having wasted so much time. I somehow felt that by leaving, I would lose the handful of good memories that we had made during our 4 years together; that they would be rendered meaningless.  Now that I’m out, I can’t understand how I once felt that way.  Staying together would not have changed what we already shared; staying together was not the solution. Those memories will linger either way, and each and every one had their place in our story while we were together.

It’s funny, the careless little phrases others may say in passing to us; words we cling to that come to define our thoughts.  If we only knew their motives, we might feel better about ourselves; or know where we stood with those who said them.  We all come from a unique history, and cannot ever judge another, or allow ourselves to be judged, by how we might interpret someone else’s words or actions. The way we interpret what others share with us can be a reflection of how we feel about ourselves, or be a result of our own personal experiences thus far in life.  Someone else might have taken those flowers from Pedro’s hands, before they fell to the ground.

My new mantra, in regards to many aspects of my life, has become if not now, then when? I’ve put off dozens of boat projects all winter, telling myself I’ll get to it tomorrow.  But knowing my personal happiness is hampered when I feel trapped, I decided to bite the bullet with the essentials (fuel tank, check!) and was actually able to leave the dock last weekend for the first time since my divorce.  With a new tank to replace the dirty one, I hoped things would go smoothly. They didn’t entirely, but I have no complaints about the outcome. Anchored out for a couple days, I made a few new friends, and I think received a bit of clarity on others. 

Motoring back up the river Sunday night, I looked ahead to a setting red sun, perfectly centered between the spans of 17th Avenue Bridge.  As the sun was sinking and the spans were rising, the world fell silent for a moment. Time stood still. Whether it’s out of love of the river, the one thing that has kept me in Miami this long despite all my personal circumstance, or apprehension of leaving a place I’ve spent more time in than anywhere else since high school, or fear of starting over alone... I’ve found myself not wanting to go. I have plenty of reasons to leave this city, and fewer to stay.

But it comes down to a question of quality, not quantity.

I have stopped thinking about what might have been had things worked out with my marriage.  I’ve been forcing myself to spend time alone, if only to prove that I will be okay alone, if that’s how my future is written.   I have, with no small effort, let go of the anger, the frustration, and the disbelief of the dishonesty that my marriage was based on.  In the process, I feel in some ways that I’m back to where I started when I first met him, aside from the fact that I am now too old to romantically die young. While life is decidedly more worthwhile when you have someone to share it with, and cooking for one is just not worth the dishes it generates, going it alone is still preferable to being in a bad marriage. 

Life goes on.  Everything is so temporary, and life is all too short.  We might all be surprised at how quickly we could become that gentleman under the bridge, with a handful of flowers and no one to give them to, just trying to find our way home.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Auld Lang Syne

Every Christmas that I anticipate having to spend alone, I have, throughout the last 15 years, made it a point to at least try to make it memorable. 
Stirling, Scotland in Winter

There was Christmas morning in Stirling, Scotland. Shortly after sunrise, I bundled myself up and made my way through the ancient cemetery at the top of the town, and walked the trail around Stirling Castle. A thin veil of freshly fallen snow blanketed the entire landscape, with mountains towering to the north, rolling hills to the south, and a valley that stretched 30 miles westward to Loch Lomond.  The sky was cloudless, the wind was calm, the sun was painfully bright, and the town was silent.  I felt utterly alone. And happy.

Ski pole Christmas Tree
Other years that I’ve spent in temporary hometowns or in transit, I have had the good fortune to be in the company of a friend or two.  From pina coladas on the beach with Katie in St Lucia, to sipping cappuccinos and savoring chocolate croissants with Justine in St Augustine, Florida, to opening presents with roommates beside a Christmas tree composed of ski poles in Squamish, B.C., to working the nightshift on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the forecasting office in desolate, treeless, windswept Newfoundland. 

Oops, backup. This just turned into a bad trip.

This Christmas was a far cry from the ice and snow of that bitterly-cold Newfoundland morning 4 years ago.  Now in south Florida, cheerfully divorced, I loaded up my Beetle with my tent, kayak, street dog, and 4 days worth of camping supplies, and aimed for Flamingo campground in Everglades National Park, about 40 miles from the entrance to the park, and from the edge of civilization. 

Shark River Slough
Upon arrival, the rangers recommended the wide-open area where the grass was shorter and the wind was less hindered, both attributes that would hopefully mean fewer mosquitos.  I had already become aware that driving at less than 20 mph resulted in a steady flow of mosquitos into the car. The mosquito level was listed as ‘Moderate’ at the entrance to the park.  If that was moderate, I wouldn’t want to be there when it was high. 

