If you’d sail beyond the cape
Sail you must past cares, past grief.
God gave perils to the sea and sheer depth,
But mirrored heaven there.
We are now in the coastal town of Tróia, Portugal, after spending two days in the delightful city of Porto.
This is a beautiful oceanic country, with an exquisite panorama of dramatic, lava-like, red rock along the coast, and a raging surf popular with the surfers. It’s also a rugged, wild place, with an extraordinary history of navigation and exploration.
Fittingly, Portugal is a world leader in wind technology and other renewable energy initiatives. Driving along the coast, you can see hundreds of huge wind turbines, harnessing the readily available coastal gales.
Perched on the hillsides, they are beautiful, with their strange, sleek wings in constant motion, like futuristic, mechanical birds. This a not a place completely reliant on tourism – this country is looking to the future with new answers to our global crisis.
Portugal is located at the furthest point west on the European continent – there is nothing between this land and North America, except the great wide Atlantic. In a way, this gives the land a feeling of almost solitary desolation, of wayward loss. A sense of longing for better days, for times of past prosperity.
But too, the country feels, to me, like a familiar, peaceful place, a place comfortable in its own skin.
It has been wonderful touring around, spending time in small towns, eating seafood and drinking beer. Except that yesterday things went a tiny bit bad. Or rather, I went bad. For various reasons, I was feeling a bit trapped and squirrely in the neighborhood where we are staying. Because we are on a peninsula, a ferry ride from the mainland, so it’s necessary to have a car to explore the coast, or even go into Lisbon.
But that wasn’t really the reason – I just went into a little random funk. I was exhausted and was feeling a bit disoriented, sort of displaced. I tried to use my heart mediation but I still felt myself sinking.
And Mac kept coming into the bedroom and trying to help me, being so patient and loving. And absurdly, that somehow makes me feel more sorry for myself, and I start to blame him. Like it’s his responsibility to make things better, when I can’t even say anything intelligent about why I’m upset. On and on.
This is our marriage.
But this is me, my sensitivity and my moods. And being married to me can be trying. But what’s hardest, is actually being this way. Learning to accept and appreciate myself in all of it – to embrace the whole glorious mess of me.
To allow my heart to shift and expand, just a little, to make way for self-compassion.
So, after sulking for a couple of hours, I dragged my sorry butt out the door and headed for the beach. I mean, the beach is a perfect place to be melancholy, a place to wade wistfully at the water’s edge and brood.
And so I walked and walked, down to a point where I could watch the huge fishing boats coming in for the day. And then I stood on a little sandy mound – on my pity perch – and looked back towards home.
And, of course, I was looking for Mac. I was looking for him to follow me, to search me out, to offer comfort and to check up on me. And to never, ever give up on me, dammit. But he wasn’t there.
I was alone, in fact there wasn’t another soul on the beach.
I felt embarrassingly like a toddler – drifting further and further ahead of her parent – straying precariously, testing the limits, wanting complete attention. And like that child, I wanted to prove that I could walk and walk and, no matter what, someone would come after me.
And that, try as I might, no matter how depressed and difficult I might be, I could never escape my husband’s love.
I think when we love someone deeply, we sometimes expect them to fill the holes, to spackle all our hurt places together, to make us complete. We want them to literally heal us, to take away our pain, that’s just how it works.
But we really are alone out here.
And as I made my way back to the house, I spied a piece of shell peeking out of the sand that looked exactly like a heart, except one edge was jagged and broken. The irregularly shaped heart is one of Portugal’s national emblems. I’ve seen a lot of them on this trip – on landmarks, on jewelry, and on other little souvenirs.
Naturally, the little shell became a corny metaphor for my day – something having to do with being responsible for fixing my own heart. Still, there could be a grain of truth in it – a little reminder that I must be my own keeper.
One who accepts imperfections and weakness – one who embraces the unexplainable moods and bad times. And that I am the lone steward of this complex heart inside of me, even when it’s so broken, especially when it’s so broken.
And, wading out into the curls of cold surf, I remember my mother, and the many years our family spent on the North Carolina beaches. How Mom loved those vacations – the sun and the sand, and watching the four of us swimming out in the ocean, too dangerously far.
We’d see her rise up from her towel, on her elbows, vigilant as an eagle, with an arm shading her eyes as she scanned the blue horizon for our blonde heads.
And then we’d quickly duck down and hold our breath as long as our little lungs could stand it. We were so thrilled with the idea of scaring her, but confident she would never lose sight of us.
And then we’d rocket out of the salty waves, our hearts exploding, with the briny water in our mouths and our ears stoppered, and we would look back to Mom, and scream – Here we are, we’re right here! But she would already be lying down, back to her sunbathing.
And, in that moment, I remember feeling so jubilantly alive – so free – suspended between earth and sky, more than human but not born of the sea. And floating out there, detached from real life, in the endless expanse of green waves, we were children of some different god.
But we were safe, and forever connected to our mom. She was our lighthouse, our tether, our compass on the wider world. What would we do, who would we be without her?
I feel so close to my mom here in Portugal.
My heart still grieves, and it longs to be made whole. And even on sunny beach days like today, the entire chest chamber that was once filled with her is empty.
And I know that I have to simply let go, and to allow the ripples of hurt to wash over me, but not allow them to pull me under.
So, this afternoon, I hear the wind and the manic cries of the gulls and then I see a lone figure walking – way down near the channel, where the waters merge.
It’s Mom – and I call out to her.
But she keeps walking – maybe she doesn’t hear me. I only want her to turn her head for a moment and look back at me, to be reassured that I am here.
It’s me – your daughter – the child you loved, the one who wandered away from you, the one you protected for all of those years.
But she just keeps walking.
I desperately want her to look back and simply see me, see that I haven’t forgotten her.
In a reverse way, she is now the child, and I am the mother, trailing behind in her wake. And I am calling her to return, to come back into my safe embrace.
I am longing to tell her that my love will follow her – no matter where she goes. And that I will scour all of the beaches on the planet to find her.
But she just keeps walking.
So I raise my arm to shade my eyes, the salty tears stinging against the brilliant sun, as I scan the shoreline – but I can’t see my mother at all. She’s stepped around a curve in the inlet. And now I can just barely make out her tiny figure, standing in the sea-foam, her image blurring into the edges of the sand – as if absorbed by the sun and the sea and the sky.
And then, quickly, without turning to see my ravaged face, she slips from my sight, as if she was never even there at all.
Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher.
Photo: Lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent, Portugal