My Worst Self Living My Best Life

Manta ray that lazily circled a becalmed Hazel James for 20 minutes. Reflection of Hazel’s bow and pulpit in the lower left.

Divining between correlation and causation is always a challenge, and sometimes a fool’s errand. Two variables seem to consistently change in a pattern but is it “α” that causes “β”, or β that causes α? Or is there no causality between the two and they are merely correlated? (Perhaps some other, as yet unknown, variable causes both α and β to occur simultaneously?) Or, is it just random noise and we as humans—evolutionarily programmed to search for reason, meaning, and connection—concoct some cockamamie story in an attempt to make sense of it all.

However, all that high falutin logic-talk doesn’t change the fact that I can be a real ass…a real ass to the people that I care about the most.

For argument’s sake, let’s assign the Greek letter α (alpha) to how exotic, dreamy, and once-in-a-lifetime the surroundings in which Rhett, Sunny, Hazel James, and I find ourselves in at any given moment. I’m sure you’ve already guessed that β (beta) is how much of an ass I am at the time.

What I’ve noticed is that often α and β vary in a pattern. The more absolutely amazing a place we’re in, the more we’re surrounded by nature, the more that how we got to that place was an achievement of a lifetime, seems like the time I should also be the most grateful for being alive and being able to do what so few others have a chance to do (and to do it in the way of my choosing). I should be in a state of sublime oneness with the universe, approaching self-actualization. But no, I’m angry, I’m petty, I fixate on the little bits that are going wrong and not the grand scheme that’s going so right. I look to place blame and find the one I love the most. Why?

Sunrise off Nisos Meganisi (Meganisi Island).

I was 50 when my sister Amy died at the age of 54. Being with her as she faded away started me thinking about alternative ways to live the remainder of my life. Four years later I had just outlived my sister when my late-wife Colleen died at the age of 50. If Amy gently took me by the hand, led me forward and urged me to peer over the edge, Colleen snuck up behind me while I was transfixed by the abyss and gave me a firm but loving push between my shoulder blades. I was off balance and there was no turning back.

Colleen died August 21, 2019 and my birthday was just weeks after. Now, in this summer of 2023, I’m staring down the double-barrel of Colleen’s death anniversary and my 59th birthday. Almost exactly four years ago today, Colleen celebrated one-year of sobriety, an amazing milestone and a testament to her commitment and effort. She was asked to speak and share her story at an open AA meeting and our son Jack and I attended. It was moving, it was inspiring. At that point, Jack, Emma, and I allowed ourselves cautious optimism—a feeling we hadn’t experienced in a long time. A month later, she was gone.

Between then and now has been a dizzying four years. In early 2020, as a creepy loner (a.k.a., single-handed sailor), Hazel and I sailed to The Bahamas and Caribbean and ended up locked down in the British Virgin Islands during the pandemic. In 2021 Hazel and I shanghaied Rhett as crew and we sailed to The Bahamas and up and down the US East Coast all the way to Maine. In early 2022, Sunny signed up as lowly ship’s mascot but was quickly promoted to Rear Admiral of the fleet and our growing but ever-motley crew sailed back to The Bahamas. Just over a year ago (spring and summer of 2022), I sailed across the Atlantic as a creepy loner and Rhett and the Rear Admiral joined me in Lisbon and we sailed south through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. After sailing Spain’s Balearic Islands and Italy’s Sardinia, Hazel enjoyed a peaceful winter on the west coast of the Boot of Italy. We woke her up this spring and sailed her to Ionian Greece where I now sit by myself pecking away on a keyboard in Hazel’s dimly lit saloon. Although it’s a quarter ‘til ten in the evening, the faint glow of the sun is still in the sky. We’re anchored in the lee of the remote and uninhabited Nisos Formíkoula (Nisos is Greek for Island). The diurnal Ionian northwest prevailing wind is settling down and Hazel’s bouncing around is easing. The sky above is as clear as the water below and tonight is the New Moon. With no city or town lights to be seen and only a couple other boats in the anchorage light pollution is at a minimum and in a couple hours the stargazing should be amazing.

Several days ago, I gave myself the newly minted designation of mitigated creepy loner. Rhett is traveling to Florida to take care of some things that we tried so hard to deal with remotely but in the end decided together it would be best for her to get home for a month. Although I’m a single-handed sailor again, I have the mitigating factor of Sunny on board. I see it so clearly in other sailors’ eyes when we say hello boat-to-boat, or meeting in a marina or on a beach, He’s a single-handler and he certainly looks creepy enough with that long hair and old boat. But, how weird can a guy be who sails with a miniature dachshund?

