Before having kids, my concept of endurance dwelled almost exclusively in the physical world. Endurance meant marathons and long, hard days in the mountains. It meant the taste of blood in the back of my throat, tendons aching under impossibly heavy loads, joints protesting over too many hours of abuse. It meant forging ahead even when my body said, “enough,” and “enough again.” Each time, coming out the other end, often slightly bruised and battered, but somehow enlightened, I felt the deep satisfaction of overcoming a personal challenge. As anyone who has ever set out to reach a physical goal knows, be it one mile or one thousand, such endeavors can teach us much about ourselves, and the world. When muscles can’t possibly manage another paddle stroke, blistered feet won’t bear another step, the mind has hit its metaphorical wall, there is no choice but to continue. Push beyond your comfort zone, and eventually there comes a moment of euphoria. This, I always thought, was the essence of endurance.
Here, on this boat, with a family of four, I am beginning to conceive of a different form of endurance. It fits more closely, perhaps, with the textbook definition: “persisting through unpleasantness.” Like when one child, and then the next, spills milk all over the cushions that can’t be washed, while yelling mommy, mommy! (as though I was the one who caused the cup to tip). Or when one child, and then the next, vomits all over the inside of our boat, conveniently spewing into the cracks and crevices of multiple hatches. Or when I want desperately to wake up and stretch and fix myself a cup of coffee, alone. But when I tiptoe the three steps to the stove, the floor creaks and I bang the tea kettle, and soon the whole boat is awake. There are no doors, no fore- or aft-cabins, no my space and yours. It is, in all of its tiny glory, simply our space, all of the time.
We are traveling along serene and often remote stretches of shoreline, anchoring in coves occupied only by rattling kingfishers and resting seals, but the volume of my life is louder than it’s ever been. Two boys with energy to burn and voices that want to be heard—more, now, me! The only quiet times are in those short evening hours when sleep finally comes. Those hours when Pat and I have a million small tasks to attend to. Scrub the dishes. Fix the leaking hatch and empty the sea strainer. Clean the sour milk from the unwashable cushions. Listen to the weather forecast on the VHF. Plan our route for tomorrow. Breathe.
Of course we’re here entirely of our own choosing. We’re here because we have sacrificed much of our “regular” lives to make this happen. We have saved and studied, packed and planned, and spent many late nights preparing for this trip. Still, every day begs the question of just what we have gotten ourselves into. Why give up our personal time, our fitness, our jobs, our proximity to friends and family for this constant chaos?
Fortunately, between gritted teeth, answers come frequently and definitively. Peer into the V-berth when two small boys are sleeping, bottoms raised, hands draped across their faces in that deep slumber that comes after a day of playing hard. See them discover, with great delight, that sea anemones squirt if you poke them. Try to keep a straight face when Dawson pees for the first time in the ocean, surprising himself most of all. Watch Huxley encounter death in the form of a squashed crow and hear him tell you, “I wish if it would fly away.” Feel the power of a humpback as it surfaces thirty feet from the boat. Listen to two tiny voices shout, “Raise the main, daddy!” Feel a soft warm body curl itself against yours as it burrows under your sleeping bag in the quiet morning fog. Tune your ears to a cacophony of voices, wavering between toddlers squealing from the beach, an eagle calling from a cedar snag, and thunder pounding its drum in the sky. Slow down long enough to realize that this time together is precious, and rare, and ever so fleeting.
So while my body doesn’t have that familiar, pleasant ache that comes after a long run or a day of skiing, the rewards of endurance are unmistakable, even out here. Endure, and euphoria shall follow. Eventually.