A few weeks ago, Russ Harper died of a heart attack. I don’t expect most of you to know who he was, and it is to my great regret that I didn’t know him as well as I’d liked.
I had stumbled upon his blog when I was researching Barra. As the owner and skipper of S/V Spiritus, he had been a fixture here in Marina Puerto de Navidad for the past couple of years. His posts, especially those on the aftermath of Hurricane Patricia in 2015, gave me more insight into the town and marina than any other cruising guide or online source. When I finally did meet Russ, I told him how much I appreciated his blog and how I’d love to get together over some beers and talk more in depth about his travels and experiences, but as it so often does, the days turned into weeks and good intentions went by the wayside. Conversations were limited to the ten minutes here and there on the docks, in the water taxi, in passing, and nothing of any real consequence—just chats about bright work, new equipment, and that old standby…the weather.
In fact, the last conversation I had with Russ—the day before he died—was about recycling. The marina had just started a recycling program—something that, outside of the big cities, is just starting to catch on in the outlying areas. They had set up six very colorful bins and apart from one labeled “Plastico”, the others were up for interpretation. Together we speculated what Mexicans would consider “organico” vs “inorganico” given the current contents of each bin, questioned why there would be one for grass clippings when we all lived on boats, and wondered why “aluminum” was conspicuously absent given the shear amount of beer consumed by cruisers. In the end, Russ made the statement, “Well, it makes no sense. But it’s worth the effort.” We then said our goodbyes and once again said, “Let’s get together!”
Upon hearing the news of his death the following morning, I immediately began to search for meaning in those last words as if Russ was knowingly imparting some last-minute wisdom. What makes no sense? Our lives? Or how others perceive the paths we have chosen for ourselves? Maybe it’s life’s inevitable curveballs that make no sense? The “bad things happening to good people” thing. What’s the effort? To change? To endure? To always see the bright side? Or perhaps it was, after all, just about the recycling.
But what I should have been focusing on was that we never did “get together” and that the opportunity for any meaningful conversation—about people, places, and experiences (i.e. the stuff that makes us who we are)—was now gone. And I wondered how many other opportunities I had missed because I always assumed there’d be enough time. Enough time to meet and get to know new people; to rekindle old relationships; to really, truly learn to sail; to discover new interests; to go on new adventures; to write that book. But there isn’t enough time, is there? How can there be when you don’t know how much time you have left?
Now obviously we can’t spend every waking moment checking off items on the mother of all to-do lists and is it even possible to “live life to the fullest each and every day”? What does that even mean? For one thing, it sounds exhausting. For another, it probably gets lonely because you’ve become “that guy” i.e. the one with so much “get up and go” that after a while everyone wants you to just “get up and go away” because no one should be that gung ho all the time. It’s just not natural…and it’s arduous to be around. I would also think that it gets depressing because—let’s face it—there are certain dreams that may be unattainable unless you win the lottery and/or find a magic lamp. And besides, some days you might not want to live life to the fullest. Maybe you have other things to do…errands and stuff…and a half-assed effort will do just fine. Or maybe some days your only motivation should be to lounge around in your jammies and watch tv all day. The great thing about being an adult—being human actually—is that we can change our priorities to suit our mood. It’s one of the things that separates us from the animals…at least from the ones that don’t wear jammies.
But I think I’m off-topic (assuming there was one to begin with.) Oh yes…time, tide, no man, etc. You’re not going to believe this, but I’m a huge procrastinator (Exhibit A: This Blog.) and have been all my life. If something could be put off, it was. I literally lived in the last minute. When I was in college, my mother got me one of those subliminal tapes that sounds like waves crashing on the sea shore but underneath it’s really admonishing you to “get off your butt and get some shit done!” but—in the irony of all ironies—I never got around to playing it. But I really think I procrastinate more out of fear than being lazy. The fear of not being liked keeps me from really getting to know people; the fear of criticism gives me writer’s block; the fear of rejection keeps me from voicing my opinions or asserting myself. It’s just easier to put things off and/or hope they’ll go away than to risk being perceived as a disappointment to myself and others. And it dawned on me that I had made all these changes in my life so I could presumably be a better version of myself, but perhaps had stopped short with the scenery. I mean, I could have been an introvert back in Washington and not left the security of a home, a career, and terra firma in order to sink every dime we have into the SS Money Pit, become the proverbial “stranger in a strange land”, and put myself (and my family) through the stress of being a very small dot on a very big ocean.
But I have few regrets because when I look outside, I not only see paradise, I see an incredible achievement. Leaving all that behind for what we’re doing now was the single scariest thing I think I’ve ever done (possibly the stupidest, but that remains to be seen.) But the fact that we did what we set out to do--shed ourselves of our old lives, start a new life on this boat, and see where it takes us—was a victory in and of itself. And if we all suffer death tomorrow due to “Misadventure by Large Squid”, I think we could chalk our lives up as a win. But I have to wonder if I’m selling the dream short by not making the really scary (read: personal) changes?
The afternoon after Russ died, I was talking with Israel, one the marina’s maintenance crew. Israel is one of the warmest and most helpful people I’ve met here and will always smile and nod enthusiastically even though he really has no idea what you’re saying (although admittedly, his English is still much better than my Spanish.) But I think when you’re speaking of someone’s demise, there really is no language barrier. Knowing nods, heavy sighs, and glances over at a now-ownerless boat conveyed what we were both trying to say. But then he said, “Today is life and tomorrow…mmmm…I think no.”
And that’s when the sentiment of a thousand and one motivational posters hit me square in the gut. You really are “here today, gone tomorrow”; you do only “go around once”; it is true that “no one gets out alive”; and when things get tough, yes…you do really need to “hang in there, baby.” But more than that, perhaps it’s just as important to remember that your dreams and goals may give your life direction, but it’s up to you to give it substance. And if you’re not at least making an effort every day to be the person you want to be, then maybe that’s a day wasted—a day not lived.
Now obviously some people are quite happy with who they are and see no reason to change, in which case I guess I’m just babbling to the choir. But this is my wake-up call-to-arms or however you want to say it (mid-life crises will work in a pinch) so suffice to say that had my journey of personal growth followed the same trajectory as the boat and not gotten stuck somewhere around Cape Mendocino, I should by all accounts be able to single-hand this boat, speak a second language, and be shopping around for publishers. As it is, the boat is still a maze of thingies that attach to whatsits that make the dingus do that thing where the front of the boat turns right and maybe doesn’t hit anything. My Spanish-language skills have not yet evolved past the “See Jane Run” stage though I have mastered “say that again?”, “is that what I said?”, “I’m sorry!” and six different facial expressions that convey bafflement (which coincidentally are the English phrases and mannerisms that’ve served me best over my lifetime.) And that book? Well…let’s just say if “thinking about it” could be published in book form, I’d be more prolific than Stephen King.
I know the things I want to do; the things I’d like to change about myself. The question is, what am I going to do about it in the time I have left?
Maybe it’s time to trek out to the Pacific coast, listen to the waves crashing on the seashore, and say to myself, “Get off your butt, get shit done, meet new people, learn new things, write that book.” Maybe it’s time to face my fears, quit procrastinating, and become that better version of myself that I’d like to be. And more importantly, maybe it’s time to “get together” with the Russes of the world before they’re all gone—both figuratively and literally. Some days I’ll do more; some days not so much. And there will be days when I’ll just lounge around in my jammies all day. But I will resolve to move forward. The journey is still ongoing even when it’s tangibly standing still.
Does this make any sense? Maybe it doesn’t. But I think it’s worth the effort.