A First Visit Home
By Douglas Bernon
October 5, 2001
To return home for a visit after cruising for a year is to wade into a former life and peek at it, perhaps with a spoonful of perspective. No longer immersed in the immediacy of old routines and commitments, I got to be a voyeur — that's the beauty and the limitation. I'd been looking forward to reconnecting with people I love, collecting supplies, and basking without responsibility in the safe comforts of America.
Among other things, the United States is an enormous mall, and for a year Bernadette and I had been listing the gear and supplies we needed for the boat, categorizing a multi-paged document into Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, dive shop, BoatUS, drug store, grocery store, Napa Auto, and Home Depot. Dividing up the cumulative chores, here's what we've stockpiled for our return: a new Ray Marine SL70 radar; oil, fuel and water filters; hack saw blades; universal swivel sockets; a spare starter for the engine (we found a rebuilt one and saved a few hundred dollars); electrical shrink wrap; a new Ray Marine ST40 depth sounder; fuses; alternator belts; various diameter wire and hoses; solder paste; a new mask and spear gun; refills on prescriptions (extra high-strength cortisone cream for Pico Pico jellyfish stings and assorted antibiotics); water purification tablets; gobs of lemonade mix (to encourage downing as much water as possible, no matter how chlorinated it tastes); assorted stainless steel nuts, bolts, washers and screws; various gaskets and O-rings; several bottles of Ben's 100 Max Formula Tick and Insect Repellant (Ben's is 95 percent deet vs. 21.85 percent in Cutters); some new underwear (I'm now a fan of all things capilene in tropical heat); and two back-up VISA and Mastercards. (We had to cancel ours in Mexico after someone copied our number from a purchase slip and charged up a storm.) This inventory is but the Cliff Notes of our to-do list and included getting new health insurance for Bernadette, and other paper-pushing chores that consumed days of her attention.
But all that's just stuff. Our trip has revolved around people more than things. While back here, I've spoken with two physicians who'd been inspired by Bernadette's logs about the Ak'Tenamit school and clinic, and decided to volunteer their time and donate supplies there, and I talked with several other readers who signed up to sponsor students. Over the past year we've accumulated e-mails from readers who are counting the months until going cruising. I checked in with a number of them by phone. In the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington, some cruisers wondered if they ought to go at all, that it seemed "too indulgent" or "too dangerous," while others were "even more determined than ever." They're all right, of course, for the decisions are so personal. Their comments reminded me that much of what's good in life demands a leap from the seemingly-known into the very-much-hoped-for, and cruising is a phenomenon that magnifies the differences. Throughout the United States people learned recently what other nations have long understood, that the world is a dangerous place. With their illusions of American safety at home annihilated, I suspect that for now, many are rethinking central assumptions.
Our visit to Newport initially was like wiggling into old slippers: seeing our friends and family, hearing of victories and difficulties, catching up on gossip while huddled over leisurely dinners. Pedaling around town on my bicycle, I smiled at a favorite autumnal sound — the crunch of acorns. I played with our niece Hannah, now 18 months and chattering a storm, and over time taught her to say her version of "rhinoceros" — a moment of triumph for both of us. I hung out with several old colleagues and talked shop. As time went on, as Bernadette and I moved from house to house where we were being lodged kindly, or house-sitting, I missed the consistency of sleeping in one place; Ithaka now is home. Having spent a year dawdling at five miles an hour or so, crashing through time and space is confusing enough without musical beds. We'll try to do that differently next time. For Bernadette, though, to spend this time with her family was a special delight.
In addition to catching up with people in an orderly fashion, I lucked into chance encounters with a number of former patients. I would've had no right to meddle in their lives with out-of-the-blue phone calls, but Newport is a little burg, and paths meet in dry cleaners and grocery markets. As often as not, these reunions evolved into unhurried walks — mutually reassuring.
Other than swimming, there's little exercise on a boat, and nothing aerobic. But in Newport, I got to work out at the YMCA and re-connect with exercise buddies. And I returned to playing handball with long-standing nemeses, who've been beating on each other at the same hour three days a week for a zillion years. It was comforting to drop into that old rhythm, even if they seized every advantage of my year's layoff, and demonstrated their usual absence of mercy.
In Cleveland, where I grew up, we stayed with old friends, Angie and John Geller. He wheedled me into jogging each morning at six with his usual gang. Spending the better part of an hour huffing along with fifty-something guys who've been hanging out together for more than a decade was a shameless return to the happy raunch of younger years.
Much to my pleasure, Bernadette and I were part of the only grand reunion my family's ever had. I saw cousins I hadn't seen or talked to in years, met spouses and children I'd only heard about, and groaned over antics from three and four decades ago. I was thrilled to see "The Two Sisters" — my mother, 83, and my Aunt Jane, 88, — revel in having so many of their clan home. Families often congregate a day or two too late to observe passings; this one was right on time to celebrate life.
I haven't lived in Cleveland since high school, so driving by boyhood homes and schools is like unearthing core samples, rekindling memories that lead to a review of options not chosen. I found myself regaling Bernadette with long-interred stories of the absurdities of my adolescence, and relatives no longer alive. It made for a good, reflective trip. An hour west of there, in Norwalk, we stayed for two days with my college roommate, Jake Gelvin and his family, and I got to fill his son's ears with tales of his pony-tailed father in the sixties.
Several friends (no doubt hoping for my much-needed improvement) asked me how I was fundamentally different after a first year of cruising, but I can't think of a single big change, and I'm confident Bernadette will verify I'm the same turkey I was when we left. I'm not so sure people change a whole bunch after about the first grade. With mammoth efforts we can sand off sharp edges and generally clean up our acts, but bedrock moves on tectonic schedules and one life may not be long enough to see the outcomes. There are few monumentally transformative experiences, and none that guarantee permanent difference. We all seem to rattle through phases when we think a new job, a different lover, an additional college degree — or going cruising, for that matter — will make us different people. They don't really. In my limited experience even a brush with our own mortality offers a limited shelf life of awareness. When I get into this riff, I notice Bernadette drawing her finger across her throat, signaling me that nobody really wants to hear this.
Probably not, but cruising is in so many ways about doing chores, and having time to be. It invites endless re-collection and noodling. In his novel Dalva, Jim Harrison sums it up: "Most of life is lived, perforce, simplemindedly: to think of Spinoza when you're taking a pee is to risk missing the bowl."
I remember a patient who after her favorite uncle died found her vision was more finely tuned than she could bear: "I know right now how short life is, and I know how intensely I'm feeling absolutely everything. It's like I'm really REALLY awake," she said. "But being this awake all the time is too hard. I can feel myself beginning to nap again." She's right, insight can be blinding. Remaining that wakeful is damned difficult. September 11th reminds us that while the sun is overhead and behind us, for that brief interval when we can keep our eyes open, it's best to look around.