As I drove around trying to decide where I’d set up my tent, the first camper I met was Spence, a long-haired hippie who loved to talk. “Woah, dude! That’s one awesome car, dude! When I lived in California everyone had one of these cars. Merry Christmas! Look at that heron! How beautiful is this place! Oh your dog is cute what’s his name? My mom always loved Christmas…”

I knew if I set up camp here I would not be lonely for Christmas.  I turned the key, pulled the parking
Scotty guarding picnic table.
brake, and began to disassemble my carefully loaded cargo while listening to Spence’s life story.

I had arrived around noon and Spence was already well along on his ride aboard the Beer Express. He was as helpful as he was apologetic as he offered to help me carry my gear in to my camp spot, and to help lift my kayak off the roof of my car, all the while acknowledging that he had no doubt that I could do it myself, and was sorry for offering, and hoped I wasn’t insulted by his chivalry.

Paddling up to Coot Bay.
While I was moving my gear, a decent-sized squall had been developing and was now watching from the sidelines until it knew I was ready to pitch my tent. When I dropped my tent from it’s bag and the downpour began, a cowboy (a real-life cowboy, hat and everything!) named Brendon ran over to help me set it up, which we did in record time, completing just as the sun came out again.
Kayaking is exhausting.

 Turning my thoughts to kayaking, I took a stroll over to a nearby beach to assess the launching capabilities from the location. It was more mud than sand, but I decided it would be manageable, though messy.  I worried Scotty wouldn’t be too pleased being forced into the cockpit of such a tiny boat, but I was wrong about him yet again. For some reason, I always doubt him, and he keeps proving me wrong again and again.  He was a perfect companion the entire trip. Whether in the car, the kayak, the tent, he was content to just be wherever Mum was.  In the car, he enjoyed the breeze pumping through the dash (it’s an old car, breezes come from some unexpected places). In the kayak, he just slept with his head on my thigh.  In the tent, he slept like a rock, belly-up and occasionally snoring.  It’s been great to learn I can take him anywhere, and he doesn’t tie me down, as I previously, mistakenly, believed he would.

Day 2 of paddling, ready to go.
Crocodile near Flamingo Campground. Not intimidating at
all. Photo courtesy of someone braver than I am.
I paddled with him over to the marina, about a mile east of my campsite.  On the return trip, I was slightly unnerved when something knocked the bow of my kayak, lifting it 6 inches out of the water.  My first thought was that is was a salt water crocodile, possibly sensing I had a small dog (i.e. afternoon nosh) on board, and was trying to spill the contents of the snack box to chow down.  I still don’t know what it was; the water was too foggy in that area to distinguish anything even an inch below the surface. 

As I paddled back to the beach I launched from, I scanned the shore for the canoe I had intended to use as a landmark to find where I’d left my flip flops and dog leash. Yes, I know… aside from the stupidity of choosing a landmark that could move, I was soon more concerned for the owners of the canoe when I finally spotted it half way across the bay, drifting broadside to the 15-knot northeasterly wind, apparently unmanned.  I remember losing my dinghy on the Elizabeth River in Norfolk a few years ago, never to be seen again, and how inconvenient and costly that became for me.  Deciding this might ruin Christmas for whomever owned it, and knowing it’s easier to find a canoe when you can still see it, I began to paddle as fast as I could (which isn’t very fast) downwind.

Dog rescues buddies in a runaway
canoe. Way cooler than my story.
Forearms burning, I caught up with the rebel canoe 15 minutes later.  I wanted to make sure no one was aboard before getting too close (it could have been a Canadian canoe, and we all know what happens in Canadian canoes), so I called out, and there was no response. The canoe had a bow and stern line, but both were too short to be of any use, and I’d left my towrope in the car. My only option was to use the lanyard from my life vest.  As I tried to get my lanyard hooked onto the canoe, I failed to notice I’d dropped my paddle.  It was floating about 30 feet behind me, and the gap was quickly widening.  The sea grass was about 2 feet below the surface, so as shallow as I presumed the water to be, I thought I’d just step out and walk back to get it (could that really have been a crocodile earlier?).  The mud was deceiving though, and I was instantly knee-deep in it, and the water was over my waist.  So I swam back, boats in tow, grabbed my paddle, and managed to get back into the kayak somehow without it capsizing.  Once set, I rowed upwind to the beach and pulled the canoe well above the high water mark.  Next time, I’ll be responsible and make sure I have a spare paddle tucked into the bungee cords on the deck of the kayak.

