I have to learn alone/to turn my body
— Adrienne Rich
I wasn’t born in the boat, but within its long shadow. Not like my friends, who talked about the boat and told me I was strange for not living on it. Or the boys who came in pairs some Sundays with tiny envelopes for us to put money in, or the two men who knocked on our door every December to tell us that Jesus wanted us to come to church. I didn’t know they saw me as a drowning person, flailing with my parents and sisters in ice-cold, shark-infested waters.
On occasional Sundays my mother took me to church, where I observed the curious objects and customs: long benches, cinder block walls, somber music. They took me to a room with tiny metal chairs and told me to sit with the other children. We sat so long my back and thighs itched, an eternity of girls in dresses sitting still. A boy I knew from school pinched my hip. A teacher I did not know hugged me and told me that Jesus loved me because I had come to church.
Back home, I changed out of my dress and went to lie in the field behind our house. Shoulder blades in soil, hidden by summer-thick corn stalks and afternoon shadows, I examined the morning glories on their laddered vines, waiting to see if I could witness their slow closing. I picked one so I could examine its color up close: violet so vivid it seemed to pulse, fading at the center to a blue that made the Utah sky pale.
I wondered: did Jesus love me when I wasn’t at church? Without my tight shoes and dress, with my hair tangled in dirt and an ant on my arm, stretched out in a cornfield instead of sitting on a pew, could he still love me? I didn’t know for sure, but I felt the world — a collage of heat, green, sky, light, dirt, purple magic flowers that opened and closed with the sun — was a home that did.
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When I was in the thick of my teens, gashing myself open on every silver-sharp danger I could find, my mother decided to board the boat. She called to me from its deck, asking me to join her. “Jesus is here, and if you come aboard he will love you,” she said. “You will do good and be safe.”
I thought of the pinching boy. I remembered the tight shoes, itchy dress, and tiny chairs. “Are there morning glories there?” I called, and she laughed.
“No, there aren’t any weeds. No dirt here either. Everyone is always clean.”
She cajoled. She told me stories about happiness. She promised that in the boat I would learn how to be good, and that in goodness nothing would ever hurt again.
And because by then everything hurt, I decided. I climbed the ladder from the purple blueness of my past life onto the sturdy brown deck of the ship. Hair dripping, raw in the ship’s fluorescent light, I put on the white dress they told me to wear and never stain. I accepted their offering, a book of scripture, a book of rules for how to be good. I entered the boat’s weather system, gray skies threatening rain that never fell. I heard words from the helm, which I was not allowed to steer, an engulfing chorus of male voices instructing me: on this boat you will be in the world but not touched by it because here is the only place to be safe and good.
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For decades I lived in the boat, sailing past islands and coastlines. I memorized the book of rules and tried to follow them. If I swam, it was in the boat’s chlorinated pool, clavicle, scapula, coxal properly covered. If I sang, it was hymns, if I read, it was scripture. I wondered how I hadn’t drowned when I wasn’t in the boat and worried over those still in the water. In shock, I prayed for those who left. I spoke about the boat, trusted the boat, looked forward to the never-seen spot on the horizon where the boat was taking me, where happiness is.
Many of the women on board — their fluttering white dresses, steady stance, not a hair out of place even in that wind — were like sculptures to me, women made of teak. Hard and strong, unyielding and untouched by the elements. Without question or dissent, they harkened to those male voices, their faces steadfastly forward in faith towards the eternal destination. I imitated them, mirroring their actions and repeating their words. I stood on the edge of their circle, celebrating and mourning with them yet never integrally connected.
I couldn’t achieve their balance; my feet were unsteady, my skirt hitched over my knees, my hair unleashed in tangles. I raised my voice with too many questions. My children ran wild toward the boat’s edge, drawn to water. The voices of men, which seemed to inspire the other women, became for me like fish hooks attached to twine, cast with precision to pierce flesh and tack me down. If I were carved of anything, it wasn’t wood but salt, a bit like Lot’s wife; I looked forward as they had taught me but always, covertly, around as well, and back.
And I watched for others, salty women who tugged at their dresses and trailed twine. In twos and threes we gathered near the boat’s edge. Ribs on railing, we watched the dolphins’ joyful tumbling, the green waver of depth, the tantalizing glimpses of coastline. We talked about the memory of sunlight, of water on naked skin, of walking barefoot across sand. We plucked the hooks from each other’s backs. I could ask these few women my questions without fearing a barb:
Why did I not feel the same happiness others seemed to feel?
Are safety and goodness only found in the boat?
What does it mean to be good?
But even with those sisters I held back. I couldn’t voice my deep and growing suspicion: that in its protection the boat kept me from experiencing the width of the world, which is both water and soil, reef and boulder. Onboard I was ostensibly safe but also numb; I had exchanged experience for security. But I never stopped wanting the bite of water on my thighs, the drag of breakers pulling me onto some shore or another, the grit of soil between my toes. The blue eyes of flowers following the sun.
