It was blowing fourteen knots just before the start—perfect Sledgehammer weather. We set the three up on deck (the heavy-weather jib) and got ready for a dicey hoist. I balanced on the bowsprit in four foot swells and tried not to rock backwards into the warm waters of Lake Erie. Clipping the halyard on with some difficulty, I managed to pre-feed the head of the sail just as it was ripped out of the bag in a rogue breeze. Junior and I threw ourselves on top of the stiff folds to keep it from blowing overboard and awaited the command to….”HOIST!”. Five minutes later we slipped across the start line and I began the set up for our first downwind leg. 

Shank went below to run the tapes on the spinnaker to make sure that it would come out of the hatch clean. When I opened the front hatch to pull the tips through (poised to be connected to the halyard, tackline, and sheets) a wave crashed over the bow and flooded into the cabin below. I wiped mossy-smelling water out of my eyes and closed the hatch. 

We rounded the weather mark and hoisted the spinnaker before immediately deciding that we needed to change headsails—the wind had dropped and the three wasn’t giving us enough power. Heart still pounding from a less-than-perfect hoist, I again made my way to the far end of the boat to pull the jib down and press it to the deck. After unclipping it, I reached into the zippered pocket of my life vest and grabbed a blue sail-tie. As I reached it under the heavy (and now wet) jib to tie it into some kind of bundle, my forearm burned and seized up. I didn’t have the strength to lift the sail with one arm and grab the tie with the other. In the breath between tasks, grief found its way to the bow. 

After a last minute spinnaker change that had Shank and I slipping and falling below deck as we tried to wade through a sea of soaking nylon, I found myself with my head in the toilet, every muscle in my body working in concert with a stomach in revolt. I finally heaved myself back up on deck and leaned out over the rail before one more take-down, three tacks, and a finish. While Tom turned on the motor and someone mixed drinks, all I had the strength to do was lay on the bow with my eyes closed, soaking and shaking. It wasn’t the same. This race wasn’t like they used to be. 

I used to finish races like that so sweaty and happy and exhilarated that I didn’t need any rum to feel like the queen of the world. The adrenaline and endorphins of a monumental competitive effort would have me dancing until the next round of Wednesday-night glory. Even when I got seasick, an icy captain and coke always seemed to settle my stomach. But not last week. Last week I threw up again at the dock, and after we had folded sails I gathered my things and made for my car. I had to rest there with my eyes closed before I could drive home. This was more than a strenuous workout. My body didn’t have anything left. 

Eight months ago a doctor told me that my body had started to break down its own muscle and bone for energy. That same doctor talked about the possibility of a feeding tube, and what it would take for me to avoid one. Maybe I was foolish to think that less than a year later I would have the strength to sail, or maybe I just couldn’t bear to lose one more thing. Either way, I called Tom on Saturday night. He already knew—good skippers always do. 

And so, it’s Wednesday, and I’m watching the moon rise up over the roof of the neighbor’s house. I’m wondering if I’ll ever feel really strong again. There is so much that we still don’t know, and though this sabbatical from tests and appointments and the drive along the lake to Cleveland has been a gift, I know that we have more work to do. I am tired often, and I have pain so constant that I forget what it is to be without it. It is a strange place to be: feeling so much better, and still so far from full health. 

My comfort in this latest of losses has been twofold: one, I have chosen to stop seeing my body as an adversary, and two, I have embraced the coming of the kingdom. For so long I saw my body as the barrier between me and my best life. I was angry and resentful, denying my body what it needed because I couldn’t believe it had the audacity to ask. Here’s a spoiler alert though: none of us ever win when we fight our bodies. A house divided cannot stand. And so, I chose to see my body as a tool by which God can point me to the places and tasks he has carved out just for me. Sometimes that means that my body closes doors or keeps me on land. This change becomes empowering when we start to ask: What if the work on land is more important right now? 

That perspective is limited in its useful potential, however, if life becomes a series of unrequited desires and sacrificed joy. I believe that God wants us to know true joy, and this week, I started to fully conceptualize how our affirmation of the present and coming kingdom is the path to that joy. A few days ago I was driving over the skyway looking out at the lake. I started to cry as I thought to myself “I don’t get to sail this week.” And then, the God who is so close, and so present, and so wildly and personally comforting reminded me that this loss, like any other, is only for a moment.  You’ll have to read Dallas Willard to hear it best, but if we truly believe that the kingdom is coming, and that we are already a part of bringing it in, then I am already on my way back to the boat. Landlocked for now, maybe, but not for long, not forever. Thank God. 

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Beautiful writing, but even more beautiful is the vulnerable sharing of hard lessons learned at great expense. I often tell my clients that there are lessons we can only learn through pain, so we shouldn’t waste it but learn from it and in the midst of it. What an eloquent sharing of doing just that.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Ansley, your courage, vulnerability, and clear-eyed way of examining the world around you continues to be a gift to read. Thank you for continuing to share, even the stories that don’t turn out like you want them to.

    Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    Whenever you write about boat stuff (forgive this landlubber’s terminology) I always think, “I should have learned how to do that.” The heart of your piece also beats beautifully vigorous. Even in the difficulty it paces through.

    (Also side note, it tickles my funny bone how basically all of the recommended pieces are yours).

    Reply

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