love

Life at sea

Change is the defining factor of the sea. Over time, at sea, change comes to define you, too.

One week ago today, at this precise moment, I was sitting at a bustling seaside canteen, on a wooden bench piled high with my two over-stuffed backpacks and camera bag, waiting for a 4,000-French-Pacific-Franc-taxi to the Nuku Hiva airport. As I sat I sipped the canteen’s home-brewed lemonade, scratched the ears of the friendly brown island pups who padded by, and listened to the locals’ morning chatter, all in French.

Island dog. ©Erica Cirino

Island dog. ©Erica Cirino

One week ago today I embarked on the beginning of the end of a 2,300-nautical mile sailing expedition from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Tai-o-Hae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia, with eight Danish sailors and scientists. What stood between me and the end of the journey–my home in New York–was 24 hours, a stretch of time over which I’d fly more than 10,000 miles. Before touching down in New York, my airplanes would stop in Tahiti, and Hawaii — where it all started.

Hawaii. I remember the night we left, Honolulu, vividly. As our ship motored out of Kewalo Basin Harbor’s rocky mouth toward the Pacific, the sky and water were endless and black, the same dark entity. The world was opened up to our exploration and enjoyment. While we could still feel the security Honolulu’s warm city lights, we hoisted the jib and cut the engine, surging forward over waves warm and wild on wind power alone. Sailing into the unknown.

Leaving Honolulu. ©Erica Cirino

Leaving Honolulu. ©Erica Cirino

The unknown. The sea is always changing, but over time its actions fall into familiar patterns. Day after day the sun rises, the sun sets. Waves crest and break. Wind speeds and slows and blows into new directions over the blue undulating waters. Change is the defining factor of the sea. Over time, at sea, change comes to define you, too.

Waves and sky. ©Erica Cirino

Waves and sky. ©Erica Cirino

You. You might think you have a reason to go to sea. Many people do. Many hope to find something. Many hope to find themselves. I did. I went to sea twice, each time wishing to come off the boat a different person than when I stepped on board. But I didn’t change in the ways I expected. Each time I sought more peace, and instead I uncovered inner turmoil that I started to confront; each time I sought confidence, and instead I discovered insecurities that I began to try to cope with. I learned that inner change is inevitable at sea, but that it’s impossible to predetermine what it is about you that will change. Crossing the sea has just been the start of the larger spiritual journey of my life; there will always be more work to be done, more room for change–I feel that deeply, humbly.

A portrait on my most recent sailing expedition. ©Rasmus Hytting

A portrait on my most recent sailing expedition. ©Rasmus Hytting

The journey. At sea you are forced to cope with both your wildest dreams and your most tormenting demons. The sea itself is a fantastical dreamscape: blue and sparkling, brimming with life — leaping dolphins, gliding birds, splashing fish. It’s home to the most intense sunrises and sunsets on Earth. And out there, the intensity of the sea sets your soul on fire.

Sunrise with seabird. ©Erica Cirino

Sunrise with seabird. ©Erica Cirino

Intensity. About two weeks into the journey, it hits you how isolated you are from the colleagues, friends and family members you interact with on a regular basis on land. Your days at sea are different than the days you spend on land. There are fewer distractions out here. You eat, you sleep, you talk, you steer the ship, you raise sails, you turn winches, you tie knots, you cook, you clean. That’s about it. There’s no Instagram or Facebook, text messages or phone calls, emails or television. Life at sea is intense because there is no way for you to escape, to enter an alternate reality. You are here and must deal with the discomfort, you must embrace the intensity until it becomes your intensity.

Sailing-scape. ©Erica Cirino

Sailing-scape. ©Erica Cirino

The discomfort. We shower, wash and cook with seawater for 23 days. Our toilet is a bucket that wants to skitter across the deck when we try to sit on it. Our clothes are slick and smelly. Our hair is greasy. Our hands are calloused. We tan and burn beneath the strong equatorial sun. We eat from cans and boxes and the occasional fish from the sea. We sleep in shifts throughout the day, coming together during mealtime. Sometimes the closeness is too much. But over time your crew becomes your family, and you accept that. I learned to live like this, for 23 days, and then for 11 more after we arrived in Nuku Hiva, anchoring in the bay but still living on the ship.

Malene Møhl and Torsten Geertz bird watch from the cockpit of S/Y Christianshavn. ©Erica Cirino

Malene Møhl and Torsten Geertz bird watch from the cockpit of S/Y Christianshavn. ©Erica Cirino

Living. By now I’m back home, back in my apartment in New York–alone save for my sweet dog, who seems to have aged over the two months I’ve been away. It’s cold outside but radiant heat keeps my studio cozy. Here I have a shower with warm, pressurized, running water. Here I have a stationary toilet that flushes. Here I have two sinks and a too-large refrigerator filled with fresh produce, beer and chocolate from the grocery store down the street. Here I have my car, internet and a cellular connection, social media and work, friends who text and colleagues who email. I know I have changed because I am consistently uncomfortable with these things that have not changed, while I’ve been away.