The point is that while Amy and Colleen may be giving me heavenly high-fives for learning from their demises, and me—borderline frenetically—not squandering a second of my time, a more objective and less generous person could rightfully say that I’m just a little boy running away, scared to face the demons that might catch him if he stops in one place for long enough. A little boy running away from his responsibilities (I’ve run so far and for so long I don’t even know what those responsibilities are—perhaps that proves the point.), running away from his checkered past, running away from pain, running away from memories.

While these past four years have honed my skills as a first-class escape artist, it’s now dawning on me that the only thing I can’t escape from—is me. I run, I run, I run. I sail, I sail, I sail. I can evade anything and everything…everything except my shadow.

As I reflect on my recent adventures it also occurs to me that it’s easier to sail across an ocean solo than it is to change yourself.

Sure, someone who knows me well might think, But Dan, you have changed so much the past four years. You used to have a job, a house, short hair, and deadlines and commitments…the works. Now you’ve got none of that. While that’s all true, deep down I’m still me. Popeye (another sailor man) often said in his gravely salt-stained voice, “I am what I am.” Maybe his wisdom was accepting who he was (and Olive Oil loved him for it)—I, on the other hand, have not. I know I can be a better self, to me and to others. The question is how? Do I try harder? Should I be easier on my self, try less and just let it happen? Maybe I do something radical—like try to communicate more effectively?

Sunrise and cave exploring in Lil’ Dinghy on Nisos Atokos. Barely visible silhouette of Sunny in the lower left foreground.

On the subject of not being my best self, I also wasn’t my best self the months and years before Colleen died. Maybe I was good, maybe I was even above average in the situation, but I could have been better. That fact haunts me on a daily basis. Sure, there are a lot of excuses that I could make for what happened and how it happened, and I could produce a litany of good things that I did for Colleen as she struggled—but still, Colleen and I were married, we were supposedly soulmates when she died. I can’t help feeling like I was at the helm when the beautiful yacht Colleen was lost.

I guess the sailing and “at the helm” analogy implies that I had some kind of control over the situation (many addiction treatment professionals would argue that I didn’t). I do believe in those last days Colleen and I had lost “steerage way” (when a boat is moving so slowly through the water that the rudder has no effect on its direction, like turning a car’s steering wheel when the car isn’t moving). However, in the big picture a good captain isn’t concerned with loss of steerage way moments before a disaster, his concern is with not getting his ship, his crew and passengers, and himself in a potentially disastrous situation in the first place. In the weeks and months prior to August 21, 2019, the warning signs where there. In retrospect, the forecasts were ominous and although I heeded them, I didn’t heed them enough. I guess I figured that the yacht Colleen had weathered a lot of storms and could take care of herself through this one. Little did I know, this last time would be different.

When Colleen, and all of us close to her, were trapped in a seemingly endless wash-rinse-repeat cycle of relapse, remorse, and months of treatment followed almost immediately by another relapse, I’d often ask myself, When will this ever end? I should have been more careful about what I wished for and the tacit implications of my wish. Back then I never dreamed that it could end like it ended.

One House Bay on Nisos Atokos. Hazel is the smallest yacht just to left-of-center in the bay.

When Rhett left for the airport a day ago with a circuitous routing home (from Corfu Greece into one London airport and out of the other London airport to Dallas-Fort Worth and then to Ft. Lauderdale), her departure wasn’t because of my behaviors. However, we both agreed that the past couple weeks had been tough and that “a little space and time apart” would be healthy for both of us. Although there’s a lot of magic in what we’re doing, the day-to-day realities of extended sailing during the Greek summer in a Europe-wide heat wave and us together 24×7 on a 31-foot boat (of course with no air conditioning), piled on top of the other things demanding Rhett’s attention back home had been challenging. Given the situation and what Rhett needs to do at home, “a little space and time” has turned into 5,700 miles and a month. Now, just a couple days into that month, I miss her terribly. Again, one should always be careful of what they wish for.

Morning clouds spilling over Nisos Meganisi as we sail by.

Prior to leaving, Rhett had shared some of our travails with her best friend Maria. (Maria is the “Rhett whisperer.” Or, maybe more accurately, “the Rhett and Dan whisperer.”) She’s is ever-generous when it comes to me, what I’m going through and my healing process. While Rhett unfailingly sees the good in my soul, having a wise friend with a wider aperture is essential. As I understand Maria’s analysis (through Rhett’s translation to me), I’m recovering, I’m grieving, I’m processing all that’s gone on in these past years—I take steps forward and I take steps backward. It sounds so simple when it’s said and when I read what I have just written, but it’s so hard for me to remember, to truly internalize. It’s so hard for me to accept that maybe I’m not as strong and independent as I think I am. That we all need grace.

