Day 132 of our land-lubbing, boat refit, life in Malaysia Andrew stretches and rolls out of bed to start a pot of coffee. I hear him whirring away at the bean grinder, the tea pot makes a hissing and bubbling noise as it boils. It’s a yoga day for me, too, and my morning alarm is sounding to let me know it’s time for my tea routine.
“Sanding fiberglass, today!” Andrew says as he hears me rummaging through the closet to find my yoga pants. “Yeeeaaaahhhhhyyyy.”
Bess is practically yelling at Andrew from the kitchen window sill, and Katherine “Kitty” Hepburn is singing a chorus from behind the door. As I open up, the sound of Langkawi’s morning cicadas and birds chirping gets one pulse louder, humidity rolls in, and I bend down to pet each cat in turn.
Kitty follows my ankles about the kitchen as pour Andrew’s leftover hot water over tea leaves curled into little balls at the base of my cup. I am drinking a Chinese Oolong our friends Steve and Lila brought us back from their home. As steam lifts out of the vortex of the cup, it swirls a spiral in the current of our land-abode air conditioning. I’m still in a bit of a sleep trance, and I watch the tea leaves swell and grow. They inflate like beach balls, soften, then drift open until they transform into a recognizable leaf – much like the day they were plucked from their plant. I sigh; impatience is getting the best of both of us this week.
It is then I realize: we are in a “Middle Year.”
“What is a Middle Year?” you ask.
The “Middle Year” is the plot line of our lives tucked between a new dream and the epic conclusion. Of course, in a book or a movie the middle year never feels like this. It could never sell. The editors and the screen writers would say “you must cut out the superfluous and keep the tension building, otherwise your reader/viewer will lose attention.” No doubt, they are right. But, we do not have the luxury of editing out the Middle Years in our own epic tales.
If I had a penny for every time someone asked us “when are you leaving Langkawi/Malaysia” we could probably sail an extra year! I know, it feels like there is nothing going on over here. “Are you losing momentum? Why is this taking so long?”
This is how the middle year always feels.
Andrew and I experienced at least three middle years while we preparing to go sailing. By 2008, we had set ourselves up in our jobs, we owned our little sailboat on Lake Mead, we were racing with the Nevada Yacht Club, we had a personal trainer, we were paying down debt. Everything was great! The problem was, nothing new happened in all of 2009, 2010, and 2011. We plugged along, and along, and….along all on the same tasks.
People who knew about our dream would say “Aren’t you going sailing? When are you going sailing?” “JUST GO!” and we asked ourselves, “Yes, but how!?” Pessimists in our group figured we weren’t serious and would never actually go. Eternal optimists told us, “Just go, and you’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
But, we never did figure out another way to make it work.
Sometimes, there isn’t another way around a middle year; you must go through.
Soon it’s time for me to go. I grab my rolled up yoga mat and my car keys. The twirling ankle muff continues out the door with me, but we part ways when I descend the stairs and she makes her graceful leap up onto the wall ledge. “See you later, Kitty.” I tell her as I scratch her chin. She turns and makes her way across the clay roof tiles.
I climb into a 1990s vintage Nissan our friends lent us. It’s an adventure in and of itself, being a left-hand stick shift in a left hand driving country without automatic steering. I’ve adapted. As I turn the key, the carburetor coughs and I give the accelerator three assertive kicks. We rev to life and I shift my way first through third across town until I reach the little yoga studio at the foot of a tall apartment building.
“Good morning,” I say as I walk into a room filling with about ten people: a woman from India, a few Chinese-Malay people, a former sailor from Sweden, sometimes a British woman, my sailing friend from Denmark, my teacher who is from Eritrea, moved to Germany and met her German husband who takes up a matt across the way. The ages of our participants range from their 30s to their 70s. It has to be the most diverse yoga class I’ve ever attended.
“Oh, here’s our American!” The Norwegian woman welcomes me. “You had another shooting at home today, yeah?”
“Yeah.” I say. “Two, in fact.” Just another day for us, I guess?
Like all Middle Years, Andrew and I are working rats through snakes. Andrew has to get Sonrisa’s repair status back to snuff for the Indian Ocean, and I have to get my back healthy. That’s what all this yoga is about, and it seems to be coming along.
For an hour and a half, my focus is inside my body, on top of this mat, next to a bronze bowl with flowers and candles. We breathe. We stretch, then we strengthen our muscles, then we counter stretch the opposite direction. Toward the end of class, my back feels good today so I take it one step further in my progression toward a headstand. I measure my elbows, clasp my hands, place my head into the cup my palms make. I press through my shoulders, walk my feet closer to my face. I bend my right knee and lift my foot off the ground, place it back down. I bend my left knee and lift my foot off the ground. I place my left foot back down, too. I do this exercise several more times until I feel tired, and then I lower myself back to the ground. It’s not a headstand, but it is progress.
Back at the apartment, today is bread making day. One of my yoga friends gave me a dose of her sourdough starter. I named her “Mama Mia” so I am less likely to kill it. Every week, I’ve been making two loaves of bread with varying rates of success. Each round takes 24 hours to prepare. I activate the starter the night before, mix, then let rest for thirty minutes. For the next four hours I let it rise, pulling and folding the dough every thirty minutes. After I shape them into loaves, they need another 2 hours for the second rise, then forty minutes to bake.
