Webb Chiles has set sail from Panama to San Diego on the final leg of his sixth sailing trip around the world. For me who matured as a sailor on a diet of Chiles' adventures afloat it is a feat of some audacity to be completing a circumnavigation by sailing direct across the Pacific Ocean to San Diego. Harbor hopping along the coast is a distance of some 4,000 miles, each of which I have sailed, but to head out into the open ocean and there scribe a vast arc is not the sailing style of most mere mortals. Especially not in a 24 foot ultra light racing Moore 24. But that's why he is who he is.
How do you have such a tight friendship with him? asked an acquaintance who couldn't seem to grasp how necessary openness is to cultivate friendship. The acquaintance has thankfully drifted away as I could never find an anchor point on which to base a desired friendship. "Secrets don't make friends" a colleague of mine remarked in relation to some other thing we were talking about at work. Pretty smart saying I thought. Webb has never hidden the emotional toll of sailing, of being on the edge which has made his books so absorbing to an armchair sailor like me. Now he is approaching 80 and the end of what he describes as the middle phase of his life. The first phase was getting ready to go sailing and the long middle phase was making a name for himself as a sailor and explorer who, in his words, goes to edge of human experience and sends back reports. Now he is contemplating the third phase and the form it will take. The passage of time gives you pause.
I very much enjoy his books still, but I am reading them sparingly as after this long sail there most likely won't be frequent fresh sailing content in the form of passage logs which he writes after each long sail. So eventually re-reading the books will have to suffice when I need a sailing fix in the future. Eras end, change is inevitable, even here in the Keys in my daily life. Which is why I go out and take pictures trying to fix a moment in time and place with pixels. I record Rusty being happy because one day I fear he too will be a memory.
So what does make a friendship? Things to talk about, openness and ease of conversation. A shared sense of humor helps, and I find a grasp of the difference between irony and sarcasm is really useful. Webb and I exchange e-mails in the sort of correspondence that puts me in mind of 19th century letter writers. We are old fashioned friends in a way that takes me by surprise when I think about how it developed. I miss his observations on the world, even on sports when he is at sea. It's a void all its own when he is absent from my inbox.
I fear the pleasure of my own company, as I enjoy it too much. I take off with Rusty and my camera and I can amuse myself quite happily, unselfconsciously talking to my dog which is absurd but very satisfying as he sniffs and I seek new perspectives of the mundane through my viewfinder. I have to force myself to seek out diversions that include others. Writing to Webb is one such diversion.
And I have been lucky as my friends who live nearby and my colleagues with whom I work have been patient with my lack of mobility as I recover. It's impossible for me to explain rationally how it is, but my dog has learned to slow down to accommodate my limitations. They all, friends and dog, accommodate my need for time alone, even my ever patient wife gives me the space I need. Webb used to fuss about writing me emails as though they were intruding. I had to reassure him they were welcome. I hope mine still are.
I hope as Webb tries out retirement and as I slip into that same status in a few years there will be more time to sit and contemplate, to write rambling letters like this one, to take pictures, to travel, to think and to await the final reckoning. It's a privileged status to be able to contemplate old age without fear or face the prospect of being cast aside as superfluous without fear, but much of what we middle class people take for granted is new and unusual in human history. We get to grow old in peace with professional help for our failing health and we get pension money to keep us from starving to death on the margins of an active society. It's not that way everywhere in the world, only in our luxurious first world, privileged communities. And I, the world traveler, am acutely aware of the privilege.
Watching the sun set on another day is a healthy reminder that there are only so many left. Best to be open and grasp life with both hands. I am doing that and part of that grasping is holding friends close, the ones who understand and can listen and can talk back. We are lucky to have a few each and thus keep the circle of life going round. That's why my friendships with Webb, with Robert, with Gary, with Mandy, with Rusty, with Nick and Steve and Sean are only as comprehensible to you the reader inasmuch as your friendships with survivors of your life are as strong and important to you. Not everyone gets it. Not everyone has a circle of friends to fall back on. Another privilege of which I am acutely aware.
And now in my own twilight years I find myself the possessor of family ties: my wife's sister's family in the US and my own sisters and their families in Scotland and Italy. It is an abundance I tell you. And you would think that subtracting Webb from this circle would be okay. But as he casts off and heads out I am happy for him and I remember the joy of the new unknown, but my heart is heavy because it is a portent of losses to come, and those will not be temporary gaps. And those I do not look forward to either.