Caves and deserts are important features in hermit myths. They represent an interior space, surrounded by desolation, which echoes the surroundings of the vessel of our minds, evoking an experience of being alone inside your thoughts. As a person who knows what it is to multitask too far and stretch one’s mind until sheer, I have fantasized about eliminating extraneous thought and reducing the voices in my head (let’s not get excited, you have them too. right?) to one, perhaps even none.
Being on this trip with my partner has approximated this experience, but one cannot ignore the burning nova of being with whom they share their cave, the complex dance of gravity that results from a mutual orbit, or the nebula of energy shared back and forth in a small contained space. A single voice is hard to come by.
But here was the surprise: left finally free to focus my consciousness on a single, consuming pursuit or to let it dissipate into the ether, what does it do? It starts to multitask! There’s a kink in replicating the hermit experience of contemplation via boat: not only do you always bring your distractions with you wherever you go (though some, like the Internet thank God, can be temporarily escaped), but now that you’re alone you can finally release your clutter into a full blown mess.
Spareness is a virtue we have pursued on this trip almost out of necessity. True, there are many people of our generation who, like us, wish for and value simplification and in the words of mountain man naturalist Jack Turner: “close living”, with our noses as connected to the ground (or the water) as possible. Harmony coined the phrase “Starving Homesteaders”, and I think that’s a pretty apt description of our version of cruising. We don’t grow our own food, and we’re pretty crap at fishing. A lack is what we tend to have in abundance, and this brings with it a different kind of focus. That might be a tangent, sorry.
We humans have evolved an enduring mutual society that has taught us to use tools for the purposes of snatching success. Without them, we might languish in idle plotting between meal times. Accomplishment requires clutter. Clutter allows a profusion of tools to remain at the ready for a myriad of different projects. The ability to clutter your space allows you to juggle activities as each cylinder fires in your mind. An infant brain grows faster surrounded by toys, and a spartan mentality is allowed to grow more complex with some goofy sh*t on the walls. I had built up months of little and big tasks that only lacked the appropriate time and space to spread out to said project’s natural physical and temporal shape. All flat surfaces on the boat became loaded with something that would be of immediate use to satisfy one of a number of situations that may strike at any moment. I had only to sit in the middle and listen.
At times the use of tools becomes uninteresting, and the bright world beckons. This is where the boat hermit scores points on his desert doppelganger, because look at the scenery. Look at the inviting pool right outside the door. Imagine the wild place inside the treeline. Discover the animals that share the world. There is abundance here, but I was not the only one to know this.
Local fishermen troll the waters and place lucky-strike net lines around the islands to harvest the abundance of tuna and mackerel, which remain the source of life for for whales, dolphins, communities, and supermarkets via profit-motivated intermediaries. At the end of the day, they anchor their crowded boats off the sandy beach and settle down to rest before the next outing. There is no going home.
Tourist boats bring visitors to taste the image of paradise that we up north have been given by advertisers to believe is the best representation available on Earth. It’s kind of a “Most Photographed Barn in America” thing, reimagined as the quintessential Corona ad. All you have to do to become part of the image is to be the only person or group there that particular afternoon, and for that time a desert island is yours alone. Pay no attention to the Panamanian who drove you here – he’s texting on his cell phone in the shade of his boat. Shoot, you don’t even have to be the only people there, so long as you can be alone in a picture frame. We have seen dozens make this pilgrimage – hundreds – and we ourselves must admit that we are sometimes here to pay the same reverence.
The local family living on the island go out every day to catch lobster with their hands and collect a fish for dinner every sunset before returning to their homestead. The day after I arrived on Isla Parida, they dropped by at sunset to say hello. We have been engaged in what I can only describe as a series of escalating gift giving over the past eight months, which I guess is like saying we’re friends. They offered me cooked lobster, which I accepted gratefully. Anticipating their arrival, I had previously rummaged through the boat and uncovered various useful gear such as a snorkel mask, fishing implements, an unused headlamp, and good old-fashioned rope, which they accepted with stoic eagerness.
“What have you been up to?” I asked.
They looked at each other. “Fishing.”
I asked if it had been good, and they made a kind of so-so affirmative response. The paterfamilias had followed the aquatic migration onto a fishing boat in the Bay of Panama for rainy season, and was away earning a significant portion of their annual family wage. I tried again to spur a discussion. “What else do you do for fun out here?” They seemed confused by the question. “Fishing. Diving. Catching lobster.” Maybe I’m using the wrong word for fun?