Between rise time and kneading, I poke away at a bit of writing. It’s a perfect timer for me to say: “Okay, I’m not going to do anything but write until it’s time for me to knead the bread again.
I’m in the flow.
Andrew is also in the flow. Several times per day, my WhatsApp notification pings with a message from Andrew. It’s always a photograph of another repair or another milestone made. He is like a machine, knocking off two or three projects per day.
Mid-afternoon, I plan dinner and get cooking. The cats wait patiently for Andrew to return.
Andrew and I meet at the dinner table and chat about our day: things we need to do next, things we want to do once Sonrisa is back in the water, next year’s route. Then, we settle on the couch to read or watch our respective YouTube videos about whatever it is we are learning today.
I am currently binge watching a YouTube vlogger who chronicles his adventures in freediving. It is a bit like scuba diving, only without the tank. Andrew and I (and probably all sailors) have done a fair amount of freediving without having been trained. I honestly didn’t realize I was freediving until I started watching these videos. I thought I was just snorkeling! There is a difference, though. Snorklers kick around on the surface. Freedivers hold their breath and dive underwater to explore reef or even just see how deep they can go. With training, freedivers can learn to swim around for quite a length of time underwater while holding just one breath of air. I’ve loved the bits that I’ve already done. Now, I want to get more serious and take a training course.
An hour before bed, Ido my “Lady on a Cloud” exercises, then some freediving dry land training. Tonight, I am working my way through a CO2 breathing table.
“Hold your breath.” The CO2 table app commands.
I lay on the floor having filled my stomach, middle ribcage, and chest with air. I wait until the involuntary contractions in my stomach muscles start telling me I have more carbon dioxide in my body than I am used to. It feels like a hiccup I refuse to let escape. I do a body scan, relaxing muscles-part-by-part until I reach my head.
At this point, freediving school of thought is you need a little ditty to distract your mind from discomfort. One freediver’s blog I read says he sings the Beatles song “Let it be…” But, since I’ve been spending a lot of time in South East Asia, I take Buddha’s advice and repeat loving-kindness affirmations. “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I feel peaceful. May I live with ease.” (Efficiency is my middle name.) As Buddha tells me to, I send this same metta kindness to someone on my mind: “May she be happy. May she be healthy….” I expand the offer to everyone: “May we all feel peace. May we all live with ease.” (You are ALL welcome.) This helps me pass the last twenty seconds with less struggle. One minute, twenty five seconds this round.
“Breathe” my app commands. I deflate the balloon that is my lungs and suck three sharp inhalations as you are meant to do upon surfacing. Then, I spend another 1:30 breathing normally until I am called to hold my breath again. This gap of breathing time will reduce in a series until I only have 30 seconds to breath and recover.
Middle years can be monotonous and uncomfortable. Every day is just another day to get our work done. Sometimes, it feels as if nothing is happening, but I am convinced that great transformations happen in that space. Sonrisa will be a different boat by the time Andrew is finished. My posture is changing. I’m able to stand straighter, lay flat on my back again. My back pain comes and goes, but now, it’s always different from the day before. I think this is good.
Even more important than “getting the work done,” I think a mental transformation happens beneath the scene. Changes happen that we don’t realize we need until we are most of the way there. Circa 2009-2011, I needed to learn to keep my head and rejigger when things didn’t go as planned. (Thank you economic crisis of 2009.) This Middle Year is offering me a remedial class in another “learn it or fail” lesson:
I must relax if I want to go further.
This lesson is a bit similar to one I’ve learned in the past, i.e. it is possible to try too hard. A softball catcher does no good when she tries so hard to catch a pop fly that she ends up in right field leaving home plate open and unattended. That is just a universal truth. Likewise, I can do myself and my sailing dream harm trying so hard to manage risks, fears, budgets, marriage, sailing plans, etc. etc. etc. This Middle Year has brought me a hurt back, somatic exercises, yoga, the art of sourdough, and now, the idea of freediving to remind me I am better when I relax. I can actually achieve more.
If I want to lift into a headstand and find balance I must do the progression and breathe upside down. If I want to dive deep on one breath, I have to use less energy. If I want to sail on next year, I must relax the muscles in my back so they stop pulling my discs out of place.
The tricky thing is: you can’t force yourself to relax. An attempt to do so is nothing more than pulling in the opposite direction. Instead, I contract the muscles in question, set the intention to relax, and then… wait. As the “Lady on a Cloud” instructs, I must let go as slowly as I possibly can. When I do, the smallest fiber of one muscle unties itself, and that is a start. The next day, I return, set my intention to relax, and wait again. Two more muscles untie themselves. Day three, my efforts accumulate and I release a lynch pin in the whole structure. It all moves and changes again. I return to this task each day, like a grandmother working at a ball of tangled yarn until the knot unspools. It takes a long time. So far, four months and counting. And, I wonder: will it all hold when I get back to sea?
Once I’m done with my exercises, I decide to have a cup of chrysanthemum tea. I boil the water, and pour it over the tiny yellow flowers in my cup. As they re-hydrate, they relax. It’s almost like they re-bloom. I take another one of the dry flowers from it’s bag and roll it between my thumb and finger. The edges are crisp and rough, flower petals break off in little crumbles. I add a bit more pressure and it all turns to dust beneath my thumb. I get it. Or...at least I am getting it.
Dream making is an endurance sport.