“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
— The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Every morning, artisanal fishing canoes depart from the slums of West Point and cut across my view of the Atlantic Ocean a couple of miles from the shores of Monrovia. The boats slice through the water, parallel to the coast, and the fishermen — usually 3 or 4 in the stern of the boat — row together in time to push their vessel through the chaos of waves and against the unforgiving current, always with the ocean winds cutting across their bow.
For centuries, the West African fishermen have made this daily trek, returning at the end of the day with their haul. I have watched them for at least a few minutes every day since my arrival to Liberia, wondering about the individual fishermen and their stories. Then recently, Andrew pointed out something that — for whatever reason — I had not previously considered. We were standing on the balcony that morning, watching the boats go out. He turned to me and said, “You know, most of those guys don’t know how to swim.”
I stared at him for a moment as I processed this information. Then, as my head turned toward the water, my eyes swept across the sea and stopped momentarily on each vessel as the scope of their collective stories suddenly became so much wider.
Why hadn’t this aspect of their reality occurred to me?
I knew exactly why. It was because I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida where people are seemingly born knowing how to swim. I personally don’t remember ever having to learn. In fact, swimming is a skill I feel I’ve always had. Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent in a pool, in a bay or sound, or in the beautiful turquoise and azure waters of Gulf of Mexico. Yet, while swimming feels like something that is second nature to me, I recognize that it is a skill and must be learned.
These fishermen depart every morning knowing that one rogue wave, one tip of the boat, one line tangled the wrong way could send them flailing into water that is far too deep to survive. Daily, they face this possibility, and they head out onto the ocean out of necessity with faith in their hearts that they will return — however lucky or unlucky in their haul — at the end of the day.
Now and then, I’m told, the body of a drowned fisherman will wash up on shore. Learning to swim, one would think, would eventually become a priority for a community of people whose men spend the majority of their lives on the water. Why haven’t they learned to swim? And even if the older generations didn’t, why not teach the younger generation?
I suppose the issue comes down to opportunity: when would the younger generation have the opportunity to learn, and who would teach them? Even though these individuals are always near the water, anyone who may know how to swim would be working all day. There is no leisure time to spend learning a skill through play, no time for instruction or lessons when the theme of daily life is survival.
And so, the cycle continues: the canoes are propelled by necessity, and the fishermen are comforted by faith. The past, always a part of today and even already a part of tomorrow.
The dichotomy of a coastal people being thus disconnected from the water came to mind again a few days later as I watched a group of footballers (soccer players) on the beach outside of our house. I noticed, as I enjoyed their energy-filled game, that they would only retrieve the ball from the ocean in water that was ankle-deep or less. If the ball happened to go any farther out, the players would kick around in the sand, have brief conversations, or take a moment to rest as they waited for the waves to bear the ball back to shore.
Again, out of necessity and experience, they have learned that the ball will be returned to them if they wait patiently. What need is there to risk losing your footing if you wade out a little further? What need is there to get your clothes wet and make yourself heavier and more attractive to the grains of sand that would cling to every drop of salt water on your skin and jersey? Just relax, wait patiently for a few moments, and the ball will come back because it is easier to be borne back to shore rather than fight the crashing of the waves (as evidenced by the collection of trash that litters the shallows and sand along the coastline).
Coincidentally, this metaphor of being at the mercy of the tide has been personally relevant recently. Over the past couple of weeks, as Andrew and I are learning how to blend our lives together, we have run into two main challenges. The first has been figuring out how to be around each other while respecting each other’s’ space but not giving so much space that it feels like we’re being distant. What??? Exactly. 🙂
He and I both think entirely too much: over-analyzing motives, meanings, and possible outcomes. And this tendency has caused tension at times. One of us might misread the other’s quiet behavior as “being distant” or “feeling unhappy” when neither of those is actually the case. The misreading causes worry, concern, and even a little anxiety. “Did I do something wrong?” “Is she not happy with me/us/this?” Then, because we are so linked, the other person picks up on this anxiety and mirrors it back. “Why did he get so quiet?” “Did I do something wrong?”
Being too much in our own heads is a product of both our individual introversion and how logical we each are. Unfortunately, past behaviors like mulling over feelings for too long or feeling like we have to fix every problem on our own have created habits that occasionally creep into our new life together. However, because our communication is so strong (thank goodness), once one of us opens the gate to a conversation about the situation, talking it out always makes everything better again, and brings us even closer together.
This brings me to the second challenge we’ve faced: trying to balance habits we’ve both had for many, many years within the new dynamic of married life. Even though we were good friends for six years before we became a couple and spent 2+ hours a day for the past year on Skype with each other to nurture our long-distance relationship, actually living together now with JUST A FEW added pressures (being newlyweds, my moving into his bachelor pad, living abroad together, being at a post where there are only a handful of entertainment/activity outlets and you actually look forward to a supermarket outing as “something to do!”) creates a situation that we haven’t experienced with each other before now. So, as we start to get more comfortable around each other and are establishing our home together, old habits sneak up, and the bad ones can cause and have caused some friction.
For Andrew, some of those habits relate to his having been a bachelor for 40 years. For me, some of those habits relate back to being –by choice or not — the one in control all the time. As a teacher, a wife, and a mom, I have always been the one with the final say. And now that I am with someone who is more of an equal personality to mine, I’ve found it difficult at times to let go of control in little ways that would make a big difference in our relationship.
For instance, it actually takes an effort to embrace the fact that my husband wants to make me breakfast and coffee in the morning. Crazy, right? For all of my adult life, though, I have started my day with my own routines, and to relinquish control of those routines is a difficult thing for me. I think, “I’m supposed to sit here and …what? RELAX while someone else does something for me?” LOL It actually relaxes me to do things for myself (and everyone else, too, for that matter), but I’ve come to realize that the comfort comes from being the one in control.
For this marriage to be a true partnership, though, we have to continue to grow and share the parts of ourselves and our behaviors that are beneficial to our relationship while, at the same time, recognizing, limiting, and hopefully even eliminating those bad habits that create temporary walls between us.
In marriage, the faith in each other to continually do what is best for the relationship is one of the biggest leaps to take. That decision to move forward in life together is constantly challenged by the waves that bear us ceaselessly back into the past. Therefore, we have to remember the number one rule if caught in a current that feels too strong to survive: just relax.
In the moment, don’t think too much, don’t scare yourself by considering every possible outcome, don’t try to fight against it or try to control the situation. These actions do more harm than good, and you will very likely drown.
Just relax. Be patient.
And before long, the waves will carry you right back to shore.