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Despite my mother’s promises, the boat did not hold only happiness. Damage still happened. Aboard, there was still ache, still loneliness. The bruise of loss and scrape of illness; the saltwater fly hooks of male pronouncements. The dress I wore began to chafe. The men’s voices, the women’s achievements, my seeming failures all rubbed seams against flesh until blood seeped through. When I examined my skin I discovered there weren’t only fresh wounds, but ancient ones, too, twenty years’ worth of abrasion and scab, of interrupted healing. And although I knew other women who were also bleeding, I was ashamed of my wounds, so I hid them. I anointed and bandaged my own skin, then dressed again. I scoured the book of rules for the ones I had broken, read more scripture, scolded my children for their sprinting.
I searched for Christ, who heals wounds, who turns red garments white again, whose word is love.
“Christ is in the boat,” women told me, “you just have to look harder, and to listen. Listen while you scrub the deck, while you receive instruction, while you kneel on wood in prayer, and you will find him.”
“If you don’t find Christ here,” men intoned, “it is through your disobedience. He has hidden himself from you because of your mistakes.”
I searched: bow to stern, folds of mainsail and jib, length of keel, depth of hull, port to starboard. Only when I climbed the mainmast, shoulders shaking and lungs heaving, could I finally see beyond the ship. Turquoise water out there, blue sky, a green rim of mountainous land and, look — just there.
There was Christ, not in the boat at all, but walking on the water.
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“Stay in the boat,” murmured the women.
“Stay in the boat,” commanded the men.
“Stay in the boat,” pleaded my mother, a sister, a neighbor, a niece. Even my other bleeding friends.
“Love,” said Christ, not a command but an endearment. A name, a deed, a consolation.
“I will love you in the boat,” he said, a soft voice in solitude, “and I will love you off it. You can choose.”
I flung off the heavy white gown. I peeled off the white garments, pulling scabs and exposing scars. Next to that white puddle I put down the book of rules. The women, the men, even my own mother could not bear my nakedness, the sight of me as myself instead of the myth they had tried to make me. They turned from me as I balanced on the gunnel. I dove from the boat, but they didn’t witness.
To them, I was already devoured by sharks.
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Diving off the boat means diving into somewhere else.
The world the boat kept me from is complex and perilous. In this place, I find sharks. Stinging jellyfish, garbage islands, oil slicks. The fear of drowning and overwhelming waves. Sometimes the water is ice-cold, with jagged, freshly-calved icebergs. Sometimes land is frighteningly far and there is no one to tell me the correct direction because there isn’t a destination, just the journey.
But I am not drowning but swimming. Running, too, on this world that demands I cross both water and land. My skin, healed by salt water, is scarred, scratched, dirty. I rely on my own navigation and my body’s endurance, but there are others here who help, women from the boat who I thought were teak but are actually like me, neither wood nor salt but courage and mistakes, knowledge and learning, flesh and blood. I am discovering the difference between who others thought I should be and who I am: a flawed and changing woman rather than the story of a perfect one.
Sometimes I swim in the wind and water of this world, and sometimes I ground myself in soil and cliffs. I build; I plant and harvest; I run without my mother but with my children. I climb: ladders, trees, limestone mountains. I nurture my patch of nebula-purple morning glories and I search for them in others’ gardens. If I bleed it is because I have scraped myself in climbing or digging. I examine the wound, and clean it, and I do not hide the bandage.
And I am learning who and where Christ is. For some, I think, he is in the boat, but I couldn’t hear him there, nor recognize him the way the book of rules described him. The Christ I am beginning to know doesn’t offer rules for goodness; instead, he asks me to look within myself for what I have already learned and then to look outward at what the world can teach me. He doesn’t chafe or scar, doesn’t measure my worth by obedience or perfection. Instead he points a direction and asks me to bring who I am to the route and then to explore it.
Rather than following rules I am drawing maps, tracings of the routes I have traveled and those that will lead me to new understanding. I gather them to create an atlas of the truths I need to know for my own life — and what I still need to learn. I have found goodness along myriad paths and happiness as I search for knowledge. I’ve found knowledge, sometimes sweet and often bitter, by foraging in a wide meadow to discover which greens are poison, which nutritious. There are always hills and crags, boulders to scramble, swift rivers to brave. I build some bridges and burn others in this lifelong work of dirt, sweat, ache, joy.
A boat, a ship, catamaran or cargo, dinghy or schooner: vessels designed to move people or freight from one place to another, safely across water. They take us to the statue in the harbor, the island far out in the bay, the sandstone bridge arching over the blue tributary. Because I couldn’t find happiness in skimming above untouched water, the boat couldn’t be my home. For me, home is this world. Home is my feet in cold water or my hands harvesting blackberries, home is the ache but also the wonder, the black depths and the sunlit peaks. Home is my shoulder blades planted in soil. Home is the journey the morning glory takes, opening and closing with the arc of the sun. ⋑
Amy Sorensen is a librarian living in Utah who hikes when she isn’t reading and hangs out with her family when she isn’t running.