I guess the paramount questions for me at the outset of my month of mitigated creepy loner sailing in paradise, is how I learn, how I grow, how I process the sultry summer of 2023 and the searing summer memories of 2019?

Sunrise in a quiet anchorage.

With “a bit more time on my hands” I’ll try to follow-up in the next couple days with an (I promise) lighter post about our adventures in Greece, and Albania.

Until then, fair winds and following seas. Thank you so much for your non-judgmental reading and following along. It’s funny, being alone in the middle of the ocean is so similar to being “alone” in crowded anchorages, packed-full with charter boats in high season. In solitude, my thoughts so often return to friends and family at home, how I miss them and how I wish they were with me to share the good times.

Hazel anchored off the uninhabited Nisos Formíkoula.

15 thoughts on “My Worst Self Living My Best Life

  1. Healing is a process with no end. You will always be on this journey, healing your broken heart, your questioning mind, your curious soul, and your logical thought pattern. You are growing as a person while trying to hold onto what is still precious to you. It helps to define what gives you joy in your life and focus on how to fill your days with more of what gives you joy. Do what you love. Do it with who you love. Do it for those you love. It’s funny how this still applies on HJ, isn’t it?

    1. Karen, So good to hear from you! What a poignant reply to the post—so much wisdom packed in so few words. I hope you and Mike and kids are well.

  2. It seems like you are crossing the Atlantic again.and as you know, it will take time, you’ll meet storms and calms and you never know if you will make it. Bon voyage

    1. Romy, so good to hear from you! I thought of you the other day as I was re-rigging Hazel’s yankee sheets. I needed a soft shackle and used the one that you brought as a “boat warming” gift when you, Jos, and Ghert came to dinner aboard Hazel James. I told Rhett all about how you had made it. It’s working great!

  3. That was a beautiful post Dan. I almost feel like I am there with you. We all have crosses to bear, and we can all use a little (or a lot) of work.
    How hot is it there?
    Much love and thoughts of forgiveness to yourself.
    Keep blogging us

    1. Thanks Lise. It’s always especially nice when someone says they feel like they are there with you. Talk soon and thanks for the encouragement on being good to myself.

  4. I sent this comment directly to Dan via email, but decided (nervously) to share it here as well:

    My dear sweet Dan…your words grab my heart as they did from the very beginning and I fall ever so helplessly more in love with you with each one. Tears well up in my eyes as memories of us flood in … happy, beautiful, incredulous tears.

  5. Another terrific transparent and vulnerable post my friend, You are often on my mind and these messages help keep you there. I’m better for knowing you 28 years +. Based on your recent blog, sharing another favorite lyric.
    Be well.

    Farther On
    Song by Jackson Browne
    In my early years i hid my tears
    And passed my days alone
    Adrift on an ocean of loneliness
    My dreams like nets were thrown
    To catch the love that I’d heard of
    In books and films and songs
    Now there’s a world of illusion and fantasy
    In the place where the real world belongs
    Still i look for the beauty in songs
    To fill my head and lead me on
    Though my dreams have come up torn and empty
    As many times as love has come and gone
    To those gentle ones my memory runs
    To the laughter we shared at the meals
    I filled their kitchens and living rooms
    With my schemes and my broken wheels
    It was never clear how far or near
    The gates to my citadel lay
    They were cutting from stone some dreams of their own
    But they listened to mine anyway
    I’m not sure what i’m trying to say
    It could be i’ve lost my way
    Though i keep a watch over the distance
    Heaven’s no closer than it was yesterday
    And the angels are older
    They know not to wait up for the sun
    They look over my shoulder
    At the maps and the drawings of the journey I’ve begun
    Now the distance leads me farther on
    Though the reasons i once had are gone
    I keep thinking I’ll find what I’m looking for
    In the sand beneath the dawn
    But the angels are older
    They can see that the sun’s setting fast
    They look over my shoulder
    At the vision of paradise contained in the light of the past
    And they lay down behind me
    To sleep beside the road till the morning has come
    Where they know they will find me
    With my maps and my faith in the distance
    Moving farther on

    1. Thanks so much Mike! I haven’t heard Farther On but I will queue it up as soon as I have some listening time. Thanks again and think of you often.

  6. Very thoughtful Dan. Speaking of shadow and boats, have you read Ursula Le Guin’s Earth Sea Trilogy?

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