“Now if it starts to go to pot out there, just turn loose. Turn loose of everything. You’ll be fine.” That was the sum of my pre-solo sail advice from my grandfather. Turn loose of everything, and then regroup, that and, as he and my dad glanced over their shoulders at the empty gravel parking lot, “I guess you’d better wear a life jacket in case your mother gets back.”
I was ten. The boat in question was an El Toro, a two-man (or one girl) dinghy. The body of water was a man-made lake on the outskirts of Merced. Lake Yosemite must create its own weather, for even on stagnant August days, winds can whip white caps in the middle of the lake. My mother had driven Grandma to Mass, taking my little sister with her. As the oldest daughter in a boy-deprived family, I got to stay “with the men.” I had sailed before, but always with an adult crammed alongside the centre-board. However, Dad and Grandpa, apparently tired of the boom-induced cranial lumps from my unpredictable jibes, had seized upon the absence of female interference to teach me to solo.
Shivering under the 90 degree sun in a damp bathing suit and clammy “Mae West” life preserver, I slid into the stern. Lake water lapped at the bottoms of my thighs as I clutched the tiller and sheet. “Ok, I’m ready.” My knuckles were white.
“Turn loose.” Over 30 years later it amazes me that Grandpa Bligh could give that advice with a straight face. Ask anyone who knows me well to describe me in three adjectives, and chances are, “stubborn” will be one of them. I am not good at letting go. Ropes, people, relationships, ideas, jobs, paragraphs, clutter, bad habits – I hold on. I come by my tenacity honestly. He who said, “turn loose” was the master of pig-headedness. Yet, he knew what all too often eludes me still. Sometimes, it will all go to pot out there, and the only thing to do is to turn loose, to let go of everything, and to hope that once the waters still, you can regroup, pick up, and begin the voyage again.
“Why didn’t you let go?” My riding instructor stared at me as I handed over the once white cotton lead rope of my sister’s horse. Mud caked my boots and splattered my jeans, shirt, and hair. The calluses along the palms of my hands flared red, soon to blister. My legs felt like jelly and my shoulders as though giants had been tearing at my arms. Waterskiing through a muddy pasture behind a runaway horse will do that to you. Suzie shook her head in disgust. “Come on, Chris, you know better than that. The gate was locked. She couldn’t have got away. You’re gonna get hurt doing stuff like that. You should have let go.”
I was older in that February pasture than I had been on the summer lake, 15 or 16, but no wiser. I did know better: if you are holding something you can’t control, let go. I knew the rule, but had not integrated the wisdom. When Noel, my sister’s Morgan, pulled away from me in hopes of rejoining her pasture mates in their wind-whipped freedom, I clung to the rope, stubbornness telling me that my 100 lb body could stop a 1200 lb force of nature. Logic, reason, and common sense died beneath the wheels of the tank that is my fear of loss and failure.
I’m not good at letting go. Hold on a little longer. Try something different. Try one more time. Say the right thing. Just keep going. Don’t give up.
The last one is the kicker – no one wants to be a quitter, no one wants to give up if there is a chance, just a chance that it might work. But, the reality, the one that my Grandfather, veteran of war and widowhood, and Suzie, with two divorces behind her, knew, is that sometimes it won’t work. Sometimes the forces pushing against us or pulling us in our wake are more powerful than we. Sometimes it is broken and can’t be fixed. Sometimes it will go to hell, and then it is time to let go.
A few years ago, I went on a call to vaccinate a group of semi-feral ponies. The stallion had recently encountered some barbed-wire, and while his lacerations looked superficial from a distance, I wanted a closer look. He wore a halter, but no lead. “You’re going to have a hard time catching him,” said the owner.
I looked at the pony, the halter and the size of the pasture. “No problem. I’ll go out there by myself, and once I have him by the halter, you can bring me the rope.” Bull-shitting through a situation is a professional specialty.
Sure enough, the pony was curious enough to come say ‘hello.’ I scritched his neck, and slid my hand down, grabbing the halter. Just as I called, “Ok…” my patient pulled away. No problem – he was only about double my body weight. I centered myself and jerked on the halter. “Whoa.” He stopped, then pulled again. Same response from me. Now, this is where I went wrong – in my head this was a horse. For a normal horse, one or two failed attempts at misbehavior is usually enough to correct the behavior. Not so for a pony stallion – ponies are short, and have much to prove. He jerked back a third time, and took off running.
Enclosed pasture -- no problem, right? After all, I learned my lesson 25 years ago, didn’t I? Sadly, not so much. My fingers remained clenched around the cheek piece of the halter, and unable to hold my ground, my feet trotted along with the pony. As he broke into a canter, my brain finally returned from the sandy beaches of denial, looked at my feet which had turned into cartoon wheels and the speeding ground below, and said, “This looks bad. Maybe you should let go.” Oops. The brain had apparently left its knowledge of physics beneath a palm tree. My four-legged partner and I had been travelling at his speed, not mine. As my fingers released the halter, my body fell victim to inertia. My feet, unable to sustain their free-wheeling momentum alone, slowed, but my upper body continued to travel at pony-speed. Like Wile E. Coyote plunging from a cliff, I had a split-second of “Uh-oh” before the ground rushed toward my face.
Back in the office, as I held an ice-pack to my knee (in a last ditch effort to ‘save face’ I had broken my fall with my left patella) and tried to make an incident report sound logical (How will you avoid this incident in the future? Turn loose of the damn pony.), my technician Mel and a client stared at me and shook their heads. “Why didn’t you just let go?”
The only answer I can give is that some of us need more lessons than others. For some, through faith, reason, or emotional balance, letting go seems to come fairly easily. The rest of us need the rope burns, the bruises, the heartache, and the spectacular failures to learn the balance between giving up and accepting the inevitable. The house has been gone from us since September. I have finally stopped planning projects or trying to drive too far up I-5. The practice where I worked closed a week and a half ago. I still run through cases in my head in the evenings, thinking, “When I get to work, I need to…” “Kill your darlings,” goes the writing advice. I am editing the first draft of the novel now, and bleeding just a little as I force the ink across any paragraph that doesn’t work, doesn’t contribute, or is trying to get away.
More things exist outside of my control than within it.
“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference...” Reinhold Niebuhr
And God grant me the ability to turn loose when it all goes to pot. Oh, and can I have a life jacket, please?