Okay, fishing conversation it is then. Good, I know most of those words. While we discuss the patterns of the ocean and the seasons and the differences this El Niño year, I don’t know how to warn them that their way of life is threatened: the land buyers are coming, and they have developed ways of removing people. The rest of the world’s recreational fishermen have learned about the Hannibal Bank, which is something that had previously been nameless plenty.
The next day, our friend Carlos from last spring came by with two more live lobsters. Tack was ecstatic. I kept the lobsters in water in one of our soft buckets through the afternoon, and he perched over them in the cockpit occasionally batting at a spiny feeler that poked up in the air. See for yourself how he responded when I brought the cooked lobster in off the stove, that much closer to his food plate. He helped me eat the parts I wasn’t that enthusiastic about, then tried his best to clean out the carcasses without poking himself but eventually was intimidated into disinterest. A happy camper.
But I was talking about solitude. I guess you can see that it’s not that easy to come by in a beautiful place, at least not in an uninterrupted way. Regardless, many was the time I searched my surroundings and found not a soul as far as I could see or hear. Many were the nights the stars and growing moon revealed themselves for howling communion.
Harmony and I love feeling like we have the whole world outside our back door. We willingly trade this experience for something we had never before given up: total privacy. Wait, what? That’s not the right trade is it? I thought you go out to sea for privacy. We were surprised to discover this: we forgot about each other! What we did not realize before this trip, we now know: privacy is a tangible force and an expression unto itself. On the boat, the only barrier we can erect between us is the bathroom door; otherwise, there is the inside/outside divide or the separation of onboard vs. ashore. The size of one’s presence is therefore something about which in our desire to support one another we become extremely aware.
If we spread out our clutter of living for the day, will it take over the space? What activity can I do that will coincide with the activities of my partner? This is especially difficult to solve when one person wants to unfold the table and spread out 100 greeting cards, and the other person wants to take off the stairs to work on the engine with a dozen arrayed tools. We make it work, but productivity sometimes suffers. All activities must stop to clear a path for cooking when the time strikes. All sensitive equipment and hung clothing must be retrieved from outside before it rains. My side stays on my side and your side stays on yours. Within this fluid expansion and contraction of the divided space, shared bubbles can be created. Alternately, when we each sit on our respective sides, deep into something elsewhere, a momentary gulf opens between our shrinking shells of solitude that makes our boat feel luxury sized. I never would have believed the cabin could feel so enormous, but we have both remarked upon it. As soon as either of us moves, the spell is broken. Our bubbles rub together and dissolve.
It is a constant dance. Every sunset is shared. We love the life music we make together, but we also like to vary the tune from time to time. Here now was a lone song. A wordless whistle, for what’s the point of words? He said on a long ass blog post.
How do you reconcile these conflicting forces of boat versus workshop, versus office, versus home, versus sanctuary, versus launchpad to the unknown? The same way you reconcile spouse vs. sail mate, vs. travel companion, vs. co-homemaker, vs. surrogate for the community still at home. You balance. You divide. You trade favors. You laugh. You vary. You enjoy breathers.
This was the first time I’ve been alone on the boat for more than a day since May of 2012. Before that time, I was a much more common fixture on the boat than Harmony, so my clutter dominated the space. Creating the shared space wasn’t terribly hard to adjust to, because I love the person I share it with, but over time you begin to feel that you haven’t had a good full body stretch in a while.
Now that I have fully occupied the space, however, I start to see things. Why does Harmony always do something a certain way? Now that I have done it myself uninterrupted for a long enough period of time, I see how it is connected to something else down the road. I didn’t think we had too many of these activities left that did not overlap, and I was surprised by the mystery behind some key components in my life that I had taken as naturally uncomplicated (i.e., for granted). This isn’t a new story. It happens to everyone, but it’s an exercise that I believe it’s important to repeat from time to time, especially if you live in close quarters.
When you do finally have solitude, you get a gift with purchase: a stretch of total privacy. You can live louder than ever, and the nova expands. I’d love to tell you all about what I did and all the discoveries I made, but of course you understand, it’s private.
All hermits come back from the desert, however. Thoreau walked home from Walden twice a week carting a load of laundry to have dinner with his mother and sister. I think there’s a reason it’s not meant to last. Society is as necessary to our being as the use of tools, and sunsets are so clearly meant to be shared.