I have changed. Since coming back home, I have begun to consider my values, my happiness. I’ve asked myself what it is I want to get out of life, what makes me feel fulfilled. Today what pleases me are not the luxuries of life on land but the knowledge that I can cope with the discomforts of life at sea. That I can embrace the intensity required to entertain my dreams and stand off with my demons and still come out the other side ok, alive.

Alive. I miss the raw realness of life at sea.

Sunrise wave on the Pacific. ©Erica Cirino

Sunrise wave on the Pacific. ©Erica Cirino

Grief

©Erica Cirino. Danish forest, BW. March, 2017.

©Erica Cirino. Danish forest, BW. March, 2017.

Deep inside me lies a vast but secret wilderness

Only I have explored, mostly while stumbling around

In the dark, late at night when most people are asleep.

I close my eyes and wander through a black tangle of thought,

A silent observer, studying my surroundings so keenly so that

By now, I know this place like the back of my hand:

My grief.

It is somewhere I visit often,

More often than I’m willing to admit to most people,

Because, each time someone asks why I look down, why I look distracted,

I tell them I am contemplating my grief, and I am met

With skeptical eyes, pained expressions, and the words,

“How can you be sad if you have it all:

A car, a job, friends, family, food to eat, a place to live?”

I argue that I said I was grieving, not being ungrateful,

And yes my grief does make me sad sometimes.

But this often makes things worse, because thinking of the things I have

Only fills me with guilt for mourning what has been lost,

And even sometimes convinces me that maybe I really do not have a reason 

To feel this, to feel like this,

But only until the next time I find myself staring off into the sky,

But only until the next time I find myself in bed wide awake at 3am,

But only until the next time I find myself blinking back tears,

Forlornly contemplating a friend’s dying child, my own childhood brush with death;

A lover’s absence, a friend’s silence;

My jealously of a colleague, my indifference toward a family member;

A species going extinct, an ocean strewn with plastic;

Bombs exploding in continents far away, a deadly car crash just a few blocks from home;

Women being raped, men being shot;

Money being wasted by addicts on drugs and booze while they starve themselves to feed their habits, money being stolen and stuffed into the pockets of powerful people who make rules that benefit only the wealthy few.

My suspicions are confirmed: 

I do have reasons to grieve.

There are so many specters of loss that haunt the wilderness inside me,

And to date I have been unable to eradicate them, shoo them away.

And I am coming to terms with the fact that perhaps I never will,

That maybe my grief will forever loom in the shadows,

Waiting for me to confront it, to endure what it wants me to feel,

Following me, reminding me that

The opposite of loss is not gain, it is presence;

The opposite of grief is not happiness, it is love.

I am present, I have love,

Therefore, I grieve.

Originally posted to Medium on April 9, 2017. 

Complete

©Erica Cirino. Linocut print “The Swing Tree,” 3/5. 2017.

©Erica Cirino. Linocut print “The Swing Tree,” 3/5. 2017.

There is no greater moment–no moment filled with more excitement and possibility–than the realization that you need nothing auxiliary to make you whole; the realization that you, yourself have the power to destroy and create; the realization that all you need and all you are lies inside of you; the realization that you are good: A sentient being with wisdom and knowledge, power and weakness, virtue and vice, empathy and jealousy, love and hate.

You are nothing more, you are nothing less. You are complete.

Originally posted to Medium on April 6, 2017. 

Peace

A poem about looking for salvation on the open sea. 

©Erica Cirino. Pacific Ocean, November 2016.

©Erica Cirino. Pacific Ocean, November 2016.

Out here

There is not much to see

But the sky and water

Which pass above and below me

Each day, each hour, 

Each minute, each second.

Each day is mostly the same.

I spend my time

Steering and cleaning

And cooking and writing,

And wondering

Why I came

Out here.

Deep down, 

I know.

Out here,

I thought

I could be saved,

I could find purpose,

A vision 

Of my true self,

An understanding

Of what

I am doing here

As one small being

On a vast planet.

So I went looking for myself

Out here,

At sea,

Beneath the great white sails

That stand quiet 

And taut in the gale

Yet flap loudly in the calm,

Sounding like

A thousand pages

Turning

In an enormous book;

Amongst the elegantly gliding seabirds

And the sleek blue-gray dolphins,

That eye the ship

With a look

Of both curiosity and caution;

With a group of strangers

Whom I share little in common with

Other than my sense of adventure

And humanity.

After 23 days

At sea,

When my bare feet meet

Solid earth

For the first time

In a long time,

And my legs sway

Like reeds in a breeze

Unused to the stillness,

My body still seeking

The strange comfort

Of movement,

Of the wind and the waves,

I ask myself,

“Have you found what you were looking for,

Out there?”

Yes, I believe I did

Find something:

Peace.

Originally posted to Medium on March 23, 2017. 

Choice

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

Emotional choice shapes emotional experience. The energies we choose to release to those around us are what we will feel reflected back upon us. 

You radiate
The energies
You possess.
Only you
Can choose
What to release,
How to feel.
Give love,
Feel love.
Give joy,
Feel joy.
Give peace,
Feel peace.
Give hate,
And yes,
You will
Feel that, too.

Choose wisely.