It’s been a week since I arrived home, grotty and sleep deprived, from my adventure on the high seas. I’m yet to come down to earth.
Six months ago I was Googling possible sailing routes out of Australia as part of the research for my second novel. I should say for the record that I am not a sailor, and while I’ve been ably assisted by numerous helpful sailing souls who agreed to speak to me, my boating experience up until a fortnight ago consisted of a short jaunt out on the Bay on a gloriously fair day.
What caught my eye late that night was a website advertising the Spice Islands Darwin to Ambon Race. Before I could really think it through, and without a single expectation that it would come to anything, I shot off an email to the organiser, requesting my name be put down as crew.
Writer. No experience, I wrote. Very enthusiastic.
And then I went to bed, trying to think of other, less brave ways I might find my way on to boats.
The thing is, it was the smallest thing, sending that email. There was no angst, no self-doubt, no fear, and no courage required. All of that would come later. But in sending it, I started a chain of events.
The email got answered and lead me to the moment I was stepping aboard a 50 foot yacht in a marina in Darwin, with five blokes and one woman, none of whom I’d ever met before. It lead me to sailing across the Timor and Banda seas for four days until we reached Ambon harbour. Lead me to tying a bowline, enduring a night in my cabin while the spinnaker whipped and snapped and I thought I would die. Lead me to listening to stories that broke my heart and make me think and crunched my ethics around and spat them out again.
With the crew of Finally (them mostly, I just made the coffee and kept the midnight watch and squealed when I saw dolphins), I sailed six hundred nautical miles into Indonesia and the extraordinary island of Ambon where I made new friends, was blown away by the hospitality and danced the local dance wherever I could (once I wrapped by feet around it) including with police officers and the Vice-Mayor’s wife.
When I got home, tired and tender and porous (because don’t these experiences always make us thus?), I smashed out 5000 words in two days desperate to capture the feelings and the smells and the way the last of the sun hit the clouds over the sea so that I felt like I could reach up and put my hands in them and when I pulled them out they would taste of peaches and salt.
I have thousands of words of notes, 770 photos on my phone, new networks of sailors to call upon when I hit one of the gaps in the MS that requires expert knowledge (she reached for the …?, the …..? broke). The MS is mapped out to the end.
So it worked, for the book. An incredibly rich research experience that has served the work, and I hope, will make the book a better book, something close to the book I want it to be.
But it’s also been so much more than that.
We don’t have to feel brave to be brave. We might feel foolish, or curious, or terrified, or filled with doubt, but sometimes we only have to take one small tentative step in the direction of the thing, the thing that is asking to be done, shimmering just ahead of us on the horizon.
Earlier this year when I was at Varuna, working on the book, I took time out to see The Waifs at the Blue Mountains Folk Festival (another of those small, kind of brave things – buying a solo ticket to a music festival). I heard ‘Something’s Coming’ for the first time and I had a big weep and felt my chest open up with glorious anticipation of all the stuff that lay ahead, even though I had no idea what that might be.
Something’s comin round the bend
I don’t know what it is and I don’t know when
But something’s comin round
Ain’t nothing knowing it’s just a feeling inside
I carry no fear and I have nothing to hide
from ‘Something’s Coming‘ by Vikki Thorn, The Waifs
It’s kind of become my anthem this year – for life and for the book. For a person who likes to be in control, have everything planned out, lists written, goals set – it’s been a departure. A good one. A willingness to be open to whatever it is that is coming my way.
Baby steps to courage. Bravery by increment.
Let me just, for a moment, check my privilege here, too. Jumping on a boat so that I can write a better book is clearly not the epitome of braveness in today’s world. Not even close. Part of what I’m trying to explore is how far removed my experience is from the millions and millions of people for whom bravery is not a choice. The people who might not even consider the fight they engage in every day to live, love, survive, speak, be safe, to be anything but their normal. The thing I’ve just done terrified me. But it was an exercise. I got to come home to my dry, warm house and my family in a place where I am safe and free. It’s a vitally important difference.
So, what’s round the bend for you? Maybe you’ve already done that first thing, the small thing, the thing that doesn’t require so much bravery. Looking up the course you’ve always wanted to do. Doing the sums to work out how much the ticket out of here costs. A smile across the train. Maybe you’ve made the next step, too.
Or maybe you’re waiting. For the sign that will tell you to go for it.
Let this be it. Start with the small thing.
May the rest follow.