I don't know about this boy's mama.
Shortly after reaching shore, I hit the showers to rid myself of gobs of sticky mud I had acquired at the beach. While in the shower, I got chatting with a lady in the next stall (is that weird?), and she told me of a gentleman in his 60’s who went missing in March of 2011.    He set out to collect firewood around Eco Pond and never returned.  The ensuing two-week search turned up not a single trace. I later asked a few different employees in the park what their take was, and the general consensus was that he’d decided to “disappear”, and arrangements had been made for a pick-up at Eco Pond. But in my mind, there was a lingering possibility that he was caught off-guard by an alligator or a python. The tale managed to spook me and shorten my nature walk with Scotty, when I wandered to the far end of the campground where the sites were all empty. It was excessively silent, and somehow felt like an abandoned fair grounds, like a place where you would expect so much life, but there was none.  Not knowing what abruptly ended that camper’s search for firewood, I wanted to hurry back to my cowboy and hippie.

As darkness fell, Brendon came over with an armload of what he called lighter wood, which he’d brought from his farm in Ocala. It ignited instantly, as if it’d just been pulled from a barrel of gasoline. Its smoke was fairly effective at keeping the mosquitos down, which I couldn’t have welcomed more in that moment.  I had very stooopidly packed a less-toxic bug spray, trying to be health-conscious. I think it was a mislabeled can of compressed air.  It was, and I’ll use this expression seeing as there was a cowboy in my midst at the time, as useless as tits on a bull.

Vulture waiting for campers to leave to collect his booty.
Brendon invited me to join him and his family around their fire for Christmas Eve dinner.  I was still a bit in self-protective city mode and not feeling terribly social, so I ended up just having my planned dinner of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.  I later wished I’d joined them, just for the company.  It would have been the next paragraph here, a story that now can never be written.

On Christmas morning, I rolled out of my tent into a cloud of mosquitos, just in time to watch the sun rise out of a low cloud bank over the bay.  The ear-ringing silence, the unadulterated air, the handful of black vultures standing guard by my picnic table with their none shall pass! glares… yet another Christmas morning I’ll never forget.

They were huge.
In addition to being swarmed by mosquitos, later Christmas morning I was additionally swarmed by a convoy of 35 Miamians, their fleet of Escalades arriving like a presidential motorcade.  Despite seventy-five empty campsites in the area, they felt it appropriate to set-up their day-camp of coolers, boom-boxes, shrieking children and squawking mothers ten feet from my tent.  So much for a quiet Christmas of reflection. I threw my kayak back on my car, told Scotty he was riding shotgun, and we drove to the nearby marina’s launching point to explore the everglades.

We took a 3-hour jaunt up to Coot Bay, with a solid north wind on the bow on the inbound journey. I hear I was rather lucky to have spotted a whole flock of roseatte spoonbills. 
Roseate Spoonbill
They have been declining in numbers recently due to water management issues in the Everglades, which has dramatically altered salinity levels and water depths, thereby affecting the spoonbill’s aquatic diet.  The only other signs of life along the canal, other than dozens of Asian tourists in rented red canoes, was, I think, a Great Egret (picture a stork-like bird that delivers babies) and a crocodile. That was only my second encounter ever with a crocodile, the other occasion being on my dinner plate once while sailing aboard a ship full of Australians.

My peanut butter.
A friend had warned me about the raccoons, and how closely you had to guard your camp, and that they could often be brazen enough to take the food right out of your hand.  Luckily for me, but unlucky for the raccoons, there’s an enormous overpopulation of Burmese pythons in the park.  Thought to have originally been introduced to the wild as abandoned pets, the invasive species’ population is currently estimated at 100,000.  Practically all the raccoons, as well as most other small mammals, birds, and reptiles that used to call the Park their home, have met their sorry end in the grips of the constrictor.  The pythons, in fact, are changing the entire ecosystem in Everglades National Park.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission headed the 2013 Python Challenge to raise awareness of the consequences if the snake’s population isn’t brought under control.

Instead of being hounded by raccoons, I instead learned what to expect when a couple of black vultures team-up and throw a tantrum.  On my final morning in the Park, they double-checked that my library books weren’t edible then threw them in the grass, they took my Stoneyfield yogurt cup (though I did recover it a little later, with foil lid surprisingly intact), and, as a final insult, spilled my freshly brewed Bodum of coffee. They knew how to push my buttons.

Everything considered though, it was a Christmas to remember. I just know now to wait for the next cold snap before attempting another Floridian